Samuel Criscom was one of Andrew's grandsons. He was a respected member of Philadelphia and helped build the bell tower on a building called Carpenter's Hall which would later become the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where the Constitutional Convention was held.
Samuel married Rebecca James and had seventeen children. On January 1, 1752 Rebecca gave birth to her eighth child and named her new daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, or Betsy as they called her, was raised in the Quaker faith, wearing plain dresses and living by the strict code of conduct required by the Society of Friends, as the Quaker religion was know. Even the school she went to was run by the Society of Friends where, for eight hours a day, she was taught how to read, write, and learned a trade skill which, in all likelihood, was sewing.
When she was still in school she entered a sewing contest and the object she provided to show her sewing skills was a flag that had a moon, the Liberty Bell, and ten stars sown on it. Her flag didn't win first place but she was awarded third place.
In those days families tended to stay in one profession generation after generation. If someone was a farmer, for the most part their sons, grandsons, and great grandsons were also farmers. If someone was a lawyer, their sons became lawyers. And so it was with the Criscom family. For generations the men had been in the carpentry trade while the women went into other trade fields. Therefore, after graduating from public school, Betsy's father sent her to work as an apprentice to William Webster who operated a local upholstering business.
In our modern era we usually think of upholstering as making cloth-covered chairs and sofas but in the early 1800s, it also included sewing of every kind such as clothing, draperies, and flags. One of the other apprentices who worked for Mr. Webster was a young man named John Ross on whom Betsy developed a crush and they soon fell in love with each other.
However, this romance presented a problem for Betsy. John was not a Quaker but an Episcopalian. In fact, his father was the assistant rector of Christ's Church which was of the Episcopal faith. Although all religious faiths believe they alone have the correct understanding of what the Bible teaches, the Quakers took this concept to a more intense level. Even though they practiced peace and were against war, they nonetheless forbade any of their members from marrying outside the faith. To them, that was the same as leaving the true teachings of God and becoming part of Satan's church.
For this reason, anyone who left the faith was ostracized by the entire Quaker community. Even the parents of an apostate child were forbidden from having any contact with them. A Quaker would gladly help a stranger but they would not give any kind of help or assistance to an apostate, including speaking to them.
Knowing what would happen to her once the Society of Friends found out that she wanted to marry outside of the faith, one November night in 1773, at the age of twenty-one, Betsy eloped with John. Philadelphia sits on the Delaware river which separates Pennsylvania from New Jersey. Knowing they couldn't stay in Philadelphia the two lovers took a boat across the Delaware river and went to Hugg's Tavern in New Jersey where they were married.
John then started his own upholstery company and Betsy worked with him in the family business. Each Sunday the two of them would attend Christ's Church. Unlike today, where church goers can sit anywhere they want, people in those days paid for the pew they sat in. The pew that John and Betsy Ross paid for and sat in was pew 12. A few pews over was one that was owned by George and Martha Washington. Since this couple was from Virginia and George was on the road a lot, he didn't attend Christ Church very often but Betsy did get to see him every now and then, especially when he came to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress.
John and Betsy had only been married two years when the Revolutionary War began. John joined the local militia and was given the duty of guarding the munitions. However, one night some of the gunpowder exploded, severely burning John. He was rushed home where Betsy desperately tried to nurse him back to health but her efforts failed. John died on January 21, 1776. They had no children.
After John's death, Betsy took over her husband's business and did her part to help out the war effort. She repaired soldiers uniforms, made tents and blankets for the soldiers as well as the paper tubes which were needed in the rifles for the firing of musket balls. It is reported that she also made clothing for the new Command-in-chief, General George Washington.
Quakers are pacifists and refuse to take up arms but when the Revolutionary War broke out a number of Quakers wanted to help defend their country. This created a rift in the Quaker community with some of them joining together to fight against the British. Although she was no longer a Quaker, Betsy joined this group.
The Continental Congress had openly declared their Independence from England in July 1776 but each state and each militia unit had their own flag which they carried with them into battle and around which they rallied. Perhaps the most famous of these was the "rattlesnake" flag with its dire warning "Don't tread on me."
In May 1776 the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, decided that the new United States needed to have a national flag that would represent all the states collectively. Congress also decided on what the flag should look like. It was to have "thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the Union of thirteen stars [was to be] set in a blue field representing a new constellation." The thirteen stars and the thirteen stripes were to represent the thirteen colonies, the white stripes were to represent purity, while the red stripes were to represent America's willingness to shed its blood to defend their freedom.
According to Betsy's journal, near the end of May 1776 a committee of three men from Congress came to her house to see about her making this flag. The committee consisted of General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, Robert Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the wealthiest men in the country at that time, and George Ross, the uncle of Betsy's deceased husband, John. It was he who recommended to Congress that Betsy be contacted to make the flag.
As these men sat in Betsy's living room, George Washington drew a rough sketch of what he thought the flag should look like, making suggestions, such as having the stars be six-pointed. Betsy took a pair of scissors and some cloth and in one cutting motion made a five-pointed star. She then recommended that it would be easier to make a five-pointed star instead of a six-pointed one. The men were so impressed with her skillful sewing demonstration that General Washington agreed to the change and asked her to make the flag. She agreed to do it.
It is reported that she immediately went to work on the flag in her back parlor and when finished she presented it to the committee who had come to see her. They, in turn, showed it to Congress but it wasn't until June 14, 1777 that Congress finally approved the flag as our nation's symbol.
During the bitter cold winter of 1777, while General Washington and his men were at Valley Forge, a group of armed British soldiers forcibly took over Betsy's home to spend the winter. Even so, she continued to sew for the Continental Army up until the war ended.
On June 15, 1777 Betsy married Joseph Ashburn who was a sea captain. They had two children, both girls. One day, as Joseph was sailing to the West Indies to get supplies for the Continental Army, he was spotted by a British frigate and stopped. When the British soldiers searched his ship they found evidence that was working with the rebellious Americans and was promptly arrested. He and his crew were charged with treason and sent to England to be held in the cruel and pitiless Old Mill prison.
When he was captured, Betsy was pregnant with their second daughter but while Joseph was in prison, their first daughter died. Joseph himself died in March 1782 while in prison just several months before General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
Betsy learned of her second husband's death from a close friend of theirs who had been with Joseph at Old Mill prison. His name was John Claypoole who was also a sailor. In May of 1783 Betsy and John Claypoole were married in Christ Church but she begged him to abandon his life on the sea. He agreed and, for awhile, worked with her at her upholstery business but later went to work at the U.S. Customs House in Philadelphia. They lived together for thirty-five years and had five children.
John Claypoole died in 1817 after a long illness. By now Betsy was sixty-five years old but she kept working at her upholstery business until 1823. The business was very successful but at age seventy-one Betsy could no longer keep working so she turned her business over to one of her daughters. Later Betsy became blind and spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter. Betsy Ross Claypoole died on January 30, 1836 at the age of eighty-four.