Every year for the past 15 years Suffolk Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution have been honored to celebrate Flag Day with a program for the fifth-grade classes at Pulaski Street Elementary School. Rain or shine, members of the Chapter along with the Riverhead NJROTC and representatives of the local veteran organizations have gathered at the school to celebrate the birthday of our flag. This year, the 243rd birthday celebration is not at the school, but here on this page.
As George Washington said about our flag, “It stands for dignity, honor and protection of all who love liberty, and who claim the sheltering protection it has always given.”
In 1775 the leaders of the American colonies wanted a Colonial flag. They no longer wished to fly Great Britain’s Union Jack, yet they still wanted to acknowledge their connection to that nation. Benjamin Franklin headed a committee that decided that the new flag should have a small Union Jack in one corner and six white stripes alternating with seven red stripes. George Washington hoisted that flag Jan. 1, 1776 on a tall flagstaff on Prospect Hill near Cambridge, Massachusetts. Known as the Grand Union Flag, it was the first American flag.
However, after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the colonies broke away from Great Britain, the Grand Union flag became obsolete. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the First Flag Resolution, which stated:
Resolved: That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.
Many of you have heard the story of Betsy Ross making that first American flag. According to the story, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, Betsy’s uncle, visited her in her tailor shop. Betsy knew George Washington – she sat in a pew next to his at the Christ Church in Philadelphia and he had often come into her shop to have cuffs and embroidered ruffles made for his shirt fronts.
He wanted her to make a flag – different than all of the flags that had been used before. He took out a paper with the design of 13 red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field.
One of the many stories says that the stars were in no real order and they each had six points. Betsy is supposed to have looked at the design and to have suggested that the stars might look better in a circle and with five points. General Washington liked the flag and ordered more to be made for our new country.
Long after the War for Independence had ended, Betsy Ross told the story of the first flag to her children and grandchildren – for many years her family were the only people who knew the story. Then, in 1870, Betsy’s grandson William Canby made a speech about it. He thought what his grandmother had done was very important. Many people believed the story, but others weren’t so sure. William was only 11 years old when his grandmother died and in telling the story, he could only say what he remembered. He looked for proof, but couldn’t find any – there was only the family story!
A New Jersey man named Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also claimed to have made the first Stars and Stripes. His flag design had the stars in rows. He even sent a bill to Congress asking to be paid for his flag design, but the members of Congress didn’t pay him – they felt that many people had helped design the new flag.
Long Island even got into the act with the Hulbert Flag. It had turned up in an attic in Bridgehampton and the story was that John Hulbert and his company of militia had made it when they were stationed at Montauk in 1775. The story of where and when the Hulbert flag was found grew and changed over the years. There was some question about the validity of the flag, so the material and thread used in sewing the flag were tested in 1972 and again in 2005. That testing indicated that the flag was actually made around the 1840s. It may not be a Revolutionary War flag, but it is very old – and it is right here in Riverhead at the Suffolk County Historical Society.
Historically, the story of Betsy Ross remains unproven. The website for the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia shows a timeline and facts to support her story. The dates match and the need for a symbol of our country during the War for Independence match. She was familiar with Washington and the others who are said to have visited her shop. She is one of the few women whose place in Revolutionary history stands, not beside a man, but on her own. Is her story fiction, a partial truth, completely true? We may never know that for sure.
On Jan. 13, 1794, Congress passed a second flag resolution. It stated that, beginning on May 1, 1795, the flag should be 15 stripes, alternate red and white with a union of 15 stars, white on a blue field.
It was this flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner in September 1814 during the War of 1812. Some called this war part two of the American Revolution. In 1814, the British burned Washington, D.C., destroying the White House, the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress and other government buildings. First Lady Dolly Madison remained in the White House for as long as possible – saving some national treasures and the portrait of George Washington.
However, the British weren’t finished and they sailed up the Patapsco River toward Baltimore. Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer, had gone out on the river under a white flag to plead with British Navy for the release of a prisoner of war. Although he was successful in his plea, the men were held on the British ship Surprise and watched all day and night as the British ships shelled Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. The next morning he was thrilled to see that “by the dawn’s early light … our flag was still there,”
Mary Pickersgill and her daughter, Caroline, had made the Star Spangled Banner that flew over the fort. It measured 30 feet by 42 feet – as wide as most two-story houses are tall! After the battle at Fort McHenry, the fort’s commander took the flag home. It stayed with his family until the 1870s. Over the years, some people cut pieces from the flag to keep for themselves. The flag, ripped and torn was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907; in 1912, the loan became a permanent gift. Over the years, experts at the museum preserved and repaired the flag. In 1998, they began an $18 million dollar project to make sure the flag will last another 200 years.
As more states joined the Union, Congress decided it was too cumbersome to add a star and stripe for each new state so the Flag Act of 1818 stated that the flag should return to 13 horizontal red and white stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. A new star, but no stripe, would be added on the Fourth of July following each new state’s admission to the Union.
Our American Flag made its first trip around the world on the ship Columbia. The ship left the port of Boston on Sept. 30, 1787 and returned on August 10, 1790. In May of 1812 a log school house in Massachusetts gained the honor of flying the first American Flag over a school house.
President Benjamin Harrison ordered the American Flag to be flown above the White House and other government buildings. Today it is flown at national and state parks, on public buildings and at all types of sporting events.
Hundreds of American athletes proudly march behind the flag during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
One of the most famous pictures from World War II shows the American flag being raised by marines after the Battle of Iwo Jima.
In 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon in the lunar module Eagle. On this historic journey, they took three American flags. One was planted on the moon, and the other two were brought back to earth and flown over the houses of Congress. Near the flag planted on the moon is a stainless-steel plaque that reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Astronauts have planted American flags on the moon six times, one flag for each Apollo mission that landed there.
The first Flag Day was celebrated in 1877, the centennial of the flag’s existence. Many citizens and organizations advocated the adoption of a national day of commemoration for the U.S. flag. Proclamations were issued by Woodrow Wilson and later by Calvin Coolidge to name June 14 National Flag Day. However, it wasn’t until 1949 that President Harry Truman signed legislation making Flag Day, June 14, a day of national observance. And that brings us to today, the 243rd birthday of the American flag.
Whether we call the flag by its official name, the Flag of the United States of America, or the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory or the Star-Spangled Banner, it is still “our flag, our country’s symbol of ideals that are meant to last; it’s a promise for our future and a reminder of our past.“
When we do the program at the school, we encourage students and staff to bring in worn, tattered flags which are taken to the VanRensselaer Skidmore Post 2476 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion Post 273 for proper disposal.
According to federal Law, when a flag is “in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way …”
Although the celebration this year is very different and we are not looking at a sea of children dressed in red, white and blue or handing out flag pins, Suffolk Chapter DAR wishes you all a Happy Flag Day!
Ann Otten is the Daughters of the American Revolution Suffolk Chapter regent. She lives in Wading River.
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