Betsy Ross and the American Flag

Was This Her House?

There is almost no doubt that as of 1785, Betsy Ross and her third husband, John Claypoole, lived on the north side of Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets, which is the present location of the Betsy Ross House. Although it cannot be definitively established, the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Betsy Ross lived either in the house which is now 239 Arch Street or at 241 Arch Street, now the garden of the Betsy Ross House.

In attempting to establish whether Betsy Ross lived at the site which is now the Betsy Ross House, (presently numbered 239-245 Arch Street), one may begin with the earliest Philadelphia city directories, published in 1785. Prior to that date, the only record of Philadelphia residents were the militia and tax rolls. Unfortunately, these records listed only property owners and neither Betsy Ross nor any of her three husbands owned property.

The earliest city directories were published in 1785 by Frances White and John MacPherson. These directories were used from 1785 until 1791 when they were replaced by a new directory, using a different numbering system. Under the crude system utilized by White, the entry for John Claypoole in 1785 was:

    "Claypoole, John, upholsterer, Arch b. Second and Third Streets."

Unlike White, MacPherson assigned numbers to the location in his directory. He assigned numbers to locations on east-west streets such as Arch Street, by beginning at southeast corner of Front Street and numbering consecutively westward to the last location; he continued numbering eastward along the north side of the street to the northwest corner of Front. Thus, between the years 1785 and 1791, the locations between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch were numbered from 329 to 353. John Claypoole is listed in the MacPherson directory as:

"Claypoole, John, Upholsterer, 335 Arch Street"

As the 1785 directories placed the location of Betsy Ross and John Claypoole on the north side of Arch Street between Second and Third Streets, they support the fact that Betsy Ross once occupied the present Betsy Ross House which is also on the north side of Arch between Second and Third. More precisely, one might question whether the house numbered "335 Arch" (the Ross-Claypoole residence in 1785) under the MacPherson numbering system corresponds with the locations numbered "239-245 Arch Street" which comprise the Betsy Ross House today.

The answer is somewhat complicated because the numbering system used today, which assigns the numbers "239-245 Arch Street" to the Betsy Ross House, was not instituted until 1857. Prior to that time two different systems were used. From 1785 to 1791 the above-described MacPherson system was in effect and, as above noted, Betsy Ross occupied "335 Arch." From 1791 to 1857 a second system was used. In 1791 Col. Clement Biddle published a directory that replaced the MacPherson directory. Biddle used the system of numbering houses alternatively from one side of the street to the other, increasing from east to west, as is done today. However, whereas today the numbers between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch range from 205 to 249, under Biddle's 1791 system which was in effect until 1857, the numbers ranged from 57 to 99.

To determine whether the Claypoole residence in 1785, then numbered "335 Arch Street," corresponds with the present site of the Betsy Ross House, one must determine first, the numbers assigned to the Betsy Ross House under the Biddle system from 1791-1857, and second, whether that number or numbers correspond with the location numbered "335 Arch Street" in the MacPherson directory. One might focus on determining the corresponding numbers of the house at the Betsy Ross House, presently numbered 239 Arch Street.

The location now numbered "239 Arch Street" was numbered "89 Arch Street" under Col. Biddle's 1791 system. No historian disputes this. The fact is confirmed by a photograph of the tailor shop of "P.H. Mund" with a shop numbered "87" to the right and a shop numbered "93" two doors to the left. A chain of title report prepared by the Philadelphia Historical Commission shows Philip Mund as owner of the shop located at what is presently numbered 239 Arch Street as early as 1866.

The question, therefore, becomes whether the "335 Arch Street" of 1785 corresponds with the "89 Arch Street" of 1791. It is not helpful to look for the Claypooles at 89 Arch Street in the 1791 directory as the Claypooles had moved from Arch Street to a home on Second Street near Dock Street by that date. Therefore, John Claypoole is listed in the 1791 directory as 80 So. Second Street and the individual listed at 89 Arch Streeet is "Thomas Carmalt."

There is evidence, however, that Betsy Ross did occupy the location numbered 89 Arch Street. In a sworn statement dated July 31, 1891, Betsy Ross' daughter, Rachael Claypoole Fletcher, stated:

    "[The house in which my mother made the flag] was on the north side of Arch Street, a few doors below Third Street, above Bread Street, a two story house, with attic and a dormer window, now standing, the only one of the row left, the old number being 89; it was formerly occupied by Daniel Niles, shoemaker. Mother at first lived at the house next east, and when the war came, she moved into the house of Daniel Niles."

Despite the seriousness with which a Quaker, such as Rachael Fletcher, might have taken an oath, the reliability of this affidavit has been challenged on the ground of faulty recollection and self-interest. Not content to rest on the Fletcher affidavit, others have suggested that the house occupied by Betsy Ross was in fact 233 Arch Street (old number 83) [Joseph Jackson, "Arch Street's Place in the Annals of Old Philadelphia," Public Ledger, Nov. 30, 1913] or 221 Arch Street (old number 71). ["Flag House or Not, Who Knows?", North American, December 29, 1899]

One might independently determine whether number "335 Arch" of 1785 corresponds with number "89 Arch" of 1791 by examining the individuals listed between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch during this six year period. One can arrive at a rough correspondence of numbers by finding an individual who remained stationary from 1785 through 1791, thus appearing in both directories. One then counts the number of houses between the Claypoole location (335 Arch) and the stationary individual in 1785 and then counts this number in the same direction from the stationary individual's residence in 1791.

The 1785 MacPherson directory [Taken from George Canby's copy of the 1785 MacPherson directory. In 1785 Arch Street was alternately known as Mulberry Street.] and the 1791 Biddle directory list the following entries for the site between Second and Fourth Streets on Arch.

    1785 MacPherson
    Midway between 3rd & 4th north side of Arch
    324 - Heysham, William
    325 - Wilcox, Alexander
    326 - Bushell, John
    327 - Ashburn, Leslie
    328 - no entry
    Third Street
    329 - Dorsey, Leonard
    330 - no entry
    331 - Gardin, John
    332 - Buchard, Andrew
    333 - Cummins, Neil
    334 - Germon, John
    335 - Claypoole, John
    336 - Ford Widow
    337 - No entry
    338 - Harvey, Sampson
    339 - Sellers, William
    340 - No entry
    341 - No entry
    342 - Benton Widow
    343 - No entry
    344 - Owen, George
    345 - Crysler, Jacob
    1791 Biddle
    Midway between 3rd & 4th north side of Arch
    107 - William Heysham
    105 - Alexander Wilcocks
    103 - John Gibbons
    101 - Lesley H. Eastburn
    Third Street
    99 - William Ashby
    97 - James Wilson
    95 - William Niles
    93 - Jonathan Worrell
    91 - Frederick Wing
    89 - Thomas Carmalt
    87 - Mary Smith
    85 - William Montgomery
    83 - William Sellers
    81 - Joshua Howell
    79 - Ann Vaux
    77 - Joseph B. McKean, Esq.
    75 - James Lewis
    73 - Georqe Gideon
    71 - Jacob Christler

Comparison of these lists shows that several occupants remained in the same location between 1785 and 1791. William Heysham appears in both lists at 324 Arch Street in 1785 and, in 1791, 107 Arch. Lesley Ashburn, listed at 327 Arch in the 1784 directory, no doubt corresponds with Lesley Eastburn at 101 Arch in the 1791 directory. Alexander Wilcox is listed at 325 Arch in the 1783 and Alexander Wilcocks is listed at 105 Arch in 1791. Similarly, William Sellers, at 339 Arch in the 1785 directory, appears in the 1791 directory at 83 Arch.

The best candidate for fixing the 1791 number of 335 Arch is William Sellers, as he is the closest to that location. Between 339 Arch and 335 Arch in 1785 are four locations. Counting four locations westward from the Sellers site, 83 Arch, in 1791, one arrives at 91 Arch Street. It is reasonably certain, moreover, that Sellers remained in the same location between 1785 and 1791. The census report of Philadelphia head of families [Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.] shows that in 1790 William Sellers lived between Joshua Howell and William Montgomery, as he did in 1791. The 1790 census date was no doubt compiled between 1789 and 1790. This comparison of the 1791 and 1785 directories, therefore, places the site that Betsy Ross occupied in 1785, at 91 Arch Street under the 1791 directory. This site was renumbered 241 Arch under the system used today; 241 Arch Street is presently the garden of the Betsy Ross House.

This conclusion must be treated with some caution, however. There is no certainty that the number of houses between numbers 339 Arch and 335 Arch in 1785 is the same number of houses between 83 Arch and 91 Arch in 1791. The MacPherson directory is extremely imprecise. MacPherson not only assigned numbers to houses but to stables and outhouses as well. In addition, he made provisions for "the numbers of houses that probably will be built upon improved lots within the boundaries." [emphasis supplied]. The possibility remains, therefore, that number "335 Arch" of 1785 corresponds with a location to the immediate east or west of 91 Arch (today 241 Arch) including 89 Arch Street (239 Arch Street today). It is also possible, as Rachael Fletcher indicated in her 1871 statement, that Betsy Ross lived at more than one location on Arch Street — perhaps occupying both 91 and 89 Arch Street (241 and 239 Arch Streets, respectively, today).

The system of finding an individual who remained in the same location between 1785 and 1791 has been used by others to show that the Claypoole site at 335 Arch corresponds with 83 Arch Street in 1791, subsequently 233 Arch. One historian [Joseph Jackson, see earlier] chose Alexander Wilcox as the stationary figure. Wilcox is listed at 325 Arch in the 1785 directory and at 105 Arch in the 1791 directory. This historian counted ten locations between 325 and 335, the Claypoole site, in 1785. He then counted ten locations from 105 Arch in the 1791 directory and, apparently skipping number 87, arrived at number 83. However, number 83 in 1791 quite clearly corresponds with number 339 Arch, not 335 Arch, in 1785. This can be established by noting that, as discussed above, William Sellers, occupant of number 339 in 1785, remained at the same location in 1791. The listing for Sellers in 1791 is 83 Arch Street. Therefore, that writer must be in error. Moreover, because MacPherson's directory was overinclusive, it is unlikely that the number of listed locations between 325 and 335 Arch, a distance that crosses Third Street, would remain the same in the 1791 directory; it is more likely that the number of locations listed in the 1791 directory, which did not include stables, outhouses and prosppective buildings, decreased.

This analysis undermines the contention that Betsy Ross occupied the house located at 221 Arch Street. [See North American, December 1899, see above.] With little more to support it than an affidavit by an individual in 1899 stating that in 1876 "everyone knew that the Betsy Ross house was at number 221," this theory places the Claypoole site far to the east of the location indicated by the 1785 and 1791 directories. Moreover, if one examines the city directories and attempts to find the 1785 location of what is now 221 Arch Street the contention can be disproved. Number 221 Arch Street of today corresponds not with number 335 Arch Street (the Claypoole listing) of 1785 but with number 345. Number 221 Arch corresponds with number 71 Arch of 1791. In the Biddle directory of that year, the listing for 71 Arch is:
    "Jacob Christler, Shopkeeper"
The 1785 directory shows at 345 Arch:
    "Jacob Crysler"

One can confirm the identity of "Jacob Crysler" with "Jacob Christler" through an analysis similar to that used above in determining the 1791 number of 335 Arch Street. 83 Arch Street in 1791, the residence of William Sellers, corresponds with 339 Arch in 1785. There are six locations between 83 Arch and 71 Arch, the residence of Jacob Christler. Counting six locations eastward from the 1785 equivalent to 83 Arch — 339 Arch — one arrives at 345 Arch, the residence of Jacob Crysler. Number 221 Arch Street was owned and occupied by the Christler family from June 8, 1761 until December 2, 1826. 221 Arch Street, therefore, was not the 1785 residence of the Claypooles who occupied 335 Arch, but of Jacob Chrysler, who occupied 345 Arch.

The contemporary historical evidence, therefore, shows that the Claypoole residence of 1785, "335 Arch Street," is now located at either 239 Arch Street or 241 Arch Street. It becomes clear when the search of directories, the affidavits and other evidence has been analyzed that no evidence exists which belies the conclusion that the site of the Betsy Ross House is the location where Betsy Ross lived when she made the first flag of the United States.

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