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Betsy Ross

upholsterer who may or may not have made a famous flag

detail from Birth of Our Nation's Flag, by Charles H. Weisgerber

Elizabeth Griscom was born into a devout Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 1, 1752, the eighth of 17 children. While attending a local Friends school Betsy displayed a real knack for sewing, so her father apprenticed her to a local upholsterer.

It was at the upholstery shop that Betsy met John Ross, the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church. Knowing that interdenominational marriage was forbidden by Quaker society, the couple secretly crossed the Delaware River to Gloucester, New Jersey, where they were married in November 1773. For her action Betsy was "written out" of the Friends church and cut off from her family, both socially and economically; she subsequently joined her husband's church.

Betsy and John started their own upholstery business, but struggled financially because the Quakers had previously made up a substantial part of Betsy's customer base. Business got even worse after the Revolutionary War broke out, as fabrics became scarce and money became scarcer. A supporter of American independence, John Ross joined the Pennsylvania militia. Seriously injured in a gunpowder explosion, he died on January 21, 1776.

Soon after her husband's death, Betsy joined the Free Quakers, a group of Quakers who disagreed with the church's traditional pacifist views.

In 1777, Betsy married Captain Joseph Ashburn, with whom she had two daughters -- Zillah (who died in her youth) and Elizabeth. During the winter of 1777, while her husband was at sea, Betsy was forced to share her home with British soldiers occupying Philadelphia. She was, however, allowed to continue her upholstery business, which by now was bringing her a reasonable income. Ashburn was captured at sea in 1782, and subsequently died in a British prison.

Betsy was informed of her husband's death by lifelong friend John Claypoole, who had been captured from the same ship as Ashburn. She married Claypoole in 1783, and bore him five daughters -- Clarissa Sidney, Susannah, Rachel, Jane, and Harriet (who died at nine months). After the war, Betsy convinced Claypoole to give up sea life and join her in the upholstery business. The business did well, and after the birth of their second daughter the couple was able to move to a larger house. John Claypoole died in 1817.

Betsy continued her upholstery business until 1827, after which she went to live with her daughter Susannah in Abington, then a suburb of Philadelphia. She died on January 30, 1836.

The Story of Betsy Ross and the American Flag was first told by her grandson, William Canby, in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on May 29, 1870. In the paper, Canby claimed that Betsy herself had told him how three men visited her home just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and asked her to sew the nation's first flag. To learn more about the story, see the link below. It will be left to each individual reader to determine whether or not the story is true.


Betsy Ross Home Page

See Also

Revolutionary War

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Revolution to Civil War >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 22, 2018.