Happy Independence Day, everyone. While I hope you are enjoying the day with family and friends, I also hope you will take a few minutes to remember why we are able to enjoy this day in peace and freedom. We tend to think of the founding fathers on this day, and of the men who fought in the battles. And so we should. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew they were risking their lives and everything they owned as soon as they set pen to paper. The men who joined the militias left their farms and their businesses behind and endured extreme privations to fight for liberty.
But let us not forget all of the other unsung heroes of that time. When the men left to fight, they left their wives and children to carry on. Betsy Ross was one of the most well-known women of the Revolution. In addition to being a heroine for creating the first American flag, looking at her biography provides interesting insights into life for women of the time.
Betsy was born in Philadelphia as Elizabeth Griscom, the eighth of 17 children in her Quaker family. After she completed her schooling, she was apprenticed to an upholsterer. (At that time, upholsterers did not just make furniture cushions, but did many different forms of sewing.) She fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross. Since he was not a Quaker, her family and church cut her off completely after she and John crossed the Delaware River one night late in 1773 to elope.
Shortly after their marriage, John and Betsy started their own upholstery business. However, fabric became scarce and times were hard. John joined the local militia, and died shortly after a gunpowder cache he was guarding exploded in January 1776. Betsy was more fortunate than most widows in that she had a business to support her. She kept busy making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy and tents and blankets for the Continental Army.
In May or June of 1776, a delegation from the Continental Congress – George Washington (who attended her church), Robert Morris, and George Ross (her deceased husband’s uncle) – reportedly paid her a visit. They asked her to use her flag-sewing skills to create a flag for all of the American colonies. Interestingly, the six-sided stars in their original design were changed to the familiar five-sided stars after Betsy demonstrated it was possible to cut out such a star with one snip of a scissors in properly-folded fabric.
Betsy remarried in June 1777 to Joseph Ashburn, a sea captain. His ship was captured by the British in 1781 and he died in a British prison the following year. Betsy married a third time in 1783 to John Claypoole, who had been in prison with Captain Ashburn and visited Betsy to share the captain’s final message. John lived much longer than her first two husbands and died in 1817.
Betsy continued with her upholstery business through all of this, and did not retire until ten years after John died. After more than 50 years as an upholsterer, she moved in with one of her married daughters and died in 1836 at the age of 84.
Even though modern historians are not certain if Betsy Ross actually sewed the first American flag, her life was still amazing. She is a great example of a strong woman from that time who buried husbands, raised children as a single mother, ran a business, bought and managed property, and lived through a war being fought all around her. She is truly one of our founding mothers, and deserves our respect and admiration.
So while you are celebrating our Independence Day today, don’t forget how it all came about. And maybe whisper a quick word of thanks to people like Betsy Ross who made it all possible.
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