Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations. In 1870 Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. Canby said he first obtained this information from his aunt Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, twenty years after Betsy Ross’s death. Canby dates the historic episode based on Washington’s journey to Philadelphia, in late spring 1776, a year before Congress passed the Flag Act.
In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, Smithsonian experts point out that Canby’s recounting of the event appealed to Americans eager for stories about the revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women’s contributions to American history. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich further explored this line of enquiry in a 2007 article, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous: Oral Tradition, Nationalism, and the Invention of History.” Ross biographer Marla Miller points out, however, that even if one accepts Canby’s presentation, Betsy Ross was merely one of several flag makers in Philadelphia, and her only contribution to the design was to change the 6-pointed stars to the easier 5-pointed stars.