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Our History: United States’ current flag took shape in the late 1770s

Flag Day, which we commemorated June 14 and though not a legal holiday, is significant because it is the anniversary of the adoption of the American flag. At one time or another in our early history, various flags were unfurled, but it was not until June 14, 1777, that Congress, in Philadelphia, adopted a resolution declaring that “the flag of the United States be of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

The resolution was adopted after a report by a special committee appointed to suggest a design for our flag. We have a contemporary description that says “the stars of the flag represent a new constellation rising in the West. The idea is taken from the great constellation Lyra, which in the hands of Orpheus, signifies harmony. The blue in the field is taken from the edge of the Covenanters Banner of Scotland, significant of the covenant of the United States against oppression. The stars are disposed in a circle, symbolizing the perpetuity of the Union, the ring signifying eternity. The thirteen stars show the number of the united colonies and denote subordination of the States of the Union as well as equality among themselves. The red, the color which in the Roman days was a symbol of defiance, denotes daring, and the white purity.”

Legends abound about the origin of our flag. The popular tradition credits Betsy Ross with the making of the flag and the cutting of the five-pointed star. Betsy’s grandson, William J. Canby, related this story to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870, but some questions still remain. Today, it is recognized our national flag evolved over a period of time.

The Bennington Flag, present at the Battle of Bennington Aug. 16, 1777, is on record as one of the earliest flags, as is the flag of the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777. But most interesting to us is the story of the “homemade” Stars and Stripes that flew over Fort Schuyler, originally Fort Stanwix, in Rome, N.Y., Aug. 2, 1777.

Among the makers of this improvised flag, which may have been the first flag of the United States, was Col. Marinus Willett (1740-1830), whose connections lie close to the roots of our own local history. His story is supported by historical evidence.

A letter written by a British soldier says that “over the Fort Stanwix built by us in 1758 and named after the brave General Stanwix, they [the Americans] hoisted a flag of white and red stripes and on a canton of azure there were white stars.”

Indeed, Willett’s diary reads as follows: “The fort [Fort Stanwix] had never been supplied with a flag. The necessity of having one had, upon the arrival of the enemy, taxed the invention of the garrison a little; and a decent one was soon contrived. The white stripes were cut out of an ammunition shirt; the blue out of the camlet cloak taken from the enemy at Peekskill, while the red stripes were made of different pieces of the stuff procured from one and another of the garrison.”

Willett was a direct descendant of Mayor Thomas Willett, the first mayor of the renamed New York City after the English acquired New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664.

Willett was a soldier and well-known public figure. He began his military career in 1758 in Oliver Delancy’s New York Regiment. Willett was a leader of radical patriots in the city and an active Son of Liberty before the Revolution. His seizure of arms from British forces when they evacuated the city in 1775 is commemorated on a plaque in downtown New York.

He participated in the invasion of Canada with the First New York Regiment. For his bravery in campaigns against the British, Congress awarded him an elegant French sword, which can now be seen on display in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Willett became a member of the Order of Cincinnati and was elected to the state Assembly. In 1784, he was appointed sheriff of New York County.

In 1790, Willett was sent by President George Washington to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Indians. He was chosen because of his knowledge of Indian affairs, and the success of the treaty won praise from both Washington and Mayor DeWitt Clinton. He later succeeded Clinton as mayor in 1807. His full-length portrait by famed artist Ralph Earle is in the American Wing of the Met.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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