My Betsy Ross

An excerpt from Betsy Ross's Five Pointed Star

©2004, John Balderston Harker

Chapter 6

Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel

Betsy Ross is an interesting subject and her life before and during the Revolutionary War is described by Edwin Satterthwaite Parry (a direct descendant) in his 1930 book Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel., The following  is abstracted from that book with additions from the records of the Society of Free Quakers. In affidavits by descendants done in 1909, for the publication of “The Evolution of the American Flag” Betsy is described as having been called the “Little Rebel” by British Officers who were quartered in her house, a name by which she became well known. She is also described by a great niece (who as a child lived with her mother in Betsy’s house) as being a beautiful little old lady with very blue eyes. She is recalled as having made her living making cushions and flags for the ships in the harbor in Philadelphia. In his book, Parry gives an interesting picture of growing up in Philadelphia in that time. The illustrations in the book are by J.L.G. Ferris.

Betsy was born on January 1, 1752, (the day the Gregorian calendar was adopted) on the family farm in New Jersey across the river from Philadelphia. She was the sixth of the nine children of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom, who survived to adulthood. Before she was five, they had moved to Philadelphia where four generations of the Griscom family had lived and been importantly involved in building the city. She grew up in a community in which the Quakers were a major, if not majority group. She was educated in Quaker schools and we can presume she was a demure young Quaker maiden in the plain dress of the Quakers. She was apprenticed to John Webster, an upholsterer from London who had established himself in Philadelphia. John Ross was also an apprentice in the same shop, which brought him into contact with Betsy.

According to Parry, Betsy was attractive and personable, and was courted by three young men, two of whom were not of her faith and one, John Claypoole, while of an old Quaker family, was not a practicing Quaker. His grandfather James came to America from Norborough, England, in 1683. James was a wealthy merchant and a close associate of William Penn. John’s father married an Episcopalian, Elizabeth Hall, and became an Episcopalian.

John Claypoole was a tanner, as was his father.  John Ross was an upholsterer’s apprentice, and Joseph Ashbourne was a ship captain who sailed a small merchant vessel owned by his aunt.  Of these three, we can presume that Betsy’s family would have favored John Claypoole, but her choice was John Ross, who incidentally was the son of an Episcopal clergyman. John’s uncle George Ross would become a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

On November, 4, 1773 she eloped across the Delaware River to Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester, New Jersey to marry John Ross. An interesting footnote to this wedding was the fact that young couples were required to post a bond as to their being of age to marry. The wedding certificate held by the Gloucester County (N.J.) Historical Society, reveals that William Hugg, Jr. a close friend of John Ross, signed the bond along with the justice of the peace, James Bowman, who performed the ceremony. The tavern no longer exists but its huge fireplace in front of which the wedding may have been performed was saved and reconstructed in the Hunter-Lawrence-Jessup Museum of the Gloucester County Historical Society.

The couple did not announce their marriage until the spring of 1774 when their housekeeping plans were complete. As can be imagined, this created quite a stir among her family and the Quakers of her Meeting when they learned that Betsy was the bride of a man outside of her faith. Edwin Parry writes:  “In the minute book of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Northern District, of the year 1774, under date of Fourth Month (April) 26, we read that a committee of Women Friends has treated with Elizabeth Ross, late Griscom, on account of her marriage with a person of another religious persuasion contrary to the advice of her parents and the good order used among us, and she does not appear inclined to repent or condemn her breach of duty. In this manner the wheels of excommunication were set in motion.”

For Betsy there followed a period of time when she was outside the Quaker community. It would be during this period that she attended Christ Church (Episcopalian) where today there is a pew with a plaque on it bearing her name. While the adjacent pew was used by George Washington, the time frame was likely different. He, as President, lived in Philadelphia and worshipped at Christ Church, 1790-1797. After Betsy married John Claypoole, her third husband, in 1783, the two of them joined the Society of Free Quakers and she resumed her Quaker fellowship.

We learn about the “Free Quakers” from a column in the December 1, 1926 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Revolution. There were those who went against Orthodox Quaker principles and supported the cause of liberty. Betsy had been disowned for marrying outside of her faith, but when the revolution was immanent, Orthodox Friends has cause to disown  Timothy Matlack, quickly followed by his brother White Matlack, Samuel Wetherill, Christopher Marshall, Dr. Benjamin Say, Clement and Owen Biddle, William Crispin, Joseph Warren, Moses Bartram, and Isaac Howell.” Early in 1781 eight of these men organized themselves into a Quaker Meeting and invited any others “who had been disowned for Matters Religious or Civil to join them.” They became “The Monthly Meeting of Friends, called by some The Free Quakers.” Membership roles indicate that fifty to sixty people joined the group by the end of 1781. John and Elizabeth Claypoole became members in 1785.

The reporter in the Philadelphia Inquirer goes on to say that “William H. Wetherill, our veteran white lead manufacturer, who is now nearing ninety himself, has told me that his father and Betsy Ross were the last to attend a meeting of the Free Quakers in religious worship. For a long time the attendance at Meeting was confined to a very few persons. On that last day the flag maker, a very old lady, and John Price Wetherill were alone. And when leaving the old structure at Fifth and Arch, he turned the key, it closed forever the Free Quaker Meeting House as a place of worship.” [The building is at 5th and Arch Streets and is managed by Historical Philadelphia, Inc, open to the public.]

As to the "Free Quakers," a discussion of the view held by the “Free Quakers” concerning the Revolution and their support of it is found in Charles Wetherill’s 1894 history of the “Free Quakers” in which he explains the attitudes that divided the Quaker community. He said, in part:
“It is with no wish to cast reproach upon the respectable Society of Friends that the fact is recorded that at the commencement of the differences between the American colonists and the home Government, and until the event of war settled the points at issue in favor of the cause of freedom, the sympathies of those who controlled the public action of that society were with the Crown. The leading members of that Society were men who had grown old in the habit of loyalty, and had been rewarded therefore by dignities and wealth. Their government of the colony had always been peaceful, the spirit of resistance threatened war, and war was not only a subversion of their religious principles, but it threatened ruin to the worldly fortunes. With the habitual caution of men advanced in years, they looked with disfavor on the hot-headed young patriots who declared themselves supporters of so radical a change as the establishment of an independent government.”

The calling together of the first Continental Congress was an act of heroic patriotism from the American standpoint, but was mere treasonable plotting in the royalists’ eyes. In 1774 the General Yearly Meeting of Friends, warned members of all Meetings not to depart from their peaceful principles by taking part in any of the political matters then being stirred up, reminding all Friends that under the King’s government they had been favored with a peaceful and prosperous enjoyment of their rights, and strongly suggesting the propriety of disowning all such members as disobeyed the orders issued by the Yearly Meeting.

However, many younger members took an active part in supporting the Continental Congress and the armies. They had to resist the prejudices which they had been educated in and by which they were surrounded. They gladly gave to the cause out of their purses and stocks of goods. They took the oath of allegiance to the governing body in Pennsylvania when required to do so, and accepted being read out of Meeting.

Quoting Wetherill further:  “On one other point they [Free Quakers] differed radically from the older Society, and that was as to the right of offering forcible resistance against warlike invasion. The Quakers had always held that resistance was sinful, and so they adhered to an absolute peace, under all circumstances, suffering violence to themselves, their families, and their country rather than offer any resistance or serve in the army, even going so far as to refuse to pay taxes where the money was being raised for military purposes. The Free Quakers held, admitting the necessity of government, that all government is essentially a defensive war for the protection of public peace, and that when the government is threatened by domestic treason or foreign invasion, it then becomes the plain duty of every man to join in the public defense by all means possible, and that war, while an extreme measure, is in such instances is not merely justifiable, but right and proper, and, as is shown above, the founders of the Society of Free Quakers showed their sincerity in this matter by serving their country, with their very best exertions, at the time of its utmost need. On the same ground they held, contrary to the discipline of Orthodox Friends, that a man, might forcibly resist any bodily violence offered to himself or to any one to whom he owed the duty of protection. While their views as to warfare and resistance were precisely the same as that of nearly all Christians, they were in such striking contrast to the well-settled doctrines of the Friends that they were commonly known, and are still sometimes spoken of, as “fighting” Quakers.”

Betsy and John Ross were hardly embarked on their marriage when the news from Lexington Green and Concord in April 1775, caused the second Continental Congress to declare that the war with England was now an actual fact.  Philadelphia became the pivotal point of revolutionary activity. John Ross cast his lot with the patriot cause. At this point Betsy had been read out of meeting for marrying outside of her faith, an act which we can be sure caused her family much pain, but she believed in the rebel cause. She paid a price for this when John died in January of 1776. He had been guarding military supplies on the docks, supplies brought from the West Indies, as one of a company of citizen guards when John became ill. [Most accounts cite an explosion on the dock as the cause of his death, but the facts of his illness and death are more accurately described in a letter written by a grandson of Betsy's, William Canby, on February 21, 1870 to a gentleman named William Read who was preparing Ross family records and history and who was interested in John Ross as a relative by marriage.]

Canby stated that he had talked with his mother, who “remembered her mother [Betsy Ross] saying that [the men] were taking exercise in jumping and lifting and throwing weights to keep warm; in consequence of which he had a hemorrhage and afterwards became insane for a time. John was deranged for about 18 months when he died having been married just two years.”  “He wrote immense quantities of senseless matter thinking he was composing some important work.”
Ross family records show that Sarah Leech  who was the mother of John, lost her mind and presumably died insane. The speculation is that to attribute John’s death to an explosion was a story fabricated to obscure the insanity. No documentation of an explosion has ever been found.

[At the time, Betsy’s faithfulness in caring for John, and his family connections to many prominent people, would have endeared Betsy to them. We can only speculate as to how this might have lead to her becoming involved in making the first flag not too many months later. What we do know is that after her husband died, Betsy, who was just past her 24th birthday, busied herself with the upholstery business, and possibly with the assistance of some of her sisters, was able to manage without the help it is said her father offered.]

Available records would suggest that Betsy’s primary business was upholstering, which would make flag-making secondary. The 1791 Philadelphia directory of Clement Biddle lists John Claypoole, upholsterer, at 80 South Second Street. John had a position with the Custom House at this time, so this listing can be construed as representing the family business. The City directory of the 1830's listed: “Elizabeth Claypoole, Upholsterer, 74 South Front Street.” Betsy gave up active work on the business in 1827 and went to live with her married daughter Susan Satterthwaite in the remote suburb of Abington but the business continued.

About five months after John's death, in late May or early June of 1776, (a two week period when George Washington was in Philadelphia to confer with the Congress, the event of the visit of the 'committee' to Betsy took place. The family legend of Betsy making a flag for George Washington is from this time period, and records show she was paid in May of 1777 for making ships colours for the Pennsylvania Navy so the flag making business began in 1776.

It would appear that after a reasonable period of time, following the death of John Ross, that Betsy began to be courted by Captain Ashbourne. He was heavily involved in bringing in supplies from the West Indies but found time to marry her on June 15th, 1777. Coincidentally, this was the day after the Flag Resolution was passed.

The war now came to P:hiladelphia, when, in September of 1777, Cornwallis came up the Delaware River and occupied the city. In October of that year John Claypoole, who was not yet in Betsy's life,  was a second Lieutenant in Washington’s army.  He was wounded at the battle of Germantown when Washington made an attempt to drive Cornwallis out of Philadelphia. Later, after participating in several other significant battles, John Claypoole resigned from the army at the end of his enlistment because the wound he had suffered made it difficult for him to stand long marches over rough terrain.

As for Captain Ashbourne, he and others were keeping their boats out of sight of the British up the Delaware River, but when Cornwallis finally abandoned Philadelphia in May 1778, Washington was forced to order the small fleet scuttled to keep the boats out of the hands of the British. The Captain returned home to Betsy and in September 1779 a baby daughter, Aucilla, (Zilla) who died young, was born to the couple. With the port open again, Captain Ashbourne took command of a new, larger ship in the fall and sailed down the Delaware Bay for the West Indies.

It should have been an easy six to eight week voyage. At about the same time, John Claypoole, who had decided to try the sea for a living, shipped out of Philadelphia as a seaman on a large transatlantic merchant vessel bound for France to deliver a cargo and return with supplies for the military. Both vessels were commissioned as privateers with authorization to take British ships as prizes. As fate would have it, both ships were captured by the British. Betsy was at home expecting another child, her daughter Eliza, who was born in February of 1781 but there was no word of her Captain Ashbourne, and none of John Claypoole and his shipmates.

It was common practice for the British to try to enlist captured sailors in the service of the King. Failing this, the men would be kept on ships until they could be put ashore in England, and so it came about that Claypoole found himself confined in Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. He arrived there in July 1781, and was astonished to recognize Ashbourne in a group brought to the prison some time later. Throughout this period, neither Betsy nor the Claypoole family had any word about their men. In prison the two men were close friends until Joseph Ashbourne died of an unnamed malady in March 1782.  Betsy was a widow again but wouldn’t know it until late in August 1782 when John Claypoole returned home with the news of the death of her husband.

John Claypoole went to sea again, making another voyage to France from which he returned safely, and upon his return proposed marriage to Betsy. On May 8, 1783, they were joined in matrimony. She was now thirty years old. During the years that followed, Betsy ran an upholstering and flag making-business and had women working for her. Five daughters were born to the couple, one of whom died in infancy. John Claypoole worked in the Custom House until his wartime disability undermined his health. He died August 3, 1817 at the age of 65.

Betsy had been disowned by her family’s Meeting when she married John Ross, but the Society of Free Quakers which she joined in 1785 appears to have been very supportive of Betsy and her family through the years, as indicated by numerous entries in the financial records of the Meeting. This assistance begins in 1812 when Clarissa Sidney, her first child by John Claypoole, was widowed and moved into the Claypoole household with five children. Betsy was sixty years old at this time. Clarissa’s sixth child Rachel was born in Betsy’s house on June 16, 1812 and in her own words later in life she “was raised under the care of Betsy.”

It is also at about this time that she was burdened with taking care of her husband John Claypoole who was bedridden as a result of the wounds he received at the Battle of Germantown when the British were occupying Philadelphia. The ledger pages of the Society of Free Quakers show that both Betsy and Clarissa received occasional financial support from the Meeting.
The ledger page beginning with June, 1812,  has on it the following entry of September 20: to E. Claypoole for boarding J Claypoole, $72.00. The next entry is a payment to Clarissa Willson (sic) $40.00 without comment. A few lines further down we find an entry for shoes for J. Claypoole, $2.25. Entries “to E. Claypoole for boarding J. Claypoole.” The next entry is on February 9, 1813, for $46.00 to Elizabeth Claypoole for boarding John Claypoole. Further down on the same page is an entry of $23.00 to C Willson (sic). On October 7, 1813, there is an entry of $32.00 to E. Claypoole for boarding J. Claypoole. and $16.00 to C. Willson without other explanation.

On December 28, 1813 Betsy is paid $33.32 for making cushions for the Meeting House. The next entries regarding the care of J. Claypoole are in 1817, with an entry on April 10 of $26 to Betsy and $13 to Clarissa, followed by a similar entry on July 13, and another on October 10 in the amount of $28.50 to Betsy and $30 to Clarissa. There is one entry in 1818 for Betsy, $26 and Clarissa $13 without explanation. (John Claypoole had died August 3, 1817.)
In 1819 Betsy and Clarissa are paid (twice) for cleaning the meeting house, and in 1820, 1822, 1823, 1824 and 1825 Clarissa receives money for the schooling of her children.

While it is clear that the Meeting felt Betsy and her extended family needed a little financial help, she was not the only recipient of the generosity of the Society of Free Quakers. The records indicate that at least one other person was being given financial support for “boarding.” In many other instances through the years, small gifts were made to individuals who were unnamed except as being “a poor woman.” Also, the costs of burial of the very young were often covered by the Meeting. [The Society of Free Quakers continues today as a philanthropic organization today, into which it converted into after regular Meetings for Worship ended.]

The Pennsylvanian, a daily newspaper in Philadelphia carried an obituary notice on Tuesday, February 2, 1836 saying that Elizabeth Claypoole passed away in the afternoon January 30th, age 84. [She was at the home of her daughter Jane Canby in Philadelphia.] There were eleven other death notices published that day of gentlemen, ladies and infants including in some instances comment as to the nature of the illness, or an open invitation to attend the funeral. The paper published whatever it was given. Nothing noteworthy about Betsy is brought forward by the person who gave the death notice to the paper.

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