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Rediscovering Betsy Ross’ bones

Painting by Edward Percy Moran (c. 1917) depicting the story of Betsy Ross presenting the first American flag to General George Washington.  From Wikipedia

Painting by Edward Percy Moran (c. 1917) depicting the story of Betsy Ross presenting the first American flag to General George Washington. From Wikipedia

Betsy Ross was a talented seamstress and upholsterer who was widely believed to have made the first American flag. She was also an 18th century entrepreneur who made supplies for the American soldiers during the Revolution and lost two of her three husbands during the war. In preparation for the country’s 200th anniversary, the Betsy Ross Foundation and her descendants wanted to exhume her grave and rebury her remains in the courtyard of her historic home, where it was believed she sewed the first flag. But when a team of excavators dug under her grave marker in December of 1975 there was nothing at the bottom.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole (January 1, 1752-January 30, 1836) was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 1, 1752.  Betsy had three husbands: John Ross, Joseph Ashburn, and John Claypoole.  Her first two husbands, John Ross and Joseph Ashburn, were killed during the American Revolution.  Betsy was a professionally trained upholsterer who repaired uniforms, made tents and blankets, and prepared musket ball ammunition cartridges for the troops during the war.  Betsy owned and operated an upholstery business in Philadelphia until she retired in 1827 at the age of 75 years old.  But she is best known for sewing first American flag, a claim that is now debated.

The “Betsy Ross flag” with 13 stars and red and white stripes. Image credit: jacobolus on Wikipedia.

The story that Betsy Ross was the creator the first American flag originated with her grandson, William Canby, who presented a paper about how his grandmother made the flag to the Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1870.  According to Canby, General George Washington visited his grandmother in the spring of 1776 to commission her to sew the “stars and stripes” flag.  The “Betsy Ross flag” was designed with alternating red and white stripes and a circle of 13 five-pointed stars against a blue background.  The flag was originally supposed to have six-pointed stars but Betsy suggested five-pointed stars because they were easier to make.  Canby’s assertion was based on stories told to him by his family members, including Betsy’s daughters, who all signed affidavits

Those who don’t believe Ross created the first flag argue there are no records to back up the Canby’s claim. There were also a few other flag makers working for the patriot cause in the Philadelphia area during this time that could have made the first flag.

Those who believe that Ross made this “stars and stripes” flag say that Betsy was known to have sewn flags for the fledgling country during and after the Revolution.  George Washington is known to have been in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776, when Ross’ family say she was visited by the general.  Also any documentation about who made the first flag has been lost or destroyed, so this lack of evidence cannot disprove the Canby story.

In 1836 at the age of 84-years-old, Betsy Ross died and was buried with her third husband in the Free Quaker burial ground in the center of Philadelphia.  When the city of Philadelphia purchased this cemetery 20 years later, the remains of Betsy Ross and John Claypoole were moved to the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

In 1975, the Betsy Ross Foundation and Betsy Ross’ descendants petitioned to have her grave exhumed and her remains reburied in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House, which had been turned into a historical landmark.  The Betsy Ross Foundation hired physical anthropologist Dr. Alan Mann, who was then at the University of Pennsylvania, to supervise the project.

Mann and his team of excavators began the exhumation under Betsy’s grave marker at Mount Moriah on Monday, December 15, 1975.  When they reached the bottom of the plot they found nothing.  When the team dug a few feet away from the marker they found a coffin that contained the bones of a male, who Mann believed was either Betsy’s grandson or great-grandson.  At the time, Mann was worried that he would be held responsible for misplacing Betsy Ross’ bones.

“Just what I need,” Mann told reporters at the end of the first day.  “Getting blamed for losing Betsy Ross.”1

Mann would have better luck the next day.  On December 16, 1975, he dug a little further away and unearthed two boxes.  The remains of a male were in the larger box, and the remains of an elderly female were in the smaller box.  According to Mann, these were the bones of Betsy Ross and her third husband John Claypoole because “evidence found at the grave site exactly matches reports” from Betsy’s reburial in 1856.  But none of the newspaper accounts say exactly what this evidence was.

“There’s no question about this one,” he told the press.  “All indications point to this one.  It was a great distance away from the grave marker, but it was put up in 1923 and that’s 70 years after she was moved to this cemetery.”2

Mann could only rely on historical records and a physical examination of the bones to establish a presumptive identification, which meant he could not say with any scientific certainty that the remains he found belonged to Betsy Ross.  Only DNA testing could positively identify the body and that was not available to Mann at the time.

The grave of Betsy Ross and her 3rd husband John Claypoole at the Betsy Ross House. Image credit: Jim, the Photographer on Flickr.

Betsy Ross and John Claypoole were eventually reburied in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House.


Works Cited

“Betsy Ross bones being moved again.” (1975, December 21). The Montana Standard.

“Searchers sure they found Betsy Ross’ body.” (1975, 17 December). The Argus.


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