Skip to comments.Flag Day - What did the first "Stars & Stripes" flag look like ?
Posted on 06/14/2004 10:00:43 AM PDT by XRdsRev
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."
For over 200 years there has been debate on what this first flag design looked like and where it was originally flown. Unfortunately, fact mixed with legend has clouded the issue and even at the present day, there is no definitive answer. Recently, historians have generally conceded that credit for the design proposal of the first official American flag, most likely belongs to Francis Hopkinson, a Continental Congressman from New Jersey. While Betsy Ross is often credited with designing and sewing the first American flag, this is based largely on unsubstantiated legend. Factual information combined with circumstantial historical evidence, seems to discount this Ross version of the flag story.
While it is clear that the first flag had the 13 alternating stripes we are familiar with, historians disagree on the type and orientation of the stars in the "new constellation". It is likely that we will never know for certain what the stars in the first flag looked like or how they were arranged and it is possible that the first flags were of different designs owing to "artistic license" used by the various seamstresses who made them.
Legend has it that Betsy Ross convinced Continental authorities to use five pointed stars and to arrange them in a circle on the blue field. In 1784, when Charles Wilson Peale painted "Washington at the Battle of Princeton", he included five point stars on the American flag. While it is probable that there was no "Stars & Stripes" at the actual battle (January 3, 1777), the painting does seem to indicate that five point stars were used on flags by at least 1784. Peale also painted another image of Washington about 1782, "Washington at Yorktown" distinctly shows a circle of six pointed stars on the American flag. Based on the date and circustances associated with this painting, it seems likely that in 1781, six-pointed stars arranged in a circle, was the flag design associated with Washington's Army. The six pointed star was used on what is believed to have been Washington's personal headquarters flag and John Trumbull's paintings of Saratoga and Yorktown also show six pointed stars arranged in a square fashion with one in the center of the field.
Several American flags are purported to have Revolutionary War provenance that infers they were the "first" flags used in 1777. Unfortunately, it is difficult if not impossible to firmly establish the accuracy of these assertions or to seperate fact from fiction. There is however one piece of hard evidence that sheds new light on the design of an early American flag.
During the winter of 1778-1779, the Main Continental Army under George Washington established its winter encampment near Middlebrook, New Jersey. Over 8000 infantry and artillery soldiers spent about 6 months at this location. The Continental artillery park was located at Pluckemin, New Jersey, several miles north of the infantry camps. At this location, the artillerists built barracks for almost 1000 men and established a depot, repair facilities and an academy for artillery officers. This encampment was abandoned by the Army in June 1779. In the 1980's, archaeological excavations by Rutgers University exposed remains of the "Artillery Park" and recovered thousands of artifacts.
Two artifacts found at Pluckemin have changed the view of the early American flag and it's use by the Continental Army. These were decorative belt tips which probably adorned the ends of officer's "over the shoulder" leather sword belts. Each of these belt tips is hand engraved and bear almost identical designs of a cannon, flag staff and flag, a motif very similar to that found on American artillery buttons of the period. These belt tips had never been seen before and their use by the American army was previously unknown. What made them all the more spectacular was the fact that they both showed a new orientation of the stars on the field of the American flag, five stars, over three stars, over five stars.
ARTILLERY OFFICER'S SWORD BELT TIP -Pluckemin Archaeological Project
These belt tips were the earliest known artifacts to clearly show the American flag. It is believed that they were engraved by a Philadelphia silversmith who records show, was called to the camp in early 1779. If indeed this is true, it is probable that he engraved the flag design based on what the army was actually using in camp at the time.
While this does not tell us exactly what the 1777 flag was supposed to look like, it does prove to us that the Continental Army was using the "Stars & Stripes" flag by 1779 and the star orientation (constellation) was of a different type than previously thought. The earliest provable American flag design was 13 stars laid out in rows of five, three, five. Since the discovery of the artillery belt tips at Pluckemin, two more have been discovered. One was found in a mid-1779 Continental artillery campsite in southern New York State and the other was found at a Colonial era house site in Central Virginia where it was likely lost about 1781.
Below is my suppositional design of the "Middlebrook" flag. I use the term Middlebrook since that is the overall name of the encampment for which the Pluckemin Artillery Park was part of. I surmise that the flag design used at Pluckemin was used by the rest of the Army as well and therefore should be referred to by the generic encampment name.
The thirteen stripes are based on the flag act and artwork of the period. The orientation of the stars is based on that found on the excavated belt tips and the six pointed stars themselves are based on those found on Washington's Revolutionary War headquarters flag and period artwork.
Suppositional "MIDDLEBROOK FLAG" design by Ernest R. Bower
I love Old Glory, but I think we should have stuck with the colonaial era flag with the snake on it, 'Don't tread on me.'