As Independence Day approaches, you are likely to see more and more American flags flying. While most people realize that the flag is a symbol of our nation, there are many other things about the flag that people may not know. To learn more about the American flag, consider this brief history of the American flag.


Brief History of the American Flag

Even before the United States was formed, the colonists used flags to represent this potential nation. A “Liberty Tree” flag, with a green pine tree and the saying, “An Appeal to Heaven,” was flown as early as 1775. Later, a flag known as the Grand Union flag was used. This flag was flown above George Washington's base on Prospect Hill on January 1, 1776.  


The Grand Union Flag of 1776

The Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act on June 14, 1777. Along with that came the basic design of the American flag, which called for “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Each of the three colors of the flag was chosen for a reason. Blue represents justice, vigilance, and perseverance. Red is for valor. White is for purity. 


Adding Stars for Each State

While the flag representing the United States today still has thirteen stripes, there are now fifty stars, each representing one of the states. Yet, the flag did not simply jump from thirteen stars and stripes to the flag we know today. Several changes were made to the flag between 1777 and now. One notable change was on January 13, 1794, when the flag was changed to fifteen stripes and fifteen stars to represent Vermont and Kentucky, who had been acquired since the original flag was designed.


George Washington With Betsy Ross and New Flag

On April 4, 1818, it was decided that while the flag would continue to gain stars for each state that joined the union, the flag would stay at thirteen stripes. As states were accepted into the union, their star would be added to the flag on the following 4th of July.

While stars continued to be added to the flag fairly steadily over the next roughly hundred years, it was not until June 24, 1912, that the next major change came as President William Howard Taft set forth specific proportions for the flag. The stars were placed in horizontal rows and one point of each star pointing upward.   

On August 21, 1959, with Hawaii added to the union, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set forth our current flag with fifty stars. There are nine rows of stars, with five rows of six stars each and four rows with five stars each.


Moments in Flag History


Of course, the American flag has a history beyond just the changes to the actual stars and stripes. Here are some of the big places the American flag has held in history:

  • Captain Robert Gray carried the American flag on his voyage around the world in 1787 on his ship The Columbia. The Columbia River, between what would become Washington and Oregon, was named after Captain Gray's ship. 
  • Even when the Southern states seceded from the union during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would not allow their stars to be removed from the flag.
  • Robert Peary placed an American flag sewn by his wife at the North Pole in 1909.
  • In 1963, Barry Bishop placed the American flag on top of Mount Everest.
  • Neil Armstrong placed an American flag on the moon on July 20, 1969.
  • On September 11, 2001, just hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center, three New York City firefighters were photographed raising the American flag at Ground Zero. The photograph, “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero,” became a symbol of hope and triumph over disaster.

Flags can symbolize great things. If you are interested in beginning a history of your own flag, contact us.


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