A rare presentation flag the United States government gave to the Six Nations Iroquois in 1813 has been restored and is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The flag measures 60 inches by 118 inches, has 15 horizontal stripes (eight red, seven white) and a painted eagle with the shield of the United States in the blue canton instead of stars. The number of stripes matches those on the official US flag at the time — from 1795 there were stripes for each state until 1818 when Congressional passed a law requiring flags to have 13 stripes representing the original colonies while a star would be added to the canton every time a new state was admitted to the Union — including the most famous of them all, the Star Spangled Banner.
While authorship is not certain, the painted eagle on this flag is close to identical to others painted by Philadelphia ornamental painter William Berrett. Berrett’s friend and neighbor, one Elizabeth Claypoole, was his colleague in flag production. Elizabeth Claypoole has gone down in history as Betsy Ross. Ross was the name of her first husband John who died in 1776. She remarried and was widowed again. Her third marriage in 1783 was to John Claypoole, and it was under this name that Betsy had her greatest success as a flagmaker.
Although she was making flags during the Revolutionary War as part of her upholstery business, the story of her making the first American flag at George Washington’s behest with the 13 alternating white and red stripes and the 13 stars in a circle on a blue canton is probably apocryphal. It doesn’t appear on the historical record until a century after the supposed events, promoted entirely by her grandsons, William and George Canby, who first announced the tale in a talk at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. Their evidence was solely family lore, but that was more than enough for people to run with in the heady patriotism of the approaching national celebration of the Centennial. William Berrett makes a cameo in the Ross legend as the artist who made a painting of George Washington’s flag design for Betsy to use as a model while she was stitching the flag.
It was during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, particularly during the War of 1812, that Elizabeth Claypoole draped forts around the young country with her work. She had contracts with the War Department to make garrison flags for the US Army. One contract was for six flags to be flown in a New Orleans fort. Another was for an astonishing 46 garrison flags to be delivered to the Schuylkill Arsenal, quartermaster for the US military. These flags were massive, each 18 by 24 feet in dimension. That’s 432 square feet (Betsy’s house was 468 square feet per floor) unfurled, and 24 feet of seam for each stripe. Since the seams were felled (ie, the edges were sewed down flat), she actually sewed 48 feet of stitches per stripe. You can see how her experience as an upholsterer rather than, say, a tailor, was invaluable to work on this scale.
The War Department, then tasked with handling Indian affairs (the Department of the Interior only got the job after the slaughter was over and all that was left was reservation management), also commissioned Betsy to make presentation flags to be used as diplomatic gifts for Native American tribes as the country began exploring/appropriating territories west of the Mississippi. She collaborated with Berrett on the presentation flags, doing the stitching while he did the painting.
That’s not to say that Betsy Ross made this particular presentation flag, but it’s certainly a possibility. The provenance of the flag is nebulous, however, so it’s unlikely there will ever be a solid attribution. The New York State Museum acquired it in 1962 from the Minnesota Historical Society who received it as a donation from Clay McCauley in 1889. McClauley claimed the flag had once belonged to Eleazer Williams, an Episcopal minister, missionary who was the son of Mohawk Chief Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, also known as Thomas Williams. Thomas was the grandson of Eunice Williams, a Puritan English colonist (her mother was a Mather) who had famously been captured when she was seven years old by French and Mohawk warriors at the Deerfield Massacre of 1704. She and 100 other captives, including four of her siblings and her parents, were marched north to Canada. Although the rest of her surviving family was eventually ransomed, Eunice was adopted by a Mohawk woman, converted to Catholicism married a Mohawk man and refused to return to Massachusetts no matter how many entreaties her Puritan father made.
Her great-grandson Eleazer also lived in two worlds. He spoke fluent Mohawk, Oneida and several other languages which he made use of when attempting to convert Oneidas and in negotiations between the tribes and the US government. He represented the St. Regis Mohawk tribe at multiple conferences between the Indian commissioners and the tribes. Williams thought the northeastern tribes of New York state and Canada should move west, settle down permanently in a reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they could create a new confederacy like the Iroquois free from northeastern population and political pressures that were endlessly chipping away at their territory. Williams was a signatory witness to the 1848 treaty with the Stockbridge tribe in Wisconsin, and as a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe he was not just a signatory to the 1838 treaty with New York tribes, but was specially singled out in Article 9 as the acknowledged owner of extensive lands along the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known as the Williams Tract, the 4,800-acre property belonged to his wife Madeleine Jourdain, daughter of Joseph Jourdain, a successful French blacksmith and Margaret Craselle, the granddaughter of a Menominee chief, who he had married in 1823 when she was 14 years old.
A small part of the Williams Tract is now in Wisconsin’s Lost Dauphin State Park, and Eleazer is entirely responsible for the excellent name of that park because, not content with making up military exploits and diplomatic victories, Williams also claimed to be Louis-Charles, doomed son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the long-lost Dauphin of France. He hadn’t been killed as a child by his cruel jailers, but rather had been spirited away by supporters when he was 10 years old and sent to French Canada where he was adopted by kindly Thomas Williams and kept safe from the pernicious lies of Revolutionaries. He only came to understand his true identity in 1841 when he met the Prince de Joinville, younger son of the restored Bourbon King Louis Philippe, who was touring the waterways of what had once been New France aboard the steamer Columbia. Joinville recognized him instantly, Williams said, from scars on his face, and asked him to sign an abdication document to ensure his father wouldn’t lose his throne.
The story, which had morphed over the years, finally hit the big time with the publication of an article entitled “Have we a Bourbon among us?” in the February, 1853, issue of Putnam’s Magazine. The Iroquois Bourbon became a huge thing, engendering much published back and forth between people who were enthralled by the tall tale and people who rejected it on the grounds that it was blatantly unsupported nonsense. The con man character of the “king” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who claims to be the lost Dauphin of France is modelled after Williams.