Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who Really Created the First Flag? Betsy Ross, George Washington, or Francis Hopkinson?

Betsy Ross
 (from The History of the First
United States Flag
, 1878)
Betsy Ross is as American as mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet, but is she for real? What would you say if I told you 99.9 percent of Americans never heard of Betsy Ross before 1870?

It’s true.

Elizabeth Ross was an obscure Philadelphia upholsterer and sometimes flag maker, until her grandson, William Canby presented a paper before the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870. The nation was gearing up for the bicentennial celebration when Canby decided to share his grandmother’s story with the world. And, it was just what the nation needed at that time—a female hero.

As it turns out, Betsy Ross wasn’t just a flag maker. She was a storyteller, too. And the story she shared with her children and grandchildren was a whopper that they would never forget.

Here’s the story as Canby tells it.

Somewhere between May 23rd and June 7th, 1777 three members of the Congressional Flag Committee visited Betsy Ross in her upholstery shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia. The committee members included George Washington, Robert Morris, and Colonel George Ross (a member of the Continental Congress, and an uncle of her late husband).

The three men were on a mission to create the new nation’s first official flag, and George Washington himself asked Betsy Ross to make it. The committee already had a design in mind, and showed it to Betsy to get her input.

According to Canby, Betsy replied that “she could try” to make it, but first she had a few suggestions to make it even better. The original design was unsymmetrical, so Betsy suggested a few changes, the most important of which was using a five pointed star instead of the six pointed star designated by the Committee. When questioned about the difficulty of making a five pointed star, Betsy grabbed her shears and quickly cut a five pointed star.

The Committee was impressed and retired to a back room of the crowded upholstery shop to mull over the new design. George Washington himself took charge and drew the new design taking pains to get it just right.

When Washington finished sketching the new flag the members of the Committee hurried off to have a local artist, William Barrett, make a painting for Betsy to work from. Betsy scurried off to visit a local warship so she could examine the ship’s colors and see how they were made.

Betsy Ross Creating Flag (1910 postcard image)
When the painting was done, the Committee members brought it back to Betsy, and she quickly made the new flag. It was accepted the next day, and according to the story, Colonel Ross gave Betsy one hundred pounds to get started making all the flags she could crank out.

So far, so good. The only problem is—there’s no evidence to support the story.

For something so newsworthy, there is no coverage of the story in the local or national press. On June 14, 1777 there is a short one sentence reference to the flag on page 235 of Dunlap’s Journal of Congress. “Resolved that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternately red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars in a blue field representing a new constellation.”

Further research by Canby places George Washington, Robert Morris, and Colonel George Ross in Philadelphia at the stated time. The only thing missing is hard evidence. Nothing points to Betsy Ross as the first flag maker. The journals of the Continental Congress don’t have any record of a Flag Committee. There are no receipts payable to Betsy Ross. Canby counters with the fact that Congress oftentimes formed as many as six committees a day at this time, most of them of which were unrecorded. As further evidence, he says that amidst the turmoil and fighting during that period, making a flag was considered trivial, and not worth mentioning.

Finally, lacking real evidence, Canby included affidavits from Betsy Ross’s daughters, granddaughters, and nieces reciting stories they were told as children.

In truth, it’s a great story—one we all learn in elementary school, but one that very likely will never be proven.

Betsy Ross’s personal story was just as remarkable.

She was born Elizabeth Griscom on January 1st, 1752. She was the eighth of seventeen siblings, and was apprenticed to William Webster as an upholsterer. Betsy met her first husband John Ross while working for Webster. They eloped in 1773 when she was twenty-one. John Ross was a soldier in the Continental army, and died in 1776 during an accidental gunpowder explosion on the Philadelphia waterfront.

A year later she married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor in the Continental Navy. His ship was captured in 1781, and he died the next year in a British prison. She married again in 1783 to John Claypoole. That union lasted thirty-four years until he died of natural causes in 1817.

Betsy Ross lived until 1836, sharing stories of her adventures with her children, grandchildren, and neighbors.

The other claimant to designing the first flag was Francis Hopkinson.

He was born into a wealthy family, graduated from the College of Philadelphia, and went on to become an author, musician, and customs collector. In 1761 he hung out his shingle as a lawyer. He was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, and one of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence.

After the Revolutionary War, Hopkinson served as a member of the Constitutional Convention. In 1789 George Washington appointed him a U S District Judge for Pennsylvania.

He was a consultant to the Great Seal Committee in 1776, and helped to design the Great Seal of the United States. In 1778 Hopkinson designed a fifty dollar Continental currency note, and later a forty dollar note.

His claim to designing the American flag stems from an invoice he submitted to Congress in 1780. It was rejected because he didn’t include any vouchers to back up his expenses.

Similar to Betsy Ross there is no hard evidence to support Hopkinson’s claim as designer of the first American flag.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History

Sunday, April 12, 2015

America's Namesake - Amerigo Vespucci, or Richard Amerike?

Early Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci
Naming a continent is a funny thing.

One man is the acknowledged discoverer of an entire new world, yet by pure chance, it is named after another.

History tells us a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, scribbled America over the country of Brazil on a new map he was working on in 1507. He’d read Vespucci’s account of his discoveries and decided it was a good way to honor the navigator and discoverer of that area.

According to Waldseemüller he wrote the word America across Brazil on the new map because, “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part America, after Amerigo [Vespucci] its discoverer, a man of great ability.”

Over time, the name just sort of stuck.

In 1538, the famed mapmaker Gerardus Mercator extended the name to all of North and South America. From that point on Amerigo Vespucci’s Novus Mundo, or new world, would bear his name.


To further understand how Amerigo Vespucci became the name sake for America we need to delve further into the man and his age.

Amerigo Vespucci was born March 9th, 1454 in Florence, Italy. As a young man he worked as a clerk for Lorenzo de’ Medici. In 1492 he was dispatched to Cadiz, Spain to serve as an agent in that branch. In 1495 Vespucci helped procure supplies for Columbus’s second voyage.

In 1499 Vespucci switched his allegiances and began work for the King of Portugal. He participated in several voyages of discovery. Some say he acted as an observer for the king, other accounts contend he was a navigator on several of the voyages. Whichever account is true, Vespucci was present on several important voyages of discovery.

The voyage of 1501-1502 was the most important, because it convinced Vespucci it was a “new world” they had discovered—not Asia. And, that is one of the key differences between Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus always believed that he had reached the Indies. 

Amerigo Vespucci took a leap of faith and determined he’d reached a new continent, one unknown in Ptolemaic geography.

The second difference between Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus is Vespucci penned a series of letters and books detailing his travels. In his letters Vespucci proclaimed he discovered a new world, one that he named Mundus Novus.

In his pamphlet on the subject Vespucci wrote, “I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa, and, in addition a climate milder and more delightful than in any other region known to us…We knew that land to be a continent and not an island both because it stretches forth in the form of a very long and unbending coast, and because it is replete with infinite inhabitants.”

His descriptions of the natives they encountered were quite detailed down to their marriage customs, sex lives, eating habits, and daily activities. In another of his letters Vespucci wrote, “…they eat little flesh except human flesh…they are so inhuman that they outdo every custom (even) of beasts; for they eat all their enemies whom they kill or capture.”

Many historians insist much of Vespucci’s letters and books were fabricated or written by others, but this much is true: Vespucci’s books became bestsellers all over Europe. They sold better than the works of Columbus, and were much more popular.

The end result is Mundus Novus, or the new world, became Amerigo’s land, or America.

And, that’s the story of how America got its name.

John Cabot and His Three Sons
from The New England Magazine - Feb. 1898
Of course, there is a conflicting claim.

Alfred Hudd, an amateur historian, presented a theory in 1908 that John Cabot was the first explorer to reach North America. Hudd says Cabot sailed past Iceland in 1497 in search of new fishing grounds for Bristol merchants shut out of the Icelandic fishing trade since 1475 when the King of Iceland banned foreign fisherman from fishing in his country’s waters.

According to Hudd, John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497 on the ship Matthew provided by his patron Richard Amerike (AKA Ameryk).

On that voyage Cabot mapped the coastline between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. And, by custom, he further assumed Cabot would have named the new found lands after his patron. Thus, Amerike or Ameryk was twisted into America, and he is the actual namesake of America, not Amerigo Vespucci.

The only evidence Hudd presented to support his theory was a passing glance at a lost manuscript he’d seen years before, an early calendar of local events. Supposedly it recordded that on June 24th, 1497, “the land of America was found by merchants of Bristol” in a Bristol ship, the Matthew.
The only problem is the evidence was supposedly destroyed in a subsequent fire.

That theory received a new breath of life in 2006 in The Book of General Ignorance. Like Hudd’s book the authors claim Cabot mapped the shorelines between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in 1497, ten years before Martin Waldseemüller published his map, and four years before Amerigo Vespucci made his first voyage to the new world.

Sketch Map of John Cabot's voyages in  1497
from The New England Magazine - Feb. 1898
Again, no proof is offered the new land was called America, just the theory that John Cabot would have named any discoveries after his patron.

So there you have it.

America was either named after Amerigo Vespucci because an obscure mapmaker read an account of his voyages and later mapmakers accepted the name, or it was named after a Bristol merchant who sent an expedition in search of new fishing grounds.

At this late date we may as well flip a coin to make the final decision. Heads Amerigo Vespucci, tails Richard Amerike.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Christopher Columbus - Original Discover of America, or Late to the Party?

Parmigiano portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life,
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
One fact we’re all sure of as kids is “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” His destination was the orient. Instead he sailed head on into America landing at Hispaniola (present day Haiti).

That’s what we’ve been taught for hundreds of years. Hell! We even created a special day just to celebrate his discoveries.

Recent scholarship, however, tells a different story about who the actual discoverer of America was.

If the truth be told, Columbus was late for the party.

The actual discoverers may have been the ancient Phoenicians who are supposed to have sailed to America as early as two thousand years ago. Mark McMenamin contends the images on a Phoenician gold coin dating from 350 BC show a horse with a tiny map of the world on it. And, you guessed it—America is pictured in that map. Another piece of evidence is credited to a Sicilian historian, Diodorus, writing in the first century BC, “…in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable size…The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having planted many colonies throughout Africa.”

St. Brendan is an Irish monk who legend has it voyaged to America as early as the sixth century. Of course, Brendan wasn’t looking for America either. He assumed he could sail his way to paradise, and discover heaven on earth. What he found instead was an island so big after forty days of walking he was still unable to cross it. He discovered a “river too wide to be crossed,” a “floating island,” and “an island of fire” that pelted him with rocks.

The best claim to being the original discoverer of the Americas belongs to a Viking sailor named Leif Eriksson. Archaeological evidence suggests the Vikings had a thriving settlement at L’ Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland dating back to 1,000 AD.

Before I go further into the story of the discovery, I feel a compelling need to point out—America was never lost, so in reality it never needed to be found. North America was populated by millions of Native Americans when the first discoverers arrived. In their quest for riches it never occurred to them the original inhabitants may have had a claim to the lands they inhabited.

But that’s a story for another book.

Thevet portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life, 
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
Christopher Columbus (born Christopher Colon) is a complex character. On one hand, he was deeply religious and believed God inspired his voyages of discovery. On the other hand, he was incredibly cruel and allowed the wanton massacre of the native races for the amusement of his men.

After meeting the Arawak natives Columbus wrote in his journal, “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Later as governor of Hispaniola, Columbus set a quota for native workers. If they did not bring him the set amount of gold dust, their hands were chopped off and tied around their necks. Then they were left to wander and suffer until they bled to death. It is recorded that 10,000 unfortunate men, women, and children suffered this fate.

And that is only the start of the atrocities.

Bartolomé de las Casas, traveled with Columbus on his first voyage and later wrote about the atrocities he witnessed on Hispaniola. “They [Columbus’s men] laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man…They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rock.”

Most of what we’re taught about Christopher Columbus is incorrect.

Neither Columbus, nor most of the educated world believed the Earth was flat. The ancient Greeks proved the Earth was spherical as early as the sixth century BC. So all that crap your teacher taught you about the risk Columbus took, and how his ships might fall of the edge of the Earth to certain death. That’s all bullshit.

It is true Columbus had trouble finding backers. Portugal, England, and France all turned him down before Spain ponied up the funding for his first voyage. It’s also true on the first voyage Columbus kept two sets of records: one that was accurate, and one that he shared with his men. In the records he shared with his crew Columbus shortened the distance he traveled, in an attempt to quell dissatisfaction and mutiny. The problem was Columbus misestimated the size of the Earth by about twenty-five percent. Much of the reason for this was he didn’t realize that the continents of North and South America existed.

Here’s another fact not commonly talked about. Columbus’s first voyage to America took 43 days. Conditions for his sailors were pure hell. Most of his men went barefoot the entire voyage, and wore the same clothes home that they started the trip with. Rats shared the decks, sleeping quarters, and food with the crew, and everyone was lice infested.

Jovian portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life, 
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
On Christmas Eve 1492 a cabin boy steered the Santa Maria into a coral reef and wrecked it. Because of that incident Columbus was forced to leave thirty-nine men behind when he returned to Spain. They formed the settlement of La Navidad, the first European colony in America.

Over the next ten years Columbus made three more voyages to America. Contrary to common belief, Columbus never set foot on North America, or understood that he had discovered a new continent. For his entire life Columbus held onto the belief he landed in the Orient. The mistaken belief that he had landed in India caused Columbus to name the native inhabitants indios, later Americanized to Indians.

In 1500, Christopher Columbus, who was then serving as governor of Hispaniola, was arrested and brought back to Spain in chains. The charges were cruelty to the native inhabitants, the execution of rebel Spanish colonists, and mismanagement of the colonies. After a short trial he was found not guilty, and the only real consequence was he lost the governorship of Hispaniola. Whatever, the Spanish crown thought of the charges leveled against Columbus it couldn’t have taken them too seriously. King Ferdinand financed Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502.

Late in his life Columbus wrote a controversial book titled The Book of Prophecies. In it he said God directed his explorations, and proclaimed that the end of the world would soon be at hand. Mysteriously, he took credit for it, saying “he was causing it.”

Whatever, can be said of Columbus, his voyages brought about a new age of discovery and growth. He also ushered in an era of unending cruelty, death, and destruction for the native inhabitants. One can’t help wondering if he had treated the natives differently, would there have been a different outcome in the colonization of the new world.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Andrew Jackson Soldier Politician Bigamist

Here’s the real scoop about Andrew Jackson. He was a soldier, politician, president, and bigamist.

You heard me right—bigamist!

Actually, Jackson’s wife Rachel was the bigamist. The circumstances behind the whole thing were pretty much a comedy of errors, that later came back to bite Jackson in the ass during his 1828 presidential bid.

Here’s the true story of the presidential bigamist.


Andrew Jackson was a man possessed by demons. He had the temper of a saltwater crocodile, was fiercely independent, and quick to pull a gun when angered. History tells us he was a man of the people, but one thing is certain, Jackson lived his life like he was destined for greatness.

Andrew Jackson was born in the Waxhaw settlements of the Carolinas in 1767. He served as a courier in the Revolutionary War and was taken prisoner at age thirteen. The scar on his cheek was put there by the saber of a British officer for refusing to polish his boots.

Albert Gallatin described Jackson as “a tall lank uncouth-looking personage with long locks of hair hanging over his face.” Thomas Jefferson said, “his passions are terrible…he was senator, and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.” Marie Emily Donelson Wilcox described Jackson like this. “Tall, angular, reddish bristling hair, face badly freckled and pock-marked, he was awkward and constrained, unattractive in person and repulsive in manner.”

Of course, how you saw Jackson depended upon the mood you found him in, and he was a man of many moods. To women, children, and his slaves, Jackson was helpful and compassionate. To his enemies and those who crossed him, the general was ruthless. His one saying that best described him was, “to the victor go the spoils.”

Jackson met the love of his life shortly after he moved to Tennessee. Her name was Rachel Donelson Robards, and according to all accounts she was a real beauty. One of her relatives wrote, she “had a sweet oval face rippling with smiles and dimples and bright with intelligence—just the style of beauty irresistible to Jackson’s type.”

At the time Jackson and his friend Judge Overton boarded in a cabin owned by Rachel’s mother, Mrs. John Donelson. Rachel and her mother lived in the cabin next door, and the two soon struck up a friendship.

There are two sides to every story.

Rachel was recently separated from her husband, Lewis Robards. According to Rachel, Robards had a violent temper and was physically abusive. Lewis Robards said he came back to claim his wife and found her cavorting with Andrew Jackson.

Robards applied to the Legislature of Virginia for a divorce on December 20th, 1790. Fearing Robards might come after her the couple made their way to Natchez, Mississippi where they were married in the spring of 1791.

In 1793 during a visit to Jonesborough Jackson learned that the divorce wasn’t finalized until September 27th, 1793. Shortly after that Andrew Jackson and Rachel Robards resaid their vows before a justice of the peace on January 18th, 1794.

End of story.

It was the end of the story for thirty-four years until the Presidential campaign of 1828. Unfortunately for Jackson and John Quincy Adams the campaign brought a whole new wave of mudslinging, dirty tricks, and outlandish claims to politicking.

No one knows for sure who started it.

Bad feelings lingered from the campaign of 1824. Jackson was sure John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay stole the election from him. Jackson received the majority of the electoral votes, but political maneuvering by Henry Clay cost him the election. Jacksonians called it the “corrupt bargain.” In return for delivering Adams the presidency Henry Clay became secretary of state.

From that point on Jackson made it his business to build the alliances he needed to win the election of 1828.

Political slurs circulated fast and wild on both sides. Jacksonians accused Adams of having premarital sex with his wife, pimping out his chambermaid to the Czar of Russia while he was the Russian Ambassador, and get this—having gambling devices in the White House. It was charged Adams purchased a billiards table and chessboard with public funds.

There were so many damning incidents to use against Jackson it’s hard to determine exactly where to begin.

Jackson’s violent temper and fierce independence had helped him so much in his rise to power and greatness, but it gave his enemies unlimited fuel to use against him.

For Jackson the worst of it was the accusations made against his wife and mother. Adam’s men labeled Jackson’s mother a whore, and his beloved Rachel a bigamist and adulteress. Jackson himself was accused of being an adulterer and stealing another man’s wife. Many reports said Rachel was “unfit to be allowed in the White House.”

Philadelphia printer John Binns issued what was called the “coffin handbill.” It pictured six black coffins and referred back to Jackson’s actions in the War of 1812 when Jackson had six soldiers executed for desertion.

When it was all said and done Jackson won the election by a landslide. What should have been a happy time for the old general turned sour. Rachel died suddenly of a heart attack just before Christmas of 1828. She was buried in the old garden of the Hermitage on Christmas Eve.

Andrew Jackson was heartbroken.

The doctors said it was a heart attack, but Jackson knew better. He blamed her death on John Quincy Adams and the smear campaign his people ran against her. When he arrived in Washington Jackson refused to visit the outgoing president. For his part John Quincy Adams left town before the election and refused to pass the torch to the incoming president.

Such is politics.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History