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Tourists Get Myths Along With History

June 13, 1987

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Tourists this Flag Day may hear that Betsy Ross made the nation’s first flag, or that the Liberty Bell cracked during the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall, or that statesmen sweated through an unusually hot summer while putting the Constitution together.

Well, maybe she did, and maybe it did, and probably they didn’t, historians say.

Those are just some doses of legend - not necessarily false, but unproven things that have found their way into history books or onto postcards - that tourists may get during the Constitution bicentennial this year, historians say.

″We don’t really have any problem with myths or folklore or things like that, as long as people realize that’s what they are,″ said David Dutcher, chief historian at Independence National Historical Park.

″That’s a very important part of our heritage. ... That we have built up these myths and lores is just a part of our becoming a people.″

At the Betsy Ross House, where officials expect as many as 600,000 people this summer, visitors can view a room said to be where Mrs. Ross was commissioned to make the first flag.

″There isn’t enough evidence to point to her conclusively. It’s known that she did make flags for the Pennsylvania Navy,″ Dutcher said.

William A. Kingsley, director of the house a few blocks from Independence Hall, said he’s convinced enough does point to Betsy Ross.

Besides the seamstress’ flag-making experience, Kingsley said the evidence includes such items as paintings that predate the 1870 claim by her grandson William J. Canby that she told him George Washington led a committee that asked her to make the first flag.

One, he said, is an 1834 portrait of an older woman that artist Samuel Waldo wrote was Betsy Ross, a name the twice-remarried woman had not used since 1777.

″Why would Waldo paint her unless she had done something when she had used that name?″ he said.

Some believe Francis Hopkinson, a statesman and artist, designed the flag, but Kingsley said he didn’t make his claim until 1783.

Robert Coykendall of Youngstown, N.Y., an administrative law judge, supports Hopkinson as the designer and Betsy Ross as maker of the first flag, and said both will be honored Sunday in Flag Day ceremonies there.

Coykendall’s version of the story is that Mrs. Ross’ uncle, George Ross, asked her to make the first flag, for his ships in the Pennsylvania Navy.

″So far as the Betsy Ross legend is concerned, if three errors were corrected it would be approximately right,″ he contends. ″No. 1, George Washington had nothing to do with it. It was Francis Hopkinson who designed it and George Ross asked her to make it.″

Dutcher noted the widely held notion that the Liberty Bell cracked while tolling for Marshall’s funeral in 1835.

National Park Service historians have scoured for evidence and say nothing shows when the bell cracked. They say two of the earliest versions of that story were in 1876 and cite no documentation.

Historians also don’t know if the bell was rung upon adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which has myths of its own.

″Most people think it was adopted and signed and read to the public on July Fourth, while in fact it wasn’t read before the public until four days later, on July 8,″ Dutcher said.

Historian James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress in Washington, said writers must have wanted to enhance Constitution framers’ achievements by describing hot days in a closed room.

″You can hardly read an account of the Constitutional Convention that doesn’t assert that it was insufferably hot,″ he said. ″We have learned ... that the summer of 1787 was an unusually cool one.″

Park Service historians agreed recent research supported that, but one, Dave Kimball, noted, ″even a relatively cool Philadelphia summer is fairly brutal.″

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