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The American Revolution
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March 10, 2009 - 12:13 AM UTC
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239 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA (
Betsy Ross House
This house on Arch Street was built at some point around the year 1740. It still stands today because from roughly 1773 until 1785 it possibly served as home to Betsy Ross, commonly believed to be the creator of the first American flag. It has been said that it was here in this house that the Stars and Stripes was first born. The house has been preserved as a historical landmark and museum. It is also reputedly haunted.
Born as Elizabeth "Betsy" Griscom on January 1, 1752 to a family of Quakers, Betsy's father apprenticed her to an upholsterer following the finish of her schooling. There, she met and fell in love with John Ross, another upholstery apprentice who also happened to be an Episcopalian. It was forbidden for Quakers to marry outside of their faith and when the two eloped in 1773 it caused the young lady to be disowned by her family and her church. Betsy and John then began their own upholstery business together.
Only a few years later John enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia when the American Revolutionary War began. He was mortally wounded in an explosion of an ammunition storehouse in January 1776. He lingered for a short time in Betsy's care but finally succumbed to his injuries and passed away before the month was out. Betsy was suddenly on her own, even as upholstery fabrics became scarce due to the war and her business became crippled. It is during this time that it is said she created the first American flag (see Betsy Ross and the United States Flag below). Nearly a year and a half after her first husband's death, Betsy married sea captain Joseph Ashburn in June 1777. Only a few months later the British invaded Philadelphia (which was at the time was the capitol of the American Colonies) on September 26. The American seamstress quickly found her home occupied by British soldiers. Only days later the Battle of Germantown occurred and Betsy played nurse to the wounded from both sides.
Joseph Ashburn fathered two more children with Betsy during his return visits; both were daughters. In 1780, while his wife was expecting their second child, Joseph's ship was captured by the British while overseas. He and his crew were charged with treason and jailed at Old Mill Prison (also known as Millbay Prison) in Devon, England, not far from Plymouth. During Joseph's incarceration, Zilla, the first daughter he had with Betsy, died at only nine months of age and their second daughter, Elizabeth, was born. He would never know about the death of his first child and would never see the face of his second child - Joseph Ashburn died in Old Mill Prison in March of 1782, months after the British had lost the war.
Ashburn's friend and fellow prisoner, John Claypoole, visited Betsy upon his return to America. He brought her the news that the war had also claimed her second husband. Eventually a romance developed between the two and Betsy married John Claypoole on May 8, 1783. Their marriage lasted until his death in August 3, 1817. They had another five daughters together, with four of them making it to adulthood. John spent the last twenty years of his life disabled due to a gradually-worsening injury sustained during the war.
Betsy retired from her upholstery and flag-making business in 1828. Betsy's eyesight worsened with age and she went completely blind at some point in 1833. She passed away peacefully at the age of 86, on January 30, 1836.
Betsy Ross and the United States Flag
While the creation of the first United States flag has been commonly attributed to Betsy Ross there isn't any solid evidence to prove that it actually was her. The earliest written record of Mrs. Ross being involved with the creation of the original American flag, dates only as far back as 1870 - nearly a hundred years after the event is said to have taken place. It was in March of that year that Betsy's grandson, William J. Canby, made an appearance at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and told them that as a child, his grandmother had told him that she had designed the first flag, representing the 13 colonies of what was then becoming the United States. According to the tale, General George Washington, George Ross and Robert Morris (both were signers of the Declaration of Independence) came to visit Ross at her home in June of 1776 with a concept drawing for a new flag to represent the forming nation. The story goes that Betsy Ross improved upon their design and introduced a five-pointed star in replacement of the six-pointed star the men originally had in mind. In 1892, artist Charles Weisgerber created a painting titled
Birth of Our Nations Flag
. In it he depicted the the story related by William Canby. In 1909, William Canby's brother George and nephew Lloyd Balderson published the book
The Evolution of the American Flag
, which furthered substantiated the family's claims in the mind of the public. By 1952, the public had come to accept Betsy Ross as the creator of the American flag so much that a commemorative U.S. postal stamp was issued featuring Charles Weisgerber's painting.
It wasn't the first time that anyone had lain claim to the creation of the first American flag. In 1780, Frances Hopkinson (another Declaration of Independence signer) made a claim that it had been he who had created the first flag designs that resulted in the official United States flag. He even presented an itemized bill for things he claimed he had done for the new country, among them was the creation of the flag. His claim was shot down by the U.S. Treasury Board in their report to congress. Their report stated that Hopkinson
"was not the only person consulted on those exhibitions of Fancy, and therefore cannot claim the sole merit of them and not entitled to the full sum charged."
This official statement implies that no single person was the creator of the American flag, which seems to rule out the claim about Betsy Ross as well. Betsy is known to have sewn flags as part of her business. A receipt from the year 1777 for the creation of flags for Pennsylvania ships has been cited as evidence that she was paid for creating the American flag. This would have been naval flags. If this receipt were for a flag fashioned for Washington, it would have likely been billed to the army and not the navy. Another fact that seems to rule out the Ross story is that George Washington was documented as searching for an Army standard in 1779, three years after the meeting with Betsy Ross was said to have taken place.
There is evidence that George Washington did know Betsy Ross however. They apparently attended the same church and had family pews that sat near each other. It is also possible that the stories may be true that she was Washington's preferred seamstress for clothing repairs. If the story of her creation of the flag isn't true, perhaps there is some partial truth - she may have been one of many who provided input on its design. Either way, Betsy had her home occupied by an invading army and lost two husbands to the American Revolutionary War. Not many women are widowed twice by the same war. At the very least she is a patriotic symbol of hardships faced and sacrifices families made during the war.
Founding of the Betsy Ross House
It is actually not known for sure that Betsy Ross lived in this specific house. She may have actually resided in the house that once stood next door, in a spot where the house's garden is now. She was renting, so she doesn't appear on tax rolls since she didn't own the property. The address was also changed afterwards, so at best the location was narrowed down to one of the two. In 1876, a family with the last name Mund purchased the house that is still standing. They opened a few businesses within it, including a tavern in which they advertised the tavern as operating in the house where the American flag was born. The house was also favored by the descendent's of Betsy Ross as being the house in question.
In 1898, the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association was founded to preserve the building. They raised money through donations and bought the house. Charles Weisgerber, the artist who had painted
Birth of Our Nation's Flag
a few years earlier, was one of the organization's founding members. For every ten cent donation a contributor would receive a certificate with Weisgerber's painting inscribed on it. Every person who managed to gather together a group of 29 others to donate received a chromolithograph of the Weisgerber painting.
By 1898, Weisgerber and his family moved into the house and opened two rooms up to the public. In 1937, construction was done on the house to restore aspects of the house that had been changed since the days of Betsy Ross. It was reopened to the public on June 14, 1937. This time the entire house was open to the public rather than just a couple of rooms. The properties on either side of the house were purchased and added to the location. It was given to the city in 1941. The house was furnished with antiques and some artifacts that belonged to Betsy Ross.
The Three Burials of Betsy Ross
Just as she was married thrice during her lifetime, Betsy's remains have been buried three times since her death in 1836. Her first burial was at the Free Quaker Burial Ground on South Fifth Street. Twenty years later, in 1856, the remains of her and her third husband, John, were exhumed and relocated to a family plot in Mount Moriah Cemetery on Kingsessing Avenue. One hundred and twenty years after that it was decided to move Betsy and John once again as part of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. The crew were unable to find any remains lying under her gravestone. Further digging revealed skeletal remains elsewhere in the family plot that were then assumed to be hers. These remains were brought to the Betsy Ross House and buried in the garden on the property in a patriotic ceremony. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be the final resting place of Betsy and John (assuming it is actually their remains that are interred at the Betsy Ross House).
The Haunting of the Betsy Ross House
Both visitors and staff at the Betsy Ross House have reported encounters with the ghostly manifestations. The basement, where the kitchen rests, appears to be a focal point for the haunting. Disembodied voices are said to have been heard, but are often barely audible with words being undiscernible, though a curator has said he once heard a male voice clearly say
There are also reports of people feeling watched when nobody else is present. Some believe that two of the ghosts are Betsy Ross and Charles Weisgerber. Paranormal investigators have encountered electronic voice phenomena (EVPs) while investigating the house. The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) conducted an investigation of the Betsy Ross House in December of 2008. The investigation was recorded as part of the
television show for the 2009 season of the program.
Visiting the Betsy Ross House
Visitors to the house are treated to performances by actors playing the parts of Betsy Ross and Charles Weisgerber on certain days of the week. There are also craft demonstrations and stage shows that are planned at some points during the year. The site is also available to rent for special occasions. Anyone planning to visit the Betsy Ross House should check their Web site (listed below) for details and hours of operation.
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Betsy Ross House
Official Web site for the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
U.S. History: Betsy Ross House Tour
A virtual tour of the Betsy Ross House through U.S. History.org.
How Betsy Ross Became Famous
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's article on how the story of Besty Ross spread and became legend.
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See Also on TheCabinet.com
Blog: The Mysterious Afterlife of Betsy Ross (03/11/09)
Blog: The Mystery of the Stars and Stripes (06/14/09)
Available from Amazon.com
The Big Book Of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories
Betsy Ross: Patriot of Philadelphia (Redfeather Books)
The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon
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The above content is for informational purposes only. Before making any travel arrangements, it is highly recommended that you contact those in charge of the property to check for updated availability and hours of operation. While we do our best to keep this information updated, we cannot guarantee that it is completely valid and up to date. Any destination marked "
Closed to the Public
" is marked that for a reason and we discourage any visits or attempts to gain access to that facility. Similarly, take note of any "
" that may be associated with a destination. Finally, treat any location and its local residents with respect. Any vandalism and/or unruly behavior is completely despicable and only ruins the experience for future visitors.
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