History of Betsy Ross
On January 1, 1752, Elizabeth Griscom, familiarly called Betsy, was the eighth of 17 children born into the Quaker family of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom.
Samuel, a successful carpenter, moved his large family from their farmhouse in New Jersey to the growing city of Philadelphia when Betsy was three years old. They eventually settled into a home on 4th and Arch streets.
Although Betsy is often referred to as a seamstress, she was actually a trained upholsterer. After completing her formal education at a school for Quaker children, Betsy went on to apprentice to John Webster, a talented and popular Philadelphia upholsterer. She spent several years under Webster, learning to make and repair curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.
While apprenticing to Webster, Betsy met and fell in love with a fellow apprentice named John Ross, an Anglican and son of the former Assistant Rector of Christ Church. Being devout Quakers, Betsy’s family did not approve of her relationship with John. Marrying outside of the faith meant Betsy could no longer worship in the Quaker community. Nevertheless, on November 4, 1773, Betsy and John fled across the Delaware River to Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester, New Jersey where they married without the blessing of her family and fellow Quakers.
Despite that, the newlyweds prospered. They opened their own upholstery business in a rented house on Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, in the heart of a bustling section of Philadelphia now known as Old City. John and Betsy Ross even made bed hangings for George Washington while he was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in 1774!
They were married for just over two years when their union was tragically cut short. John Ross, believed to be a member of the local militia, passed away, leaving Betsy a childless widow at the age of 24. Betsy continued to run her upholstery business, making extra income by making cartridges and, of course, flags for the Continental Army.
On June 15, 1777, Betsy married her second husband, Joseph Ashburn. Together they had 2 daughters, the first of whom passed away just shy of her first birthday. Joseph was a mariner and was often at sea, leaving Betsy, a new mother, alone in Philadelphia. The sea was a dangerous place during the Revolution; in 1781 a British frigate captured Joseph’s ship, The Lion. The crew was charged with treason and taken to Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. Joseph Ashburn died of an unknown illness on March 3, 1782, a few short weeks before the British released the American prisoners.
Later in 1782, Betsy was visited by a man named John Claypoole. He was a fellow prisoner with Joseph Ashburn in Old Mill Prison. John was there to bring Betsy the news of her second husband’s death. Betsy learned that she was once again a widow at the age of 30.
John Claypoole and Betsy kindled a relationship and were married on May 8, 1783. A year later, Betsy returned to her Quaker roots when she and her husband joined the Society of Free Quakers. The "Free Quakers," was founded by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who had been expelled for failure to adhere to the Peace Testimony during the American Revolutionary War. The community supported America's fight for freedom from British rule, unlike the pacifist traditional Quakers.
Betsy was finally able to enjoy a long marriage to John Claypoole, but this 34-year relationship was not without its struggles. The couple had five daughters together, but only four of them lived to maturity.
In 1793, Betsy’s mother, father, and sister died within days of each other from yellow fever, leaving Betsy to raise her niece. In 1812, Betsy and John’s young, widowed daughter Clarissa moved into their home with her five young children and a sixth on the way. Betsy would welcome other widowed daughters, nieces, and their children to her home on Front Street. At some point after the turn of the 19th century, John developed a physical disability, possibly relating to earlier war injuries or a stroke. He died in 1817.
Betsy continued her upholstery and flag-making business with the help of her daughter Clarissa. After over fifty years in her trade, she retired at the age of 76 and left the city to live on her daughter Susanna’s farm in the remote suburb of Abington. According to her descendants, although her vision was failing rapidly, Betsy continued to take the long carriage ride to the Free Quaker Meetinghouse in the city every week.
By 1833, Betsy was completely blind. She spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter Jane’s family on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With family present, Betsy Ross died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836. She was 84 years old.
Plan your group trip to Historic Philadelphia with unique experiences from the Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square, and Once Upon A Nation! From interactive Storytelling tours and Philadelphia-themed mini golf to performances by historic reenactors, it's all listed right here!