Date: January 5, 2006
Byline: Diane Villano
The Frankford flag-maker
Memories of a third-grade field trip to Betsy Ross' house and the 13-star flag are about all that most people can recall about this Philadelphia founding mother.
What might come as a surprise to many is ol' Betsy's connection to the Frankford area of the city.
Born Jan. 1, 1752, Elizabeth, known as Betsy to family and friends, was the eighth of 17 children of carpenter Samuel Griscom, who helped build the bell tower at Independence Hall, and Rebecca James, a member of a prominent Quaker family.
Griscom and James streets are both named for these prominent Frankford families.
Debbie Klak, president of the Historical Society of Frankford, recalled being dumbfounded when she saw the Griscom family tree on display at the Betsy Ross House.
"When I went there just last summer, I said, 'Holy mackerel, look at all these Frankford names!'" she said.
Betsy Ross' earliest Frankford roots even predate William Penn's arrival in the New World, according to Patricia G. Coyne, former regent of the Flag House Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. She also has been Southeast district director of the Pennsylvania State Society of the DAR.
While researching Ross' genealogy, Coyne found that Betsy's great-grandfather was Thomas Chalkley, a renowned Quaker preacher who had a plantation in what then was the village of Frankford.
"I knew Betsy came from Frankford, but I didn't realize that she went back to Chalkley. She really is ours," Coyne said.
Chalkley's daughter Rebecca married Abel James, and their daughter, Ross' mother Rebecca, married Samuel Griscom. Her great-grandfather on her father's side built Philadelphia's first brick house.
When Betsy was just 3, her family moved from their New Jersey farmhouse — believed to have been located where the base of the Walt Whitman Bridge now stands — to a large home at Fourth and Arch streets.
Betsy went to work as an upholsterer's apprentice, where she met and fell in love with John Ross, the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church in Philadelphia.
Quakers believed so strongly against interfaith marriages that they were grounds for being "read out," or cut off emotionally and financially, from one's family. Just the same, in 1773, 21-year-old Betsy eloped with John Ross across the Delaware River, heading to Jersey and Hugg's Tavern in Gloucester County, where they were married.
No longer able to attend Quaker services, Betsy would sit in pew 12 of Christ Church with her husband. George Washington also joined the congregation from time to time, sitting in an adjacent pew.
The couple began an upholstery shop but business soon slowed, because of the war, so John Ross joined the Pennsylvania militia. While guarding a munitions stash, he was severely wounded and subsequently died of his injuries on Jan. 21, 1776.
In the late spring of that year, his young widow was visited by George Washington, Col. George Ross — uncle of her late husband — and Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution and the gent whom Morrisville, Pa., was named for.
Although events are still disputed, it was this meeting that led to the sewing of the nation's first flag.
After her husband's death, Ross joined the Free or "Fighting" Quakers, a sect that supported the war effort.
On June 15, 1777, at Old Swedes Episcopal Church, Betsy married her second husband, sea captain Joseph Ashburn. That winter, their home was forcibly shared with British soldiers whose army occupied Philadelphia.
The couple had two daughters, Zillah, who died in her youth, and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Ashburn was captured by the British en route to procure supplies from the West Indies for the Revolutionary War. Imprisoned in England, he died in March 1782.
Betsy learned of her husband's death from John Claypoole, an old friend who had lived in Frankford and a sailor who'd been imprisoned with Ashburn. She and Claypoole were married in May 1783 and had five daughters.
Betsy's sister Sarah lived in Frankford, and upon Sarah's death from yellow fever in 1893, along with the death of Sarah's husband, who succumbed to war wounds, Betsy became a second mother to her sister's family. They affectionately called her "Aunty Claypoole," according to Patricia Coyne.
John Claypoole died in 1817 after a lengthy illness, and Betsy continued to work until her eyesight began to fail her in 1827. Within six years, she was completely blind.
Betsy Ross Ashburn Claypoole died on Jan. 30, 1836.
In 1870, her grandson, William J. Canby, told the Historical Society of Pennsylvania about Washington, Morris and Ross asking his grandmother to make a flag in accordance with a sketch they had with them. That sketch purportedly employed six-pointed stars, but Betsy Ross convinced the group to use five-pointed stars after demonstrating how she could cut them with just one snip of the scissors.
Historians often have rebuked this account, claiming that there isn't sufficient corroboration for the story.
Some historians believe that Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and designer of the treasury seal, great seal and the admiralty seal, designed the flag.
In an April 21, 2004, speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council to promote her book, Founding Mothers, Cokie Roberts said, "...there are others who want to debunk Betsy Ross and the flag, but I actually believe she did it — there's good evidence of it."
John Balderston Harker, a great-great-great grandson of Ross and author of Betsy Ross' Five Pointed Star, agrees.
"The story doesn't begin in 1870," said Balderston Harker, who found out he was a Ross descendant in the third-grade while portraying George Washington visiting the Philadelphia upholsterer.
Balderston Harker argues that the Canby speech was essentially already common knowledge in Philadelphia.
"We've also become aware of artwork in 1832 and 1851(that predates the Canby speech,)" Balderston Harker said.
Elizabeth Claypoole was painted in 1832 by Samuel Waldo, a New York City artist, when she was 80.
Nineteen years before Canby's speech, in 1851, Ellie Sully Wheeler painted Betsy Ross presenting a circle-of-stars flag to George Washington, with Robert Morris and her uncle-in-law George Ross looking on.
Balderston Harker also contends that a paper pattern for cutting a five-pointed star was kept in a safe for more than 100 years by a family whose ancestor was a founder of the Free Quakers, a sect that Betsy and her husband belonged to.
The pattern has two names on it — Betsy Ross and her daughter, C (Clarissa Sidney Claypoole) Wilson.
Betsy Ross' Frankford legacy is the Flag House Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, founded in 1903 by Ross' nieces, grand nieces and great-grand nieces, many of whom still have Frankford connections, Klak said.
The Historical Society of Frankford was the site of many of the chapter's early meetings and has served as a repository for its archives.
The chapter supported efforts to sustain the Betsy Ross House as a national monument, and also furnished and maintained Betsy's bedroom. However, historic status was never bestowed on the house because of questions about the flag legend's authenticity.
Balderston Harker hopes that recent evidence contained in his book might persuade historians to take a second look and bestow national historic status upon the Betsy Ross House.
Interestingly enough, the number 3 figured prominently in Betsy Ross' life. The former Elizabeth Griscom held the name Ross for only three years. She was thrice-married, thrice-widowed — and was buried three times, as well. The first time was in the Free Quaker burial ground at South Fifth Street, near Locust. Then she was moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery and now rests in peace along Arch Street, in the courtyard adjacent to the Betsy Ross House. ••
For more information about the Flag Chapter of the DAR, check out http://mfdar.home.comcast.net/
John Balderston Harker will offer a presentation and discussion on his book, "Betsy Ross' Five Pointed Star" (Canmore Press), at 5:30 p.m., Feb. 21, at the Society of Free Quakers Meeting House, Fifth and Arch streets.
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