10 Early American Flag Designs

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The American flag has featured a stars-and-stripes design since the Second Continental Congress adopted it on June 14, 1777; that anniversary is celebrated each year as Flag Day. Yet there have been many different variations on that concept through the years. And in colonial American history, troops flew many different flags in battle. Some of these designs are iconic and instantly recognizable; a few are odd and make us even more appreciative of the design Americans know and love today. Here are a few of the flags from early U.S. history.


10. Schuyler Flag: Might be Earliest 13-star, 13-Stripe Flag

Schuyler flag

According to the Smithsonian, a silk flag bearing this design might be the earliest 13-star, 13-stripe flag still in existence, dating to as early as 1784. The Schuyler flag is preserved in the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. The eagle was common in flag designs from that era, as late as the 1840s.


9. John Paul Jones Flag: Flag Used to Avoid Piracy Charges

John Paul Jones flag

John Paul Jones, who is often regarded as the “Father of the American Navy,” had a problem during the American Revolution: His ship did not carry a flag recognized by the international community. Therefore, the British ordered that Jones and his crew be hung for piracy for their attacks on British vessels. Benjamin Franklin, who had not yet learned of the adoption of the official U.S. flag June 14, 1777, designed the above flag and shared the news with a couple of fellow European ambassadors. According to the Bucklin Society, he also sent the flag to Jones.

In 1779, Jones’ vessel, the Bonhomme Richard, carried the flag into his most famous battle, against the British ship Serapis. At one point, the British commander asked Jones to surrender, prompting his legendary response, “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones’ ship sank, but he and his crew captured the Serapis, and sailed it into a Dutch port, where British officials demanded they face piracy charges. However, the Dutch recognized Jones’ flag as the official flag of the U.S. That design is also known today as the Franklin flag, or Serapis flag.


8. 19th Century Stars: Alternate Patterns the Norm

Four designs of the U.S. flag in the 19th century

Although Congress adopted the basic stars-and-stripes design in 1777, the flag’s star-pattern design was not standardized until 1912, when Arizona became the 48th state. Throughout the 19th century a number of different patterns were used, some of them quite striking.


7. Sons of Liberty Flag: Protesters Flew Them on ‘Liberty Poles’

Sons of Liberty flag

Conspiracy theorists out there should know that there really was a “secret society” in colonial America. The Sons of Liberty formed to fight for patriots’ rights, and to protest unfair taxation. One of their methods: erecting “Liberty Poles” and flying the above red-and-white striped flag; the flag could also be flown from a “Liberty Tree.” Naturally, British troops toppled these poles and flags when they encountered them. Although other flags from that era bore stripes, the Sons of Liberty flag is often cited as inspiring the stripes design of the U.S. flag.


6. Bennington Flag: May Not Have Flown in Namesake Battle

Bennington flag

Americans won a pivotal fight at the Battle of Bennington in Vermont in August 1777. The Bennington flag’s “1776” in the upper-left corner clearly evokes the Spirit of ’76 feeling that united colonists of the era. It’s a great image, picturing that flag flying over the battlefield … except historians aren’t sure the flag actually flew in that battle.


5. Moultrie Flag: Still Beloved in South Carolina

Moultrie flag

Gen. William Moultrie played a key role in American Revolution history, helping prevent the British from capturing Charleston, S.C., early in the war. He designed the Moultrie flag (aka the Liberty flag) in 1775 for use on the battlefield. The symbol was later incorporated into the official South Carolina state flag. While the symbol looks like a crescent moon, it may actually have been modeled on a gorget, a plate of armor worn around the neck.


4. Liberty Tree Flag: Naval Flag Ironically Taunted British

Liberty flag

The Liberty Tree flag (aka the Pine Tree flag) flew on a fleet of six Massachusetts warships during the early years of the Revolutionary War. The evergreen had become a symbol of resistance to British rule earlier in the 1700s when Great Britain restricted the harvesting of mature pines. The Royal Navy needed those taller pines to construct ship’s masts, so it was ironic that colonists flew this flag atop their own ship masts.


3. Don’t Tread on Me: Early Flag Still Popular With Protesters

Gadsden flag

This design is officially known as the Gadsden flag, but it’s better known as the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. The U.S. Continental Marines first carried it in 1775 during the American Revolution. Christopher Gadsden, an early Patriot politician and military leader in South Carolina, designed the flag, with the rattlesnake seen as a uniquely American symbol to protest British oppression. The flag has generated renewed interest in recent years, adopted by members of movements such as the Tea Party to protest government overreach.


2. Betsy Ross Flag: Early Version of Stars and Stripes

Betsy Ross flag

This is an early design of the American flag that had been adopted in 1777, although its first appearance was not noted until 1792. As for the name, Ross is often credited with designing the first stars-and-stripes flag, although historians say there is no evidence to support that popular myth; Ross’ grandson proposed that origin story in 1870, almost a century after the fact. However, the Philadelphia seamstress did make one contribution to the modern flag design, changing the shape of the stars from six to five points to make them easier to sew.


1. Continental Colors Flag: The First National Flag

Continental Colors flag

This is considered the first national flag of the United States, and flew for the first time on the colonial warship Alfred in December 1775. The flag combines the British Union Flag with a field of red-and-white stripes similar to that used on the Sons of Liberty flag that had been flown in New England to protest the Stamp Act. One account suggests the flag confused a British general, who thought the patriots were flying the combination of colors as a sign of surrender. In the late 1800s, the flag earned a nickname as the “Grand Union Flag.”


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