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Image: Idaho Mountain Express.

How does our history get made? More often than not through stories. When we get information showing that the stories are not quite accurate, we learn to tell new stories. One of my most squeamish story narrations occurred when I had visitors from China at Thanksgiving and they were asking a lot of questions about what we call the First Thanksgiving. That happened to me nearly 20 years ago. It was a kind of turning point, when I knew I had to start cleaning up my stories.

Today’s article is about finding original documentation that confirms details learned about Betsy Ross years after the flag legend took flight.

Natalie Pompilio writes at the Washington Post, “It began with an unmarked, unremarkable box tucked in a corner of a garage in California. Inside, under miscellaneous letters and old high school yearbooks, was a smaller shoe box. Inside that, under old coins and a numismatist pamphlet, lay the 240-year-old diary of sailor John Claypoole, a Revolutionary War prisoner of war and later the third husband of the flagmaker known as Betsy Ross.

“ ‘It was wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “John Claypoole diary to be handled with great care,” which was sort of funny as we found it in a paper shoe box in a box in this garage,’ recalled Aileen Edge, who with her husband uncovered the priceless item in her mother’s Marin County home in June 2020.

“In the journal, Claypoole describes his capture by the British while a privateer at sea, being charged with high treason for ‘being found in arms and in open rebellion’ against the king, and his time at Old Mill Prison near Plymouth. He wrote about the hardships of life in captivity; about another inmate’s escape attempt that ended with the man being shot; about watching, in March 1782, as ‘M. Joseph Ashburn departed this life after an illness of about a week which he bore with amazing fortitude & resignation.’

“At the time of his death, Joseph Ashburn was married to Betsy Ross. Her first husband, John Ross, had also died during the war.

“The diary predates Claypoole’s relationship with Ross, so she is not mentioned in it. But the document, and a Claypoole family Bible found around the same time, gives perspective to Ross’s place in the nation’s founding, said Philip Mead, chief historian and curator at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, which put both items on exhibit during the July Fourth weekend. While a transcription of Claypoole’s diary has existed for years, this is proof that what it contained is correct.

“ ‘This really taps into the profound sacrifices she and her family made to create the United States. Whether she created the first flag or not, she certainly helped create the country,’ Mead said.

‘It’s crucial to have the original documents because they are the only unimpeachable sources. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about these great sacrifices, but this confirms it.’

“Two entries in the Claypoole Bible, which has never been documented before, further emphasize the family’s commitment to the American experiment. The first notes the Ross-Claypoole union: ‘John Claypoole and Elizabeth were married the 8th day of May in the year of our Lord 1783 and in the 8th year of Independence of the United States of America.’

“The second entry records the birth of a son to John Claypoole’s sister: ‘Alexander Trimble son of James and Clarissa Sidney Trimble Born the 20th of March 1783, 12 minutes before ten o’clock PM (being the day that Hostilities ceased between the United States of America and Great Britain, after a long and cruel war.)’

“ ‘The fact that they give Christian year and the years since independence shows how sacred the country had become to them through their many sacrifices,’ Mead said. ‘Betsy Ross herself didn’t leave much in the way of personal testimony so we have to get at her thinking by reading the words of people close to her or learning about her business from the surviving invoices or accounts.’ …

“Edge’s mother, Claire Canby Keleher, was the famous flagmaker’s great-great-great-granddaughter and fiercely proud of her family’s role in the nation’s birth. … Donating the book to the Museum of the American Revolution in the names of Keleher and her late brother, Wilbur Wood Canby, seemed like the natural thing to do. …

“ ‘My brother and I talked about if one of us kept it, we’d just wrap it up and keep it safe and what’s really gained by that?’ Edge asked. …

“Some important details of who Betsy Ross was and what she did during the American Revolution remain murky. The story that appears in elementary school books holds that in 1776, Gen. George Washington, then commander of the Continental Army, went to Ross’s shop in Philadelphia with a sketch for a new flag. …

“Those who doubt the first flag story note there are no diaries, newspaper accounts or letters showing that Washington sought out Ross’s skills or that the pair knew each other. There’s no mention of Ross in founding documents. Her connection to the flag was unknown until her grandson wrote a book about the family’s story in the 1870s.

“Supporters say that Ross’s grandson had no reason to lie and that he presented sworn affidavits from family members testifying they’d grown up hearing the family tale.

“In 2014, curators at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate found a receipt for bed furnishings paid to a Mr. Ross of Philadelphia dated 1774, proving Washington and Ross were acquainted. …

“Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who originated the phrase ‘well-behaved women seldom make history,’ has long dismissed the first flag story, but she’s excited by the information found in the Claypoole Bible and diary.

“ ‘I love the fact that the emphasis now is not on a piece of needlework or an artifact but on the person and the larger context that the American Revolution required sacrifices,’ she said.“

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Library of Congress.
140th U.S. Flag Day poster. 1777-1917. The birthday of the stars and stripes, June 14th, 1917.

Did you know that today is Flag Day? For me, the US flag belongs to everyone who resides here and not to any small ideological group. (Does it happen in other countries that a rabid coterie usurps “ownership” of the national flag?)

I decided to write about the history of this day so you’ll know what’s going on if you see a lot of flags around town today.

Wikipedia says, “In the United States, Flag Day is celebrated on June 14. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777, by resolution of the Second Continental Congress, [which] stated: ‘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.’ …

“In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; on August 3, 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. … However, it is at the president’s discretion to officially proclaim the observance. On June 14, 1937, Pennsylvania became the first U.S. State to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday, beginning in the town of Rennerdale. New York Statutes designate the second Sunday in June as Flag Day, a state holiday.

“Perhaps the oldest continuing Flag Day parade is in Fairfield, Washington. Beginning in 1909 or 1910, Fairfield has held a parade every year since, with the possible exception of 1918, and celebrated the ‘Centennial’ parade in 2010, along with some other commemorative events. Appleton, Wisconsin, claims to be the oldest National Flag Day parade in the nation, held annually since 1950.

“Quincy, Massachusetts, has had an annual Flag Day parade since 1952 and claims it ‘is the longest-running parade of its kind’ in the U.S.,” but it didn’t happen in the pandemic.

The Patriot Ledger of May 5, 2021, wrote, “The city’s annual Flag Day celebration is back on for this year, with a few minor adjustments. 

“Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said the much-loved parade will take place once again this June, but the annual flag raising ceremony has been canceled and fireworks have been moved to Quincy Bay. The parade will follow its usual route starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 12 and Koch said all of its usual participants have been asked to join in on the fun.

” ‘It may not be as robust as years past based on if our usual groups are ready, but I do expect we will have a decent parade,’ Koch said. ‘And by putting the fireworks in the bay, it spreads everybody out. At Black’s Creek, it’s hard to see them if you aren’t right there.’ 

“The city was forced to cancel its annual Flag Day parade in what would have been its 69th year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The tradition did not completely fall to the wayside, and the Flag Day Committee planned a ‘drive under the flag’ event that gave the city an opportunity to make use of its 30-by-50-foot American flag. The giant flag was hoisted by two Quincy Fire Department ladder trucks on Merrymount Parkway near Veterans Memorial Stadium, and residents drove under it with decorated vehicles cars, vans, small trucks and bikes.

“Koch said parade viewers this year will be encouraged to wear masks when they can’t socially distance.”

A WW II veteran I knew and generally admired once spoke of “fighting for the flag” as literally fighting for the flag. People died for the flag, he said. He did not understand about the literary term metonymy, in which an object is used to represent a concept, like referring to the British monarch as “the Crown.” I tried to say that a country’s flag represents the country and is not literally what people die for. He didn’t see it that way.

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