Today in History: The American Flag is Born (1777)

The American flag has evolved a lot since it was first imagined after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. There is some debate when the “first” national flag was conceived. The Continental Colors is often considered the first American flag, and that was conceived when the United States didn’t really exist, but was instead called the United Colonies.

The Continental Colors flag was first used in December of 1775, but was only in use forĀ a little over a year. The reasons behind this are many. First and foremost, as you see from the image below, the Continental Colors flag included the British flag in the upper left corner. It was considered too derivative for some in the United Colonies, especially when they were fighting for their independence.

Illustration of the Continental Colors, used 1775-1777. Wikipedia

Another reason the Continental Colors flag ceased to be used was that it looked almost identical to the flag flown on the ships of the East India Company, with only the number of stripes on the flag of the EIC being different (it ranged from 9 to 15).

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the first original national flag. The resolution states “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

The new flag was flown for the first time on August 3, 1777 at Fort Stanwix (which was called Fort Shuyler at the time). However it isn’t the traditional first flag that many think of. The Flag Resolution of 1777 did not specify what how the stars in the blue canton of the flag should be arranged, simply that there should be 13 of them to represent the number of states in the Union. That led to there being some differentiation in the flags that were used during that time.

In fact, in some flags that were flown at the time, the stripes weren’t only red and white, but also blue. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams mention in writings that the American Flag includes blues stripes as well as red and white.

Traditionally, Betsy Ross is seen as the creator of the first true American Flag, however that isn’t true at all. Francis Hopkinson, a singer of the Declaration of Independence, is most often credited with the design of the American Flag (seen below), though the number of stripes on his designs varied depending on the print of the flag.

The First National Flag of the United States. Designed by Francis Hopkinson 1777. Wikipedia

The story of the creation of the first American Flag has been lost to history, as far as we know. The descendants of Betsy Ross propagated a story that she created and sewed the first flag after receiving a sketch from George Washington. There is absolutely no evidence of this at all.

We know that Hopkinson was the person who designed the flag, but we don’t know who created the first one. The only origin story that holds any credibility is the story of Rebecca Young. It is said that she sewed the first flag that had thirteen stars in a circular pattern in the canton. Her daughter designed the Star Spangled Banner, which was used in 1812 and was the inspiration behind the “Star Spangled Banner” song which later became the National Anthem.

June 14th is Flag Day in the United States, regardless of who actually created the first American Flag. The journey of the American Flag evolved many times between 1777 and 2017, most often in response to the inclusion of a new member of the Union. As the US got bigger, so did the number of stars. The Flag has become a symbol of national unity, and that is unlikely to change.