The History of the Flag of the United States by William Canby is the main source document for the Betsy Ross Flag legend. Canby was Ross' grandson and he claimed to have heard her tell the story of how she created the first American flag from her own mouth. The paper was prepared for the Historical Society of Philadelphia, to whom Canby first read the story in March of 1780.
The Betsy Ross Flag legend is well known to Americans and is believed as pure history by many. There is, however, much debate about whether or not the story is true. There is not a single shred of documentary evidence outside of the testimonies of Canby and three other relatives of Betsy Ross. There are no documents in the National Archives, from the Continental Congress or any personal receipts or ledgers indicating the transaction.
This has led many to discount the story as purely a concoction by Canby for the fame of his own family. However, there are facts that exist that support the account as well. Read The History of the Flag of the United States by William Canby here first and then read more about the Betsy Ross Flag controversy here.
Three other relatives of Betsy Ross, a daughter, a grand-daughter and a niece, also signed written affidavits that they heard Betsy tell the story of how she created the first United States flag from her own mouth. You can read the affidavits here:
Learn more about the personal life of Betsy Ross at our Betsy Ross Facts page.
A Paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (March 1870), entitled
THE HISTORY OF THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES
by William J. Canby
Mr. President, and gentlemen of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A number of persons who, like yourselves are impressed with the importance of preserving every item of history relating to the origin of our beautiful national standard, being aware of the existence, in an unpublished form of certain information relating to the making of the flag, in the possession of a few individuals, now far advanced in years, deemed it desirable that a paper should be prepared and presented to your honorable body, with a view to having said information put on record as a part of our local and national history. These facts, being laid before the Executive Council of this Society, they have done me the honor to appoint me to perform this duty.
It was thought advisable to make a search amongst the national archives, and also in the published Journal of Congress, and in all other works likely to have any reference or bearing upon the subject, in the hope that some official testimony might be obtained to establish the truth, and to prove or disprove these individual allegations; for it is only the truth that the real student of history is striving to reach. It was thought to be barely possible that some history of the appointment of a committee by the Congress, or of the report of such a committee, or of some official action by the public men of the times, in some official capacity or other, might be discovered, in matter heretofore published. Yet, as many had gone over the ground before, it was thought unlikely that this search would be rewarded with success. Failing in this it was determined to endeavor to gain access to the government archives; and it was earnestly hoped that some clew, however slight, might be there found by which the spinning of the first thread of this important history might be brought to light. The most careful and searching inquiry was accordingly made of the printed works referred to, in fact of every book, pamphlet or newspaper in the Philadelphia Library, and in this and other libraries, that would be likely to throw any light upon the subject.
It is quite needless to detail the labors of this search, or to enumerate the works examined; suffice it to say that the result was as anticipated - the printed official record was found to stand, where it had been alleged to stand, bare and unsatisfying, involved in a mass of conjecture, with but one central point.
In Dunlap's Journal of Congress, at the date of June 14th, 1777 Vol III, page 235, occurs the only scrap of official history in reference to the origin of the flag of the United States yet published. In the proceedings of Congress on this page is found the following resolution: "Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, which in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
Here the record ends. Who drafted this resolution, and who presented it; whether it was the work of an individual member of Congress, or was reported by a committee, as the result of careful labor; whether the committee, if there was one, was appointed specially for the purpose, or whether their powers and duties were general and promiscuous; whether it was the Board of War and Ordinance, the committee for casting cannon balls, or for procuring powder, or the committee for provisioning the army, or the committee authorized to fit out a naval armament, or whether it was the commander-in-chief of the army, to whom was due the credit and honor of suggesting and devising the immortal design, or whether it was not prepared by a professional herald, skilled in the science of armorial bearings, does not appear any where on the printed page. Neither does it appear very satisfactorily when this resolution was adopted and became the law of the land; whether it was not first adopted in secret session, and kept secret (for reasons best known at the time) for months, and afterwards when independence became a fact, was entered upon the public Journal; or whether there was an accidental omission of it from the record at the proper time, and, the omission being discovered, it was placed where it was out of order of its date; or whether that was really its true date, all inferences to the contrary notwithstanding, the record does not tell us. As ignorant are we of its birth and parentage as was the unsophisticated Topsy of her own origin. We "spect it grow," when, how or by whose aid does not appear. Full carefully is its secret preserved; and, unless we can redeem the past, and by a careful re-survey of the acts of our ancestors, as revealed in ancient manuscript carefully preserved, or in the almost equally well preserved traditional lore, with which every locality in the old states abounds, discover who were the real actors in the drama, the magnificent fact of its conception is lost forever. To redeem the past, if possible, and unveil the truth, has been our object; and if we have only partially succeeded we have the satisfaction of knowing that a sincere effort has been made, and that what is not known is now rendered certain.
We have no allusion here to any other flag than "The flag of the United States." What flags may have been in use in the colonies prior to the Declaration of Independence we do not consider germane to the subject. It is the history of the flag of our Union that we have to do with. For a tolerably full account of the colonies' flags we would refer the inquirer to the pages of Lossing or Hamilton. The only one of these that would seem to require any notice from us is the "Great Union Flag" which Washington raised at Cambridge January 1st, 1776. (See Frothingham's seige of Boston, page 283.)
The name of "union" applied to a flag or the quarter of a flag is very clearly defined in the work of Schuyler Hamilton on the "National Flag" but as many may not have met with this work, we will, at the risk of repeating to those already informed on the subject, explain that it was applied to the "quarter" or upper left hand corner of the British national ensign, and, in the case of the flag called a "jack" to the whole field of the flag, to designate the union of England and Scotland by the union of the two crosses, the cross of Saint George and the cross of Saint Andrew, which had previously been the respective standards of the two kingdoms. There were three colors or ensigns used in the British navy by the three classes of admirals, styled admiral of the red, of the white, and of the blue. They each had the same union or quarter. The ensign of the red was the flag used at Boston long before the revolution and continued up to the year 1776; when, on the 1st of January General Washington hoisted on the heights at Cambridge, in honor of the new army, just then organized, the "Great Union Flag" a flag retaining the British union as the colors of the king, to whom they still claimed allegiance, and the field, instead of being a plain red ground, one of thirteen stripes, red and white, typical of the union of the thirteen colonies; the union or quarter showing submission to the higher jurisdiction of the crown.
This was an act of defiance to the ministry, but was, by what would look to us, from across the bridge of independence, a little like sophistry, a profession of loyalty to the king, to whom they promised to remain obedient, provided he would redress their grievances; a perfectly natural and proper position, nevertheless, when we consider that the idea of independence was hardly dared to be broached at that time.
The printed record failing us, our next recourse, the national archives were sought to be examined. There were some reasons which seemed to render it improbable that this search would not be altogether fruitless. The fact that there were archives and probably many interesting facts comparatively unknown to any but the archivist seemed to indicate a hopeful field of inquiry. In this hope we confess to have been strengthened by a delusive statement, in a popular and pleasing book on the history of the American flag, by a descendent of one of the most illustrious of the fathers of the republic; which statement, amongst many others of the kind, has proved to us how conscientiously careful should be the compilers of history lest they should mislead the student with ambiguous expressions or give doubtful assertions the appearance of fact by language easily misunderstood; and, more especially, how careful should they be not to state for fact a mere unsupported theory.
A letter was written to a personal friend of the writer in the State Department at Washington, asking for information respecting the appointment of a committee on the flag, or a report of such committee, and any other information on the subject to be obtained from the "unpublished records." The reply obtained to this contained the information that the rule of the Department had always been to require a written application, naming the paper sought to be examined before the permission to examine it could be granted; and that no general search of the archives had ever been allowed. The letter also stated that a thorough search was then made, and nothing on the subject had been found, excepting that flag resolution of June 14th, 1777. Being very desirous of establishing the truth upon this head the writer of this paper went to Washington, carrying a letter from your secretary and librarian, addressed to the Secretary of State, who upon the presentation of the reasons urged for cessation of the rule in this particular case, granted permission to the writer to make a complete examination of the archives. This flattering testimonial to the character of this honorable society it is proper you should be informed of, inasmuch as the privilege had never before been granted to a private individual, and would not have been in this case, had he not represented this Society.
The search was fruitless, as might have been expected, as to the finding of any matter throwing light on the origin of the design, and the making of the flag. It was not fruitless in this, however, that it establishes the fact that no such history there exists; a fact not heretofore definitely stated.
The next and the last resort then of the historian, (the printed and the written record being silent) is tradition. Tradition is often supposed to tell a mythical or extremely doubtful story; a pleasing kind of romance in which the book-maker being at a loss for a foundation in fact, has drawn from the realms of imagination the materials for his story.
Where a long period has elapsed, and generation after generation has passed away between the occurrence of the event and the writing of it, there can be no doubt that tradition will become an uncertain resource for the seeker after facts. But, when we can see face to face, and can converse with the parties who learned these facts from the actors in them, tradition, uncontradicted by the written record, stands unimpeachable, quite as reliable and often more so, than the books.
Before, however, proceeding to narrate the tradition, which is the principal object of this paper to unfold, let us inquire what reasons there are for supposing that the date, June 14th 1777, was not the true date of the flag resolution. And first let us look at the probabilities of the case. The leaders of the revolution were men of intelligence and experience in military matters; old soldiers, many of them, quite fresh from fields of warfare in another conflict. The Declaration of Independence was passed July 4th, 1776, nearly a year previously to the date upon which the flag resolution was placed upon the public record. Was the nation in existence all this time, with an army on the land and a navy at sea, in open hostilities with an enlightened and well trained foe, without a flag to fight under? And is it to be supposed that these veteran revolutionists would have continued to hoist the flag of the British Union, expressive of loyalty to the king of Great Britain, after having declared their independence of him. Is it not highly probable on the other hand, that they who so carefully prepared the Declaration of Independence, did also prepare a device for a flag, both of them in secret session, so that when the time came for the promulgation of the one the other could be displayed and acknowledged as the standard of the nation? We do not fear to affirm this probability, having searched carefully for the proofs to the contrary.
As early as July 1766, ten years before, many had begun to look forward to independence as the only issue of the dissatisfaction then growing into open revolt. Yes, even in '65 when the fatal Stamp Act, that first cause that "Plucked the jewel out of England's crown" was under discussion in Parliament the views of the friends of the colonies already foreshadowed independence. And in the same year it was that Patrick Henry uttered in the House of Burgesses of Virginia his famous speech, which was interrupted with the cry of "Treason." That these prophetic foreshadowings indicated thus early the conviction that independence must sooner or later be the fruit of the British government's oppressions there can be no doubt. John Adams saw it when, in the same year, he wrote, "That enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down all the rights and liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread through the whole continent a spirit that will be recorded to our honor through all future generations." The spirit of independence was constantly gaining ground from that time till 1776, when though in open hostilities, the whole country, even the whole of the patriot army, were not yet quite prepared; and to some, when it was passed, it was received with forebodings and sadness, if not discontent. Yet the friends of the measure, who had grasped the idea from the beginning were not the men to let it fail for want of preconcerted measures. They prepared with all caution and secrecy, and with the greatest care and forethought the paper that gave this nation its birth, and they no doubt also prepared, at the same time, the flag that was to be hailed as the emblem of the new empire, for which they were to stand sponsors. They did not allow a whole year to elapse before showing their colors.
General Washington in earnest with his whole soul in the cause he had espoused was willing to devote his time without compensation, his life, if need be, his fortune and his sacred honor, to its success. This cause at first no doubt seemed to him to be the obtaining of redress for grievances, and the firm establishment of the principles of liberty, as guaranteed by the British constitution to every Englishman. He thought this might soon be effected; for he talked about finishing the war with one campaign, and going home to his family. And in this he made no greater mistake than did the Secretary of State in 1861, when he declared that the war of the rebellion would be finished in three months. How soon Washington's eyes were opened to the true state of the case does not appear, nor at what point he made the discovery of the temper of the British ministry whom he must have forgotten were Englishmen, and like himself, were going into the business of subjection, as he was into that of liberation, with their whole souls and were not to be whipped into taking the half loaf of loyalty without submission of rights from the colonies, anymore than the colonies were to be driven into the position of peaceful acquiescence. How soon the commander-in-chief foresaw that the war he was fighting was a war for independence, can only be distantly traced from his remarks in his very guarded correspondence but we are authorized by the tenor of some of his letters in supposing that he was not long in coming to this conclusion. On the first, or some say, the second of January 1776, on reorganizing his army before Boston he hoisted the "Great Union Flag" which as has been mentioned consisted of the British union and thirteen red and white stripes. This was no doubt quite as far as he was prepared to go at that time; but even then can we not see the temper of his spirit in his letter to Mr. Reed, where he laughs to scorn the idea of submission? By a coincidence, the king's speech arrived in Boston about the same time, and, farcically enough, as Washington says, they in Boston accepted, with great joy, the raising of the flag as a token of submission, mistaking its intent entirely, and not supposing that the Americans had not read his "gracious majesty's" sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded subjects in American. The echo, says Washington, is not yet come to hand (by the "echo" we are to understand he means the action of Parliament on the speech). "But, we know what it must be, and as Lord North said, we now know the ultimatum of British justice." We ought, he says, parenthetically "to have believed and acted accordingly." Here is truly the Virginia fire. We ought to have believed and acted accordingly! "By this time," he says, "I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender, of our lines!"
The sarcasm implied here is terrible. Had this zealous commander at this time no faint glimmerings of independence? Could he not pierce the veil of the future, and see, as John Adams and Patrick Henry did, a glorious day beyond? We think that he did, even then, and that this prudent act of defiance to the ministry, this striped union flag, was only used as the stepping stone of what was to come after it. It would have been scandalous for them, before the army and nation were ripe for independence, while yet they claimed loyalty to King George, to hoist any other than his colors. It was perfectly competent for the colonies, under their prerogatives, to have adopted the stripes as typical of the number and union, even in profound peace, though it might not be relished by the ministers. It would have been equally scandalous for the colonies, on the eve of throwing off the parental yoke not to have thrown out of their flag the king's cross, and prepare themselves a flag of independence by which to be led to battle, after independence should be declared. It is no compliment to the wisdom and sagacity of these able men, who, with General Washington, shaped and molded the new nation, to suppose otherwise.
Now to the facts, few we admit them to be, yet published, proving our case. But there are facts. The very latest accounts of the use of the British union flag is on the sailing of the fleet from the Delaware in February 1776. The first historical account we have of the hoisting of the Stars and Stripes, occurs in the siege of Fort Schuyler on August 2nd, 1777 (see Lossing's Field Book of the Revolution, Vol 1, page 242).
There is, however, another account which we think entitles to credit, of the hoisting of the "stars and stripes" at least one year previously. The brig "Nancy" captain Hugh Montgomery was sent out on Congress account to the West Indies, (Santa Cruz and Saint Thomas) for military stores, in the latter part of the year 1775. She sailed to her appointed destinations and brought home her cargo in July 1776, but was intercepted at the capes of the Delaware by a British fleet, and compelled to land her cargo outside of Cape May, which was nearly all got ashore during a fog, but the fog raising and being about to be captured, a train was laid of powder on board, and, after her crew had left, she blew up, destroying a large number of the British, who were about boarding her. There are divers accounts of this affair in the old books and newspapers; and in the journals of the committee of safety there are full particulars of her loss, and of the auditing and allowance of her accounts, which were ordered to be paid. None of these old accounts, however, say anything of the flag she carried, on her return voyage and fight with the frigate.
This is supplied by the daughter of Captain Montgomery, Miss Elizabeth Montgomery, in a book entitled "Reminiscences of Wilmington etc" published in Philadelphia in 1851. Of Miss Montgomery's carefulness and accuracy as a writer we have full testimonials. She writes what her father has told her, and as an active and efficient commander his statements are certainly entitled to credit. We cannot do better than to tell the story as the daughter has given it to us, circumstantial and intensely interesting. We will read the account from her book.
***Editor's note - Elizabeth Montgomery's account was appended here to Canby's paper but has been lost***
If this account is to be relied upon, our theory of the adoption of the flag in secret session previously to the Fourth of July 1776, is fully sustained; for she says, "When the cargo" (which they were load at St Thomas) it was nearly complete, information was received that independence was declared and a description of the colors adopted." This is certainly a startling verification. Can it be that the account is wrong? We confess that the statement standing alone circumstantial and conscientious as it evidently is, requires to be examined most critically in order to test its consistency as to the dates, with the other accounts of the affair of the Nancy, which say nothing about the flag.
Let us now return to our Legend.
The First American Flag and Who Made It.
According to a well sustained tradition in the family of Elizabeth Claypoole (the Elizabeth Ross) this lady is the one to whom belongs the honor of having made with her own hands the first flag. Three of her daughters are still living who confirm this statement, not from their own knowledge, for the flag was made before they were born, but from the recollection of their mother's often repeated narration and from hearing it told by others who were cognizant of the facts during their childhood; and there is also yet living a niece of Mrs. Claypoole's, Mrs. Margaret Boggs (now in her 95th year) who resides with a niece in Germantown, Philadelphia, and still has full possession of all her faculties, who remembers well the incidents of the transaction as she heard it told, in her intimate intercourse with the family many times.
The writer of this paper in the year 1857 had a conversation on the subject with the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Claypoole, then in active life, but since deceased, Mrs. Clarissa S. Wilson, who succeeded her mother in the business of flag and color making and continued it for many years. Mrs. Wilson's statement was put in writing at the time, as have been also the statements of her sisters and of Mrs. Boggs and the substance of them is now given.
We believe the fact is not generally known that to Philadelphia belongs the honor of having first flung the "Star Spangled Banner" to the breeze, and that to a Philadelphia lady, long since gathered to her fathers, belongs the honor of having made the first flag with her own hands.
A little two story and attic house, with over-hanging eaves and pent-eaves, and a porch at the door, the brick front decorated with alternate glazed bricks, situated on the North side of Arch Street a few doors East of Third street, was the scene of the birth place of the Star-spangled Banner. (The house is now standing, the only one of a row that once occupied that part of the street. Its present number is 239; the old number was 89). This unpretending and humble abode was once distinguished with a tin sign upon the window containing the words Elizabeth Ross Upholsterer.
Within that window might be seen specimens of her craft in the shape of a few pillows, with now and then a piece of fine embroidery or other needle work; and, further in, was no doubt often visible through the panes, the pleasant and by no means unhandsome features of Elizabeth, or Betsy as she was familiarly called, and perhaps also the face of one or two young girls, her assistants.
Betsy drove a thriving trade, was notable, prudent and industrious, and never had any time to spend in street gaping or gossip, and was, consequently, very much respected by her neighbors. She was the daughter of an influential and respectable member of the Society of Friends, a House Carpenter by trade, whose name was Samuel Griscom. He lived on the North side of Arch Street, opposite Friends Burying ground (where the meeting house now stands) between Third and Fourth Streets, and had his shop on the rear of his lot upon Cherry Street. He had a numerous family, the seventh of whom was Elizabeth. She being unwilling to remain a dependent upon her father had accepted a situation as apprentice in a large upholstering establishment in this city where many hands were employed and had there learned her trade; and had captivated with her modest deportment a youth, John Ross, her fellow apprentice. (This John Ross was a son of the Rev. Aeneas Ross then residing at New Castle, Del. at one time assistant minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia). John and Betsy formed a partnership for life, were married, and, on his arriving at age, were established in business by his father; but the partnership was dissolved in two years by John's death, leaving Mrs. Ross, a young widow, without any children. Overcome with grief she allowed her establishment to be broken up by her relatives, and sold out at a considerable sacrifice, and she returned to her father's house to mourn her sad bereavement, and the early blighting of her hopes and plans for life. Here, however, she soon again became discontented with her dependent position and saw the mistake she had made in giving up her business.
Without any means to depend upon but her hands, she rented the little house we have described, and "hung up her shingle," inviting her former customers to her shop. With all her patient industry and perseverance, however, she found it difficult to get along, as the "hard times" brought about by the revolutionary war, came upon her. She often pondered over the future, and brooded sometimes almost to despondency upon her troubles, yet she always rallied when she reflected upon the goodness of Providence who had never deserted her.
Sitting sewing in her shop one day with her girls around her, several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. GEORGE ROSS, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet COLONEL WASHINGTON had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times, (a friendship caused by her connection with the Ross family). They announced themselves as a committee of congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self reliance, that "she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it." The committee were shown into her back parlor, the room back of the shop, and Col. Ross produced a drawing, roughly made, of the proposed flag. It was defective to the clever eye of Mrs. Ross and unsymetrical, and she offered suggestions which Washington and the committee readily approved.
What all these suggestions were we cannot definitely determine, but they were of sufficient importance to involve an alteration and re-drawing of the design, which was then and there done by General George Washington, in pencil, in her back parlor. One of the alterations had reference to the shape of the stars. In the drawing they were made with six points.
Mrs. Ross at once said that this was wrong; the stars should be five pointed; they were aware of that, but thought there would be some difficulty in making a five pointed star. "Nothing easier" was her prompt reply and folding a piece of paper in the proper manner, with one clip of her ready scissors she quickly displayed to their astonished vision the five pointed star; which accordingly took its place in the national standard. General Washington was the active one in making the design, the others having little or nothing to do with it. When it was completed, it was given to William Barrett, painter, to paint.
He had no part in the design, he only did the painting. (He was a first rate artist. He lived in a large three story brick house on the East side of an alley which ran back to the Pennsylvania Academy for young ladies, which was kept by James A. Neal; said to be the best institution of the kind at that time in Philadelphia. The house is yet standing.)
The committee suggested Mrs. Ross to call at a certain hour at the counting house of one of their number, a shipping merchant, on the wharf. Mrs. Ross was punctual to the appointment. The gentleman drew out of a chest an old ship's color, which he loaned her to show her how the sewing was done, and also the drawing painted by Barrett. Other designs had been prepared by the committee and one or two of them were placed in the hands of other seamstresses to be made. Betsy Ross went diligently to work upon her flag, carefully examining the peculiar stitch in the old ship's color, which had been given her as a specimen, and recognizing, with the eye of a good mechanic its important characteristics, strength and elasticity.
The flag was soon finished, and Betsy returned it, the first 'Star Spangled Banner' that ever floated upon the breeze, to her employer. It was run up to the peak of one of his ships lying at the wharf, and received the unanimous approval of the committee and of a little group of bystanders looking on, and the same day was carried into the State House and laid before Congress, with a report from the committee.
The next day Col. Ross called upon Betsy, and informed her that her work had been approved and her flag adopted; and he now requested her to turn her whole attention to the manufacture of flags, and gave her an unlimited order for as many as she could make; desiring her to go out forthwith and buy all the "bunting and tack" in the city, and make flags as fast as possible. Here was astounding news to Betsy! Her largest ideas of business heretofore had been confined to the furnishing of one or two houses at a time with beds, curtains and carpets; and she had only recently been depressed with the prospect of losing much of this limited business by reason of the high prices of materials, and the consequent retrenchment by citizens in luxuries that could be dispensed with. She sat ruminating upon her sudden good fortune some minutes before it occurred to her that she had not the means to make the extensive purchases required by the order; and, therefore, she would be utterly helpless to fill it; for these were the days of cash transactions, and such a thing as a poor person getting credit for a large amount of goods was altogether unheard of. Here was a dilemma. What was she to do? Like many others, she began already to doubt her good fortune and to dash her rising hopes with the reflections, "this is too good luck for me, it cannot be." Rising superior to this, however, she said to herself, "We are not creatures of luck: have I not found that the Good One has never deserted me, and He will not now. I will buy all the bunting I can, and make it into these flags, and will explain to Mr. Ross why I cannot get anymore. He will, no doubt, give orders to others, and so I shall lose a large part of this business: but I must be satisfied with a moderate share of it, and grateful too." So she went to work. Scarcely had she finished her cogitations when Col. Ross re-entered the shop. "It was very thoughtless of me" he remarked, "when I was just here now, that I did not offer to supply you with the means for making these purchases; it might inconvenience you" he said delicately, "to pay out so much cash at once, here is something to begin with" (giving her a one hundred pound note) "and you must draw on me at sight for what ever you require."
Mrs. Ross was now effectively set up in the business of flag and color making for the government; through all her after life, which was a long, useful and eventful one, she "never knew what it was," to use her own expression, "to want employment," this business (flag-making for the government) remaining with her and in her family for many years. She was afterwards twice married; once to Joseph Ashbourne, a shipmaster in the merchant services, by whom she had one daughter, named Eliza, and after his death to John Claypoole.
A romance belongs to the history of her third marriage which deserves to be mentioned.
The vocation of her second husband Captain Ashbourne, was a perilous one at that time, owing to the numerous British privateers cruising upon our coasts to prey upon our commerce. Into the hands of one of these he fell, in one of his voyages, and was carried a prisoner of war to England and thrown into Mill Prison at Plymouth, the story of whose famous dungeon and horrid barbarities belongs to the traditions of many an American family, where gentlemen of the best families, merchants, officers and privates suffered an indiscriminate death from contagions and fevers generated by the loathesomeness of its reeking atmosphere. Here Captain Ashbourne languished and died. And, strange to say, his captivity was shared by John Claypoole, who stranger still, had been a former lover of the youthful Betsy Griscom.
The dying husband was nursed and comforted (with such consolations as the walls of their prison would admit,) by his sympathizing and fast friend in affliction; to whom were confided the parting messages of love to the distant and disconsolate wife; together with such articles of value as his captors had left to him; the straw upon which he lay was shaken and turned by John Claypoole and the eyes of poor Ashbourne were finally (on the third day of March 1782) closed in death by his friend, who envied him his earlier release and expected soon to follow; death seeming then their only hope.
At last, on the Twenty-second of June 1782, more than eight months after hearing of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to General Washington in Yorktown, John Claypoole was released from his captivity and sent home with 316 other prisoners exchanged by cartel; and after a voyage of fifty days (which was quite adventurous) arrived in Philadelphia, the bearer to Mrs. Ashbourne (late Ross) of the tidings of her husband's sufferings and death.
The circumstances were such that the old intimacy between John and Elizabeth was revived. Their mutual friendship for the deceased; sympathy on the part of one, and gratitude on the part of the other, ere long ripened into affection for each other, and in "decent time" (to use the words given by the narrator) Mrs. Ashbourne became Mrs. John Claypoole.
John Claypoole was an intelligent man of good education and respectable family, more recently of Quaker origin, (John was a son of William Claypoole, a tanner, who was born in Philadelphia in 1711, but who afterwards removed to Mount Holly, New Jersey where John was born August 15th, 1752. This William Claypoole, tanner, was the son of George Claypoole, who was a son of James Claypoole of London, a contemporary and friend of the Proprietor, William Penn and an early settler and large patentee of land in his colony, coming to America in 1683.
We find John, early in the period of conflict with England, throwing off the Quaker garb, and buckling on the sword of war in the course of American independence. He was one of the first members with his future patriotic wife of the little sect known as the "Free Quakers" who incurred the odium of a separation from the honored Society of Friends, that they might aid in that heroic struggle for freedom which was then going on. He joined the army under Washington, and served through part of the war, being present in several battles, and was wounded at Germantown. After which he went to sea, and was taken prisoner and carried to Ireland, and after being marched about from one place to another, deceived by delusive promises of exchange, was finally taken to Plymouth and lodged in Mill Prison, where, as we have seen, he became the companion in suffering of Captain Ashbourne. He lived many years after the war, and was in Philadelphia throughout the whole of the terrible visitation of yellow fever in 1793, when all of his family and many others had fled to the country. For a number of years prior to his death he was helpless from paralysis.
Elizabeth Ashbourne was still residing in the old house on Arch Street at the time of her marriage (May 8th, 1783) with John Claypoole, and continued there about two years, when they moved into a house on the West side of Second street above Dock, on the site where the old Pennsylvania Bank was afterwards built (a chaste Ionic marble structure) which was lately torn down to make room for the Government Stores now being erected there. They lived in this house about two years when they moved into Front Street below Chestnut (No 72 old system) on the corner of Norris Alley - a quaint old double house (two houses in one) with gable to the street. They lived here for many years when they moved into the adjoining house (No 70).
There were five daughters by this marriage with John Claypoole. He died August 3rd, 1817, at the age of 65, and was interred in the burial ground of the Society of Free Quakers, situate on the West side of 5th street below Prune (now Locust St). Owing to his paralysis his wife, the indefatigable Betsy Claypoole was compelled to carry on her business of flag and color making to support the family. Of the five daughters (there was no son) the youngest died in infancy. The remaining four, Clarissa, Susan, Rachel and Jane having each married, raised families of children. The old stand at the S.W. corner of Front St. and Norris' Alley was retained as a flag and color store for many years by Clarissa, after her mother became, through the infirmities of years, unfitted for carrying on the business which was afterwards removed to a situation in the next square near Dock St. on the same side of Front St. where Clarissa, then a widow, (Mrs. Wilson) continued for a number of years longer to make flags for the United States Government; and afterwards when from conscientious motives she gave up the business of the government, she (Mrs. Wilson) continued to carry on flag making for the mercantile marine until the year 1857.
Elizabeth Claypoole died January 30th, 1836 in the house No. 63 Cherry Street (above 5th) Philadelphia, occupied by her son-in-law Caleb H. Canby, at the advanced age of 84 years, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, beloved and respected by all who had ever known her, but having outlived many of those with whom she had mingled in the active duties of her energetic life. Her remains were interred by the side of her husband in the above mentioned burial ground, where they have remained until recently, when they were, with her husband's, removed to the Mount Moriah Cemetery near Philadelphia.
As an example of industry, energy and perseverance, and of humble reliance upon providence, though all the trials, which were not few, of her eventful life, the name of Elizabeth Claypoole is worthy of being placed on record for the benefit of those who should be similarly circumstanced. Not only did she conduct with ability and skill her arduous business; but she was one of those women, whose hearts, like the magnet to its pole, always turned towards poverty, sickness and sorrow, and lent itself to the alleviations of every distress; till she became, amongst her neighbors, like a kind shepherdess amidst her sheep, looked up to and beloved by all. Her prescriptions, which were not always the most regular, though safe, and often very useful, were sought after more eagerly than those of the Pharmacopoeist; and, as a nurse by the bedside of sickness, her abilities and usefulness were generally acknowledged.
Published October 10/20/11
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