As I’ve spent the last few months giving talks about Betsy Ross, probably the most-frequently-asked question that gets posed by audience members is, “what surprised you most?”
It’s been hard to know where to begin, but lately I’ve been thinking that what surprises me most — or maybe, in truth, which of the various discoveries has pleased me the most — is how broad her horizons really were.
Trapped for more than two centuries now in her Arch Street parlor, contained there by the thousands of images that have been produced and reproduced on stamps and stationery, towels and teacups, of the beaming seamstress presenting her handiwork to an admiring General Washington (here in the famous painting by Charles Weisgerber), Betsy Ross (or Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, 1752-1836) in real life was very much a woman of the world, no less alert to developments around the globe than we are today.
Having grown up in arguably the most important city across England’s two-dozen Atlantic and Caribbean colonies, the young Elizabeth Griscom surely harbored some sense of her comparative sophistication among British colonists worldwide, but the outbreak of Revolution made her aware of the world in new ways.
After the death of her first husband, John Ross, in 1776, she married mariner Joseph Ashburn, a privateer who spent much of his time at sea. After his ship was outgunned and he was imprisoned in England, Ashburn died, leaving his bride a widow. Betsy’s third husband, John Claypoole, was also a privateer likewise imprisoned; after the war he would travel to South America to look into a plantation he’d received by bequest, and in time he landed a plum job as a U.S. customs inspector, and spent his days greeting the ships that brought the goods of the world to Philadelphia’s wharves: limes, oranges, sweetmeats, coffee, sugar, cigars from the West Indies, indigo from the Haitian port Anse-à- Veau, and Liverpool coal by the ton.
Betsy’s ship-captain son’s-in-law and nephews, too became agents of international commerce: letters that crossed Betsy’s Front Street threshold advised when a cargo of salt might sell well in Brazil, and when sugar could be had cheap in Pemambuco. Correspondence to and from Liverpool, Madeira and Calcutta kept one another abreast of kin and commerce alike.
If the conversation around Betsy’s dinner table took in global politics and events, she had a more direct hand in international affairs as she fabricated dozens of flags for the U.S. military and the Indian Department. For the former–especially in the run-up to the War of 1812, the heroic age of her work as a flagmaker, from which the lion’s share of archival references to her survive (another surprise) –she made garrison flags that flew over port communities from New Orleans (where her sister Mary’s boys had set up as merchants) to Niagara. And together with ornamental painter William Berrett, she produced flags intended for diplomatic exchange with the native nations U.S. expeditions encountered as they explored the Mississippi Valley and points west. From the mouth of the Mississippi to the Delaware Valley, and probably to the Great Lakes and into the western interior as well, Betsy Ross’s flags announced and advanced the aims of the young Republic.
If Ross were alive today, I’d like to picture her as a CNN junkie, eager to keep abreast of things happening around the world that might affect her globe-totting loved ones, or that might prove advantageous to her business. I’d like to help readers imagine Ross standing up and walking through that door–and out of the parlor.
Marla R. Miller, author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the director of the public history program there. She has won the Organization of American Historians’ Lerner-Scott Prize for the Best Dissertation in Women’s History and the Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History. In 2009, she was awarded the Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship from the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
IMAGE: “The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag” by Charles H. Weisgerber
Congratulations to the W & M winners of this book: