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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Flag, the Fourth, and Female Fame

Okay, I’m a few days behind on this. It was June when I wrote my last column; my head still was stuck on Father’s Day; and when Gene reminded us LaGaceta columnists to get our work in early for the 95th anniversary edition (more on that next week), I didn’t think ahead to the 4th of July. But I have thoughts ready for Independence Day. You’ve read all your life about the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence in a hot Philadelphia hall on July 4th, 1776. No mothers were invited to this birth of a nation, but they nonetheless labored nearby. Without women, you know, history ends.

Many Americans would find it difficult to name any woman associated with the American Revolution other than the seamstress known as Betsy Ross, but lots of women had greater impact. Indeed, the best assessment of the importance of women may have come from an enemy, a British officer who reported to Lord Cornwallis: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

It was Cornwallis who ultimately surrendered the army of what then was the world’s most powerful nation to ragtag rebels. (An aside: this is something we have almost entirely forgotten, as the US in recent decades usually has sided with incumbents over rebels. And lost, in Vietnam and elsewhere.) When Cornwallis’ officers discussed the difficulties of war against women, they were thinking of fighters such as these:

• Betsy Hagar, a Boston machinist who refitted old weapons, including cannon from Queen Anne’s War in the early 1700s.

• New Jersey’s Rachel Wells, who loaned a substantial amount of money to the new state and never was repaid.

• South Carolina’s Emily Geiger and Connecticut’s Sybil Ludington, who delivered military intelligence via horse rides that were much longer and more dangerous than that of self-promoter Paul Revere.

• Several female newspaper publishers, including Baltimore’s Mary Katherine Goddard, who took the risk of printing the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers’ names – something she did to strength their backbones.

• Esther DeBerdt Reed, who moved from Britain just a decade earlier, but went house-to-house in Philadelphia collecting money for Washington’s army.

• New York’s Catherine Van Rensselaer, mother of fourteen, who set fire to her wheat crop rather than allow the British to harvest it.

• Annis Stockton, who bravely retrieved documents that would have proved sedition when Princeton fell.

• Many women who spied on British troops; Philadelphia’s Lydia Darrah, a mortician and a Quaker, may have been Washington’s most remarkable informant.

• Thousands of anonymous women on the frontier, who withstood attacks from natives allied with the British; in just one 1778 battle in western Pennsylvania, upwards of a hundred women died. Rape as a weapon of war was so common that British officers joked about it.

The Real Betsy Ross

I could go on for another page or more about other brave women, but instead let’s take a look at the real Betsy Ross. Born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, she was a businesswoman throughout her long life. She married three times and was widowed twice, and her primary occupation was not that of the usual seamstress. Instead, she ran a thriving upholstery shop in downtown Philadelphia, at a time when that was the nation’s largest city.

Her name changed to “Ross” when she wed at 21, and that name adhered to her historical reputation, even though it was the briefest of her three married names. At her 1836 death, she was Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole. (And yes, name change is a huge part of why women’s history gets lost: Can you imagine if you had to check an index three or four times to find the facts on “Jefferson, Thomas” or any other male name?)

Six months prior to the Declaration of Independence, in January 1776, Betsy Ross’ husband died in an accidental gunpowder explosion while on duty for the Americans. According to long accepted lore, George Washington commissioned the widow to make an American flag a few months later, in June 1776; she supposedly got this job because an uncle of her late husband knew Washington. Soon after that presumed job offer, in June 1777, Betsy Ross remarried – and would lose her second husband to the Revolution.

Naval officer Joseph Ashburn died in a British prison in 1782. Not only was she twice-widowed, she also had to support her young family during the time that Ashburn was a prisoner of war. Her third mate was John Claypoole, a fellow prisoner who delivered messages from her late husband. They wed in May 1783 (the war officially ended in October) and would have five daughters. She nonetheless continued to have a major role in family support, as he was paralyzed for several years prior to his death.

So Betsy Ross really did suffer for the American Revolution, but she is not known for those hard facts – nor for the prosperity she created, as she invested in land and left a substantial estate to her daughters. But our teachers didn’t present her as a businesswoman: Instead, her image reflects a romantic picture of her with George Washington that was painted more than a century after they allegedly met. It’s likely that this incident – the only view that many Americans have of women in the American Revolution -- never occurred.

That there were no contemporaneous records is not too surprising: The Revolution, of course, was treason against the established government, and it would be understandable if the two conspired secretly. What is surprising, however, is that if the transaction actually happened, there was no substantiation of it after victory. Washington was assiduous about honoring women. He sent many thank-you notes to women, even taking time in the crisis year of 1776 to thank African-American Phillis Wheatley for her poem on independence. Clearly, he was not reluctant to applaud women, and the omission of Ross from his records – as well as records of other contemporaries, including the war’s first historian, Mary Otis Warren – is the strongest evidence that Ross’ work, if any, was not considered greatly significant by those who lived in her era.

Numerous flags were used by many military units, and presumably women made most (or all) of them. Ross may have been one of these flag makers, as her ledger shows sales of “ship’s colors” -- but the most important point in making it unlikely that she sewed Washington’s flag is simple chronology. He recorded while camped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “we hoisted the union flag” – on January 4, 1776, six months prior to the presumed meeting in Philadelphia.

Most telling of all is that the first written record of the tale did not occur until almost a century later, when her grandson presented this family lore to a local historical society in 1870. By then, no one was alive who could confirm or deny it, and encouraged by the cult of domesticity that grew with the Victorian Age, the story took root. Harper’s printed it in 1873, and within a decade, it appeared in school books as fact.

The Real Flag Maker

Instead of Betsy Ross, the woman who should be most associated with the flag is Mary Pickersgill. In the War of 1812 (sometimes and appropriately called the Second War for Independence), Baltimore expected an attack by British warships. The defiant commander of the harbor’s Fort McHenry decided that he wanted a flag so big “that the British will have no trouble seeing it,” and he went to the city’s well-established manufacturer of ship insignia, 36-year-old widow Mary Pickersgill. Like many business men and women, Pickersgill had inherited her knowledge of this field from her mother, flag maker Rebecca Young.

With her daughter and two nieces, Pickersgill wove 1,200 square feet of wool into a seamless flag – and like the businesswoman she was – presented the military with a bill that read: “One American Ensign From First Rate Bunting, $405.90.” The flag was so enormous that Pickersgill borrowed the floor of a local brewery to lay it out.

After many long days and nights of intensive work, the flag was finished in August 1813 – and in September, British guns bombarded Baltimore. The big, bold flag presented a prime target, and while watching the battle rage, Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that, when set to an older tune, became the Star Spangled Banner. Despite the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” Pickersgill’s high-quality work continued to wave. It not only survived the battle, but was so strong that more than two hundred years later, it still covers a three-story Smithsonian wall.

Mary Pickersgill lived and worked in a 1793 house on Baltimore’s important Pratt Street, and her home has been open as a museum since 1927. Yet, while almost any school child can tell you that Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem, who knows the woman who made the flag that inspired it?


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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