June 14, 2019 — Today is Flag Day, a holiday that’s not overly observed but which, nonetheless, has an interesting story. The United States flew its first flag — called the Grand Union — on January 1, 1776. It had 13 alternating red and white stripes, and in the canton — that’s the box in the upper left hand corner —there weren’t stars but, instead, the British Union Jack.
Controversy surrounds upholsterer Betsy Ross’s participation in the making of the flag. She was reported to have created the first flag the following May, an assertion made by her grandson, William J. Canby, in 1870 — that’s 94 years later! Despite rigorous research, Canby’s declaration has never been proven, but Betsy Ross has become legendary.
In actuality, it wasn’t until the following year that the Union Jack was replaced by 13 stars representing the thirteen states that existed at that time.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted its flag resolution, which read, “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
It wasn’t until 1912 that the “Stars and Stripes” or “Old Glory” was standardized. Our current flag is one of the most complicated in the world, needing 64 pieces of fabric to make to create the 13 stripes (the original states), plus 50 stars (our current number of states) on a blue background.
There were few public ceremonies honoring the flag until June 14, 1877, the centennial of the adoption of a national flag. While the flag was flown from every government building that day, schools had displayed American flags long before this. In 1890, North Dakota and New Jersey were the first two states to pass a law requiring their schools to fly the flag every day.
North Dakota’s state flag took shape in 1898 when North Dakota volunteer guardsmen fought in the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars.
On March 3, 1911, legislation specifically required that the state flag conform to the colors, form and size of the regimental flag carried by the North Dakota infantry during those wars, except the state name was to be placed on the scroll below the eagle. The background color is royal blue. The original flag is on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center, where it can be viewed 360 days out of the year
A State Flag Commission, created in 1951, concluded that the flag designated in 1911 was inappropriate and recommended it be replaced by a design by Clell Gannon of Bismarck. The design for the new flag would have been green and gold, with a sunset and a sheaf of wheat.
That suggestion was turned down, but the proposition is reminiscent to our second state flag — sometimes referred to as the Governor’s Flag. The Century Code states: “The colors of yellow, gold and green are indicative of the great agricultural state of North Dakota and has particular reference to ripening grain and the abundant grazing areas. The Indian arrowhead forms the shield of the coat of arms and symbolizes the ‘Sioux State.’ The three stars denote the trinity of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each star in the bend is given the heraldic value of thirteen, which signifies the thirteen original colonies of the United States, and the cumulative numerical value of the three stars indicates that North Dakota was the thirty-ninth state admitted to the Union … The blue and gold wreath in the crest reflects the history of the territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
The crest, which shall constitute the military crest of the state of North Dakota, is a motif taken from the state seal and to the Sioux Indian tribes signifies mighty warriors.”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.