The Genesis of the American Flag
by Art Pinney May 21, 2014
How did the American Flag come to have thirteen stripes? Most people already know that each stripe on the American Flag represents one of the thirteen original colonies that declared their independence from England on July 4th, 1776. But how did the design of the American Flag originate with thirteen stripes? To answer this question, we need to go back to what the original thirteen colonies were using as an ensign for their naval and merchant ships.
Before the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the main flag or ensign on all merchant ships was the Red Ensign of England. This was the flag that flew over the thirteen American colonies before the American Revolution and was a precursor to the flag of the United States.
When the Revolutionary War started, the colonies needed to differentiate their ships from the British ships. They also needed a national symbol representing the Congress and fledgling new nation. So they introduced six white stripes in the red field of the British Red Ensign. This new flag was called the Grand Union Flag and is considered to be the first national flag of the United States.
The Grand Union Flag is also known as the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign. It was first flown on December 3rd, 1775 on the USS Alfred in Philadelphia. The flag could easily be reproduced by sewing white strips of cloth on the British Red Ensign flag.
The Flag Act of 1777 authorized a new and official national flag similar in design to that of the Continental Colors. The main change was to replace the British Union flag in the canton with thirteen stars. Each star represents not the thirteen colonies, but the thirteen states of the new nation, the United States of America.
Visit the All Flags page to view or learn more about our nations flags.