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The National Colors

The first official American flag, the Continental or Grand Union flag, was displayed on Prospect Hill, January 1, 1776, in the American lines besieging Boston. It had thirteen alternate red and white stripes, with the British Union Jack in the upper left corner. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the design for a new flag, which actually was the Continental flag, with the Red Cross of St. George and the White Cross of St. Andrew replaced on the blue field by thirteen stars, one for each state. No rule was made as to the arrangement of the stars, and while they were usually shown in a circle, there were various other designs.  It is uncertain when the new flag was first flown, but its first official announcement is believed to have been on September 3, 1777.

The first public assertion that Betsy Ross made the first Stars and Stripes appeared in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on March 14, 1870, by William J. Canby, a grandson. However, Mr. Canby on later investigation found no official documents of any action by Congress on the flag before June 14,1777. Betsy Ross’ own story, according to her daughter, was that George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, as representatives of Congress, visited her in Philadelphia in June 1776, showing her a rough draft of the flag and asking her if she could make one. However, the only actual record of the manufacture of flags by Betsy Ross is a voucher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for 14 pounds and some shillings for flags for the Pennsylvania Navy.

On January 13, 1794, Congress voted to add two stars and two stripes to the flag in recognition of the admission of Vermont and Kentucky to the union. The fifteen-star, fifteen-stripe flag, made by Mary Young Pickersgill, was raised over the ramparts of Fort McHenry, Maryland, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that is now our National Anthem, “Star-Spangled Banner,” on September 14, 1814.  By 1818, there were twenty states in the Union, and as it was obvious that the flag would soon become unwieldy, Congress voted April 18, 1818, to return to the original thirteen stripes and to indicate the admission of a new state simply by the addition of a star the following July 4. Two stars were added July 4, 1912, for New Mexico and Arizona. President Eisenhower signed a bill on July 7, 1958, to make Alaska the 49th state, and on August 21, 1959, Hawaii, the 50th state, was officially admitted to the Union.