The flag of today represents many centuries of development. Probably no other inanimate object has excited so great an influence over the actions of the human race. It has existed in some form among all peoples and from the earliest times.
—Frederic J. Haskin, 1941
History does not record the first time a human being attached pieces of cloth to a staff to use as a symbol. But wooden, metal, and cloth flaglike objects—statues, standards, banners, guidons, ensigns, pennons, and streamers—date from the ancient Egyptians who flew carved elephants and other symbols mounted on poles on boats and perhaps in front of their temples more than five thousand years ago.
Other early prehistoric cultures also placed carvings or animal skins atop poles, sometimes accompanied by streamers or feathers. Among the oldest is an ancient Persian metal flagpole that had a metal eagle perched at its top. There also are recorded uses of flag predecessors—nearly always as communications or identification devices on the field of battle or to signify religious affiliations—among the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Saracens, Indians, Aztecs, and Mongolians.
It is believed that the ancient Chinese first used cloth banners in the second century BC. The founder of the Chou dynasty (ca. 1027 BC), for example, is thought to have displayed a white flag to announce his presence. The main use of flags by the Chinese, though, was as a military communications device. “Because they could not hear each other, they made gongs and drums. Because they could not see each other they made pennants and flags,” the ancient Chinese military general and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in his classic The Art of War. “Gongs, drums, pennants and flags are the means to unify the men’s ears and eyes.”
That was the case in China in the fourth century BC, according to Sun Pin, the military strategist and Sun Tzu descendant. “Commands should be carried out by using various colored banners,” he advised. “Affix pennants to the chariots to distinguish grade and status. Differentiate among troops that can easily be mistaken for each other by using banners and standards.”
The ancient Roman legions carried banners called vexilla. These were small square ensigns, most often red in color, that were attached to crossbars at the end of lances. They often were adorned with animal figures, such as horses, eagles, wolves, or boars. Flags in ancient India typically were carried on chariots and elephants. They were usually red or green triangularly shaped banners that had figures embroidered upon them and were surrounded by gold fringe.
The Vikings flew several types of flags, primarily on their famed sailing ships in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD. The most common was the Raven flag, in the shape of a triangle with two straight sides and a curved side. Historians believe that that emblem flew from the masts of Danish Viking ships and probably from the Norwegian Viking ships that landed in Newfoundland a thousand years ago. If so, the Viking Raven banner has the distinction of being the first flag to fly in North America.
The idea of flags as symbols of the rulers of nation states began to evolve in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of the banners that Christopher Columbus displayed when he reached the West Indies in 1492, for example, bore the Spanish royal standard: two lions and two castles representing the arms of Castile and Leon. Columbus also carried a special white expeditionary flag with a green cross. It consisted of the letters F and Y for Ferdinand (Fernando) and Isabella (Ysabel), each of which was topped by a crown.
The English flag of the period, the red cross of St. George, the nation’s patron saint, set on a white banner, dates from the Crusades and was considered a type of national emblem as early as 1277. It was not, however, considered a national flag as we know the concept today. The St. George’s Cross rather was a royal banner—the symbol of the king’s authority. It was flown on English ships and emblazoned on soldiers’ shields. English ships also flew several types of rank-identifying pennants called ensigns, including the all-red, all-white and all-blue English naval ensigns. The word ensign itself derives from the British military rank of the same name; the “ensign” was the officer in charge of carrying the colors into battle.
Historical evidence about the use of flags in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries is scant and sketchy. Because flags did not have anything close to the meaning they took on as symbols of nations beginning in the late eighteenth century, primary documents rarely contain descriptions of flags. Much of our knowledge about flags during those centuries, therefore, is based on fragmentary evidence and historic supposition.
Historians believe that the first St. George’s Cross to make its way to North America was brought by the Italian navigator and explorer Giovanni Caboto (known by his adopted English name, John Cabot), who sailed under the aegis of King Henry VII. The best historical evidence indicates that Cabot’s small ship, the Matthew, reached Newfoundland in May 1497. When Cabot took possession of the land for England, he unfurled the St. George’s Cross along with the Venetian flag of St. Mark.
The first explorers from the other nations who came to North America also sailed under various types of banners and ensigns, most often representing their countries’ monarchs. That included the blue royal French flag adorned with three fleurs-de-lis likely carried by Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian-born navigator and explorer who sailed under the French king Francis I (François). Verrazzano made landfall off present-day Cape Fear, North Carolina, in March 1524 and sailed on to what is now New York harbor and New England. Jacques Cartier, who explored the Saint Lawrence River for Francis I in 1534, also is believed to have brought his monarch’s banner to these shores.
Several types of French merchant flags—typically a white cross on a blue field with the royal arms at its center—were flown by the other pioneering French navigators who came to explore the New World: Samuel de Champlain in 1604; René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Jacques Marquette in 1666; and Louis Joliet in 1669.
The English navigator and explorer Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch, took his ship, the Half Moon, into what is now New York harbor on September 3, 1609. Hudson did so most likely flying the orange, white, and blue horizontally striped flag of the Dutch United East India Company. Hudson also probably carried the Amsterdam Chamber flag, a red, white, and black horizontal tricolor affair. Both flags also contained initials in the center white stripe.
The British Union Jack was created by King James I three years after he succeeded Queen Elizabeth I. James came to England to take the throne in 1603 after serving as James VI of Scotland, where the monarch’s flag since the time of the Crusades had been the St. Andrew’s Cross, a diagonal white cross on a blue background. On April 12, 1606, James decreed that all English and Scottish ships should fly the new red, white, and blue union flag on their main masts. That flag was known as the Union Jack and also as the “king’s colors.” It consisted of an amalgam of the crosses and colors of St. George and St. Andrew. The ships were directed also to fly either the banner of St. George or of St. Andrew on their foremasts.
It is believed that the Mayflower flew the red cross of St. George when it landed at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, and it is possible that the ship also displayed the Union Jack. And it also is likely that one or both of those flags was flown by the members of the Virginia Company whose three ships—the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery—had landed on Jamestown Island in Virginia, on May 14, 1607, and began the first permanent British settlement in North America.
There is concrete evidence that the Union Jack flew in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1634. Court records show that John Endicott, a local government official who had previously served as governor, that year ordered the cross cut out of a Union Jack. This was not a protest against British rule however. Endicott, acting probably at the behest of the nonconformist pastor Roger Williams (who later founded the colony of Rhode Island), did so to spotlight his Puritan belief that the cross was an idolatrous and pagan symbol. Endicott was tried in a local court for the offense and censured.
The official Union Jack changed several times during the often-chaotic seventeenth century when England underwent two revolutions and a civil war. In 1707, when the turbulence ended under Queen Anne, the new Parliament of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Wales officially adopted James I’s Union Jack. “The ensigns armorial of our kingdom of Great Britain,” Parliament decreed on January 16, 1707, shall be “the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew conjoined to be used on all flags, banners, standards, and ensigns both at sea and land.” This flag, which was used exclusively on ships and on government buildings and military fortifications, came to be known as the “Union Flag.”
English colonial governors and local military commanders in America, most often small militia companies, began designing and displaying their own flags not long after the establishment of the first settlements in Jamestown in 1607 and in Plymouth in 1620. Nearly all of the colors and symbols used in the earliest colonial flags were borrowed from the Union Jack and the various types of flags carried by British infantry units.
Not all were red, white, and blue, however, and not all used crosses. That is the case with one of the oldest flags of colonial America that still exists, the banner of the English troops based in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex, Massachusetts, known as the Bedford flag. Dating from about 1705, the Bedford flag was crimson in color and featured an arm reaching through a cloud, holding a sword. The arm, cloud, and sword were silver, gold, and black. The colors of Capt. Thomas Noyes’s company of troops in 1684 in Newbury, Massachusetts, consisted of a solid green field. The upper left-hand corner (known most often as the canton or the union) contained a red cross on a white background.
Many other colonial flags of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contained a canton. That includes the Massachusetts Red Ensign, a red flag with a plain white canton, which flew from about 1636–1686. That flag, it is believed, was the first flown in America that contained the canton-and-field design combination.
The Saybrook, Connecticut, military company flag in 1675 was red with a white cross in the canton, augmented with a blue ball, most likely in a red field representing a bullet. The Newbury, Massachusetts, militia flag, as noted above, was green with a red cross in its white canton.
The flag with the canton that most resembled what would become the first American flag, though, was not directly associated with the British colonial government. It was the flag of the East India Company, which was formed on December 31, 1600, by Queen Elizabeth I following the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. The East India Company was designed to be the official English entrant into the lucrative spice trade in East and Southeast Asia and India. But the company soon became much more than a commercial venture. It expanded into other commodities, including cotton and silk, and into other areas of the globe, including the Persian Gulf. In addition to its monopoly on trade in the East, the East India Company was given the authority to assume military and political power in the countries where it established itself.
The first reference to an East India Company flag was in 1616 when Japanese authorities complained about the cross on a flag flying from a company vessel. That cross likely was the St. George’s Cross. Evidence indicates that in 1670 and in the 1680s the company’s ships flew a flag with red and white horizontal stripes and the red St. George’s Cross in a white canton. A book published in 1701 shows the East India Company flag with seven red and white horizontal stripes and the red cross of St. George in a white canton. Sometime after 1707, when the Union Jack was created, the company substituted it in the canton for the St. George’s Cross. By 1732, the flag’s number of stripes had grown from seven to thirteen.
By that time many in the thirteen American colonies were chafing under the heavy-handed British rule. As sentiment against King George grew and colonists banded together to protest against colonial rule, they adopted a variety of mostly anti-British flags as emblems of their rebelliousness. These flags featured three main images: the snake, variations on the theme of the word “liberty,” and the pine tree. The idea for the “Don’t Tread on Me” coiled snake flag came from the pen of Benjamin Franklin. In 1751 in his Pennsylvania Gazette Franklin wrote satirically that Americans should send rattlesnakes to England to thank the British for sending convicts to these shores.
On May 9, 1754, Franklin again used the snake in his newspaper, this time to induce the colonies to unite during the French and Indian War (1754–63), during which the English and French battled for control of colonial North America. Franklin, in what is believed to be the first political cartoon to appear in an American newspaper, drew a cartoon depicting a snake cut into eight sections, representing the colonies in a shape suggesting the Atlantic coast with New England as the head and South Carolina as the tail. The cartoon’s caption read: “Join, or Die.”
In the decades that followed, as discontent with British colonial rule intensified, Franklin’s snake image became an expression of revolution. Christopher Gadsden, a patriotic South Carolinian who was a colonel in the Continental army, likely designed one of the first snake flags while serving in 1775 as a member of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress. Gadsden appointed Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island to lead the first Continental Navy fleet in December of 1775. Hopkins, the first commodore of the U.S. Navy, took command of his five-ship fleet with a personal flag, which Gadsden likely had designed and given to him. That flag had a yellow field with a rattlesnake coiled in the middle and the words “Don’t Tread on Me!” underneath.
Aside from what became known as “the Gadsden flag,” the rattlesnake appeared on many other American colonial banners, including several flown by military units during the Revolutionary War. A flag used by the minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia, for example, included the rattlesnake, the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto, and the famous words of Virginia’s Patrick Henry, “Liberty or Death.”
Another similar banner was the 1775 flag of Col. John Proctor’s Independent Battalion in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. That flag (more than six feet long and nearly six feet wide) consisted of a coiled rattlesnake and Gadsden’s words painted directly on top of a solid red field with the British Union Jack in the canton. The snake’s menacing tongue is pointed at the symbol of the British crown. Above the snake are the letters “J.P.” and “I.B.W.C.P,” which stand for “John Proctor, Independent Battalion, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.”
The flag of the Train of Artillery company in Provincetown, Massachusetts, also had Gadsden’s words emblazoned under a coiled rattlesnake, as did the banner displayed by Major General John Sullivan’s Life Guard in Rhode Island, also known as the Rhode Island Militia. That flag, which was used in 1778–79, had nine blue and white alternating stripes and a white canton with a coiled snake.
Although it did not have a snake, the Forster flag of 1775 is believed to have been the first flag with red and white stripes used to represent the colonial cause. Family lore has it that Maj. Israel Forster and the Minutemen captured a flag from the British at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775. The patriots then replaced the Union Jack canton with six white stripes, spacing them over the red background to represent the thirteen colonies, and displayed the flag that day at that battle and the ensuing fighting at Concord.
Another popular theme that made its way onto anti-British flags during the years prior to the American Revolution was the word “liberty.” Most often liberty flags were solid colored, usually white, with the word “liberty” spelled out in large capital letters. They date from the summer of 1765 and the secret revolutionary radical group the Sons of Liberty, which grew up that year throughout the colonies to protest the infamous British Stamp Act. The group took its name from a February 1765 Parliamentary speech in which rebellious Americans were mockingly referred to as “sons of liberty.”
Sons of Liberty groups first met under “liberty trees,” where they stirred up support for colonial resistance. When the colonial authorities cut down those trees, the rebels took to meeting under liberty poles, which often featured protest banners, such as one that contained the words “Liberty and Property.” A flag displayed at Taunton, Massachusetts, featured the words “Liberty and Union” across a red field with the Union Jack in the canton. Another had the image of a tree, with the words “Liberty Tree” on top and “An Appeal to God” below. Another early liberty flag in New York contained the words “Liberty, Property and No Stamps.”
Historians believe that one Sons of Liberty flag that flew from Boston’s Liberty Tree contained nine red and white stripes in honor of the representatives of the nine colonies who attended the October 19, 1765, Stamp Act Congress. Those stripes likely were displayed horizontally. If so, that flag is the first recorded on the continent with alternating red and white stripes and could be the progenitor of the stripe design in the American flag. Thirteen horizontal stripes, in blue and silver, also appeared in the canton of the yellow silk regimental flag of Capt. Abraham Markoe’s Philadelphia Light Horse Troop that accompanied George Washington to New York in the summer of 1775.
The third widely used symbol on anti-British colonial flags, primarily in New England, was the pine tree. The pine tree symbol in New England dates from the 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which featured the images of an Indian and pine trees. The red 1686 New England flag contained a canton with the English St. George’s Cross in it and a small green pine tree displayed in one corner of the cross. That banner was flown by Col. William Prescott, who commanded some one thousand American militiamen against a force of more than twice that number of British army regulars at the pivotal June 17, 1775, Battle of Bunker Hill, fought at Breed’s Hill above Charlestown, Massachusetts.
The most popular image of that Revolutionary War battle—the 1786 painting The Death of Warren by John Trumbull—contains an image of the colonial troops flying a red flag with a green pine tree on a white background in the canton. But that image of the flag, minus the cross of St. George, is inaccurate. “Certainly Trumbull, like many artists of the Revolutionary War period, allowed his imagination free rein in the matter of depicting details in battle scenes,” Whitney Smith, the nation’s foremost vexillologist (flag expert), said of the Trumbull’s artistic flag license in that painting.
Trumbull may have been influenced by the fact that not long after the Battle of Bunker Hill, pine tree flags began to be displayed on American Revolutionary War vessels. The first was in September 1775 when two heavily armed scows, called “floating batteries,” flying the pine tree ensign adorned with the words an appeal to heaven opened fire from the Charles River onto British houses in Boston.
The first six schooners commissioned by the Continental Congress to intercept British ships sailing into Boston in October 1775—the Hancock, Lee, Franklin, Harrison, Lynch, and Warren—flew the pine tree flag. An order dated October 20, 1775, from George Washington’s secretary Col. Joseph Reed, proposed that the ships show a flag “by which our vessels may know one another,” a flag with “a white ground and a tree in the middle, and the motto, ‘An Appeal to Heaven.’” By January 1776 the Franklin was flying that pine tree flag. On April 29 the Massachusetts Council passed a resolution ordering its naval officers to wear green and white uniforms and that “the colors be a white flag with a green pine-tree and the inscription, ‘An appeal to Heaven.’”
But it was not the rattlesnake, the pine tree, nor the word “liberty” that appeared on what is now considered the first American flag, although at the time it was not officially recognized as such. This is the flag that George Washington ordered hoisted on January 1, 1776, to recognize the birth of the Continental Army on Prospect Hill in Charlestown outside of his camp near Boston. The Second Continental Congress had named Washington commander in chief in June following the battles of Lexington and Concord.
On New Year’s Day, Washington unfurled the improvised Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union flag, the Continental flag, the Cambridge flag, the Somerville flag, the Union Flag, and the Great Union—the first flag that came into general use throughout the colonies. Washington, who referred to it as the “Union Flag in Compliment to the United Colonies,” had the banner hoisted on a towering seventy-six-foot-high liberty pole so that it could be seen as far away as Boston. The flag had thirteen alternating red and white stripes. In the canton of the Continental Colors was the British Union Jack with its interwoven crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. Washington’s flag was almost a carbon copy of the flag the East India Company had been flying since the 1670s.
The generally accepted explanation of the origins of the Continental Colors is that the thirteen stripes represented the colonies and the Union Jack the rebellious colonists’ loyalty to the British crown, if not its Parliaments’ policies. That sentiment held in general for most American rebels, at least during this stage of the revolt, six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Still, the origins of the Continental Colors are not clear. Historians do not believe that it was based on the strikingly similar East India Company flag for two reasons. First, few colonists were familiar with the East India Company flag because there is no evidence it ever flew in American waters. Second, it seems highly unlikely that rebellious colonists would purposely choose an emblem that stood for an organ of the British crown.
It also is not clear exactly who designed the Continental Colors. It may have been the work of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Lynch, who were appointed by the Continental Congress in the summer of 1775 to advise Washington in forming his new army. The first respected American flag historian, retired admiral George Henry Preble, writing in the late-nineteenth century, ascribed to that theory. Franklin, et al., “were appointed to consider the subject” of “a common national flag,” Preble wrote. They “assembled at [Washington’s] camp in Cambridge.” The “result” of that meeting, he said, was the design for the Continental Colors. However, no mention was made of the flag in the Franklin committee’s detailed report to Congress on November 2, nor have historians been able to find other concrete evidence to support Preble’s proposition.
Esek Hopkins’s small armada—the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, and Andrew Doria—the first regular American fleet, set sail from Philadelphia on January 4, 1776, flying several flags. One was his personal “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag. Another was what Hopkins called “the strip’d jack” or “striped flag,” most likely a simple red and white striped flag used for identification. Also flying on the ships was the Continental Colors.
Before his fleet departed on December 3, 1775, the Continental Colors was raised for the first time on an American fighting vessel, the fleet’s flagship, the Alfred, under the command of Capt. Dudley Saltonstall. This was about a month before Washington unfurled that flag in Charlestown. Just who raised the Alfred’s flag is not completely certain. But the senior lieutenant on the Alfred, the renowned naval hero John Paul Jones, took credit for it. “I hoisted with my own Hands the Flag of Freedom the First time that it was displayed on board the Alfred on the Delaware,” Jones wrote in 1779.
Historians disagree about Jones’s claim. Some believe that Jones raised the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag, not the Continental Colors. Others believe Jones may have raised the Continental Colors on the Alfred, but that he was not the first American to do so. John Adams, among others, claimed that the “first American flag as hoisted,” as he put it an 1813 letter, was the work of Capt. John Manly, who commanded the schooner Lee and the frigates Hancock and Hague. John Adams’s after-the-fact claim notwithstanding, historians believe that in all likelihood the Lee flew the pine tree flag, not the Continental Colors.
Hopkins’s fleet claimed other flag firsts. When Hopkins’s small armada captured Forts Montagu and Nassau on the eastern end of New Providence in the British-owned Bahamas on March 17, 1776, it marked the first overseas victory for an American flag–flying navy ship. When Capt. John Barry’s Lexington fought and defeated the British brig Edward on the seas off the Virginia coast on April 17, it marked the first time an American flag vessel captured a foreign flagged ship.
The American brig Andrew (sometimes called Andrea) Doria sailed into port on the small Dutch-owned West Indies island of Saint Eustatius (Sint Eustatius) on November 16, 1776, on a mission to obtain clothing, cannons, gunpowder, and other war supplies. The ship, under Capt. Isaiah Robinson, dropped anchor in the port city of Orangetown in front of Fort Orange. An English ship in the harbor reported that the Dutch flag at Fort Orange was lowered in welcome, and then the Andrew Doria lowered its sails and fired an eleven-gun salute. The fort’s commander then sought advice about the efficacy of returning the salute from the Dutch governor. It was decided to return the salute with an eleven-gun reply. This marked the first foreign salute to an American flag.
The honor of presenting the Continental Colors to Europe for the first time went to the sixteen-gun brig, Reprisal, the first Continental navy vessel to reach European waters. Under the command of Capt. Lambert Wickes, the Reprisal set sail from Philadelphia on October 24, 1776, carrying Benjamin Franklin to assume his duties as the American Commissioner to France.
By the end of the year 1776, the Maritime Committee of the Continental Congress considered the Continental Colors as the de facto official flag of the American naval forces. The committee let all its commanders know early in 1777, for example, that “it is expected that you contend warmly All necessary occasions for the honor of the American flag.”
Incorporating the Union Jack in the Continental Colors, Washington soon discovered, may have been a mistake. When British troops saw it, they took the Union Jack as a sign that the colonials were surrendering. “It was received in Boston as . . . a signal of submission,” Washington wrote three days later.
Still the Continental Colors, although it was never formally adopted by Congress, remained the unofficial flag of the rebellious colonies until June 14, 1777. In the eighteen months following Washington’s unveiling of that flag, it was used as a symbol of the rebellious colonies’ unity—primarily, but not exclusively, on Continental navy ships.
The first Stars and Stripes—of whatever arrangement—to be raised in victory over a foreign force flew from the twenty-eight-gun frigate Providence on January 27, 1778, under command of Capt. John Peck Rathburne (sometimes spelled Rathbun). The Providence, sailing from North Carolina, captured the British Fort Nassau in the Bahamas, seized ammunition, and freed more than two dozen American prisoners. The ship also captured a British ship and reclaimed five other American vessels that had fallen into British hands.
Military units on land displayed the Continental Colors as well as a wide variety of other types of regimental flags. Many had single-color fields with emblems and cantons with various designs. The Second Rhode Island Regiment’s flag, for example, had thirteen stars in its canton. The all-black Massachusetts unit, the Bucks of America, flew a flag with thirteen white or gold stars in a blue canton. The field featured a pine tree and an antlered buck. Troops of the Third Continental Infantry under Col. Ebenezer Learned, on the other hand, displayed the Continental Colors in Boston as they drove Gen. William Howe, the commander in chief of the British army, and his troops from that city in March 1776.
In his January 1776 report on the publication of Tom Paine’s landmark pamphlet Common Sense, which passionately made the case for independence from England, the British spy Gilbert Barkley noted that armed colonial ships in Philadelphia flew “what they call the American flag,” a banner that almost certainly was the Continental Colors. The ships commanded by Gen. Benedict Arnold flew a version of the Continental Colors at the ill-fated Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain on October 11–13, 1776.
Joseph Hewes, a Continental Congress delegate from North Carolina, purchased a large Continental Colors from the Philadelphia flag maker Margaret Manny, who worked with the Wharton Ship Yard in Philadelphia, in February 1776. That flag subsequently flew in his hometown of Edenton. In April 1776 the Continental Colors was depicted on the North Carolina seven-and-a-half dollar bill. And it was flown in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, on May 15, 1776. The occasion was the sendoff of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The “union flag of the American states” flew from the colonial Capitol Building that day, according to one eyewitness. That “union flag” was the Continental Colors.
Copyright © 2005 by Marc Leepson