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Flags Of America - Understanding the Flags of America

stars red stripes field

Adequately understanding the history of the flags of America means taking a trip back to the very first beginnings of early settlements on this continent. Eventually, as the countries Canada, United States, and Mexico emerged, the reference to American flags became associated with those used by the US. As early as A.D.1000 a Viking banner flew over a settlement in Newfoundland, Canada. Columbus flew an expeditionary flag when he discovered the West Indies in 1492. It may well have been the first true flag of America, although it showed an “F” for Ferdinand on the left, a “Y” for Ysabella on the right, and a cross for the church in the center.

Later the official Spanish flags would fly as well as the Union Jack from England (1603-1775), a Dutch flag temporarily over New Amsterdam (1609), and a French flag over Mississippi River territory from 1590-1789. During this period, other flags were flown by local groups and emerging states. For example, the Pine Tree Flag was a symbol of New England and more specifically, the state of Massachusetts. Rhode Island issued its first state flag in 1775, the same year that the Green Mountain flag was flown by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

The American flag that symbolizes the United States today had its earliest beginnings in 1765 when the Sons of Liberty flag became the symbol of the Revolution. It consisted of 9 stripes, one for each colony, on a white field. Later the Red Ensign was introduced. It actually was a variation of the British Union flag flown on British naval ships. Considered the first National Flag of the United States, it contained the Union symbol in the upper left corner and the remaining field was red. The words “Liberty” and “Union” were added to the red field.

During the Revolutionary War, a variety of flags were commissioned including a Continental Army flag that had a green pine tree on a white field in the upper left corner and the remaining red field. In 1776, “Rattlesnake” flags were issued that showed a snake slithering across the typical red and white stripes. The inscription, “Don’t tread on me,” was a clear message of determination to British foes.

But it was the famous Betsy Ross flag of 1776 that is probably one of the best known flags of America. The story, as relayed by her only surviving grandson, was that George Washington, a relative Col. Ross, and Robert Morris visited Mrs. Ross, a widow, who operated her deceased husband’s upholstery shop to request that she create a flag suitable for the birthing of a new country. The basic design may have been created by Francis Hopkinson, but it would appear that the 5-pointed stars and circle design may have been Mrs. Ross’s idea.

The stars could have symbolized the universal desire to achieve a level of greatness, or they could have been freemasonry icons. Several of the revolutionary leaders belonged to this fraternal order. The stripes were probably a carry-over from the original Sons of Liberty flag. While there is absolutely no historical evidence to prove the Betsy Ross story, neither is there any specific evidence to disprove it. As a personal friend of George Washington who was in Philadelphia at this time and for whom she had done other sewing projects, the scenario is at least possible.

During the Civil War (1861-1865) several other flags would emerge. The South first issued an official flag called the Stars and Bars. It was so similar to the Stars and Stripes that it became a matter of confusion on the battleground. Later the “Southern Cross” would be substitutes with 11 stars for the 9 seceding states, Kentucky, and Missouri. In all, 3 different official versions were offered by the South during the war effort.

As more states have been added to the Union additional stars have been periodically added to the flags of America. By the Executive Order of Pres. Eisenhower in August, 1959, the current flag was commissioned. It contains 13 horizontally equal stripes that are alternating red and white. Fifty tiny 5-pointed white stars sit in the upper left corner on a blue field in staggered rows. These stars represent the 50 states, and the stripes are reminders of the original 13 colonies.
There are also other flags of America that are reflections of interesting historical periods of this country. The Service Flag of both WWI and WWII is an indoor flag that immediate family members can put in their window showing a close relative who is fighting in a war situation or has been killed in action. An official Presidential flag is also recognized. Copies of both state and federal American flags in a variety of fabrics and sizes, as well as the poles on which to display them, are available online for purchase.

Owning and displaying a United States flag is considered an act of patriotism and solidarity, especially during difficult times. Maybe more Americans should consider flying the flag of America as a message to the rest of the world that this is a strong and resilient country, one of which every citizen can be proud.

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