U.S. Flag Once Featured Stripes of a Different Color

What?? We know, it’s a lot to take in, but it’s true. Our flag has gone through many iterations throughout the years. Changes in stripes, changes in stars and at one point, it even sported a different color stripe beyond the iconic 13 red and white stripes of today.

Grand Union flag, first used in the early days of the American Revolution.

Grand Union flag, first used in the early days of the American Revolution.

As our country marched ever closer to independence, our flag evolved from the British Union Jack to the Grand Union flag — with its nod to our British roots and a mash-up with the ship ensign known as the Navy Jack. It was not-yet naval legend Lt. John Paul Jones who first hoisted the Grand Union on the Continental warship, Alfred, for the ship’s commissioning Dec. 3, 1775. Our flag had its stripes, but not yet those stars.

As Gen. George Washington and his army of soldiers and militiamen banded together, Washington used as his official flag a dark blue field punctuated with white stars.

Congress decided the new country needed its own flag different from the motherland. They kept the red and white stripes from the Navy Jack, but booted off the Union Jack and replaced it with a field of blue with white stars – very similar to Gen. George Washington’s personal flag.

The resolution creating the flag was enacted June 14, 1777, the same day Jones would be given command of the 19-gun sloop Ranger, being fitted at Portsmouth, N.H.

And now comes a bit of fiction, thanks to Augustus C. Buell, an author who was not above creating “facts” to romanticize the attractive Jones. In his biography of the dashing Scotsman, Buell claims Jones literally charmed the petticoats off some Portsmouth society girls – and even one wedding dress – to use the silk to fashion an American flag to fly upon his new ship. The too-good-to-be-true story has been debunked by other historians.

Petticoat antics aside, Jones continued to share historical moments with our new flag. On Feb. 14, 1778, while Jones was sailing in Ranger in the Quiberon Bay near France, the French fleet first “saluted” the new Stars and Stripes flying from Jones’ ship. It was the first acknowledgment by a foreign country of America’s independence from Great Britain. That salute came just a few days after the French signed an alliance treaty with the United States.

First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government, 14 February 1778 Painting in oils by Edward Moran, 1898.

First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government, 14 February 1778 Painting in oils by Edward Moran, 1898. It depicts the Continental Navy Ship Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, receiving the salute of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, France, 14 February 1778.

The flag with its alternating red and white stripes, however, was not the only American flag Jones’ flew from the stern of his ships. And, apparently Ben Franklin didn’t get the memo about the stripes being alternating red and white. Thus, even after a resolution from Congress, multiple flags were still flown to represent America.

The American ambassador in France, Franklin wrote Oct. 9, 1778 to a Neapolitan official describing his country’s new flag as having red, white and blue alternating stripes, with a field of blue in the upper left corner with white stars, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

History does not record whether Franklin misspoke on the red and white alternating colors, or if he deliberately described the flag design he preferred. The flag’s distinctive design featured 13 eight-sided stars and four blue stripes intermingled with five red and four white alternating ones: BRWRWBRWRBWBR.

By then, Jones was sailing on the French-built merchant ship purchased by King Louis XVI and gifted to Jones at the suggestion of Franklin. Jones named the ship to honor Franklin, Bonhomme Richard. It was from this ship Jones would battle HMS Serapis on Sept. 23, 1779 and utter his infamous retort “I have not yet begun to fight.” Brave words, as the Bonnie Dick was sinking, with its flag shot away, while lashed to Serapis.

A painting, currently at the Chicago History Museum, depicting a sketch of the flag flown from prize HMS Serapis as Capt. John Paul Jones sailed into Texel, Holland following the Battle of Flamborough Head in mid-Sept. 1779. The flag features 8-sided stars and blue stripes, similar to a design favored by Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Jones. Photo printed with permission from Chicago History Museum ICHi-66110.

A painting, currently at the Chicago History Museum, depicting a sketch of the flag flown from prize HMS Serapis as Capt. John Paul Jones sailed into Texel, Holland following the Battle of Flamborough Head in mid-Sept. 1779. The flag features 8-sided stars and blue stripes, similar to a design favored by Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Jones. Photo printed with permission from Chicago History Museum ICHi-66110.

But then Serapis suffered an explosion below decks. The British captain, seeing the American warship Alliance just waiting to pounce on the crippled Serapis, realized he was outmatched, so he struck his colors to save his crew. After the Bonhomme Richard sank, Jones sailed on Serapis to a neutral Dutch port for repairs. The British ambassador there insisted Jones be arrested as a pirate for flying an unknown flag on a British ship.

The Dutch, however, who had no love for Great Britain, rushed a sketch of the flag flying from Serapis into the records. That flag was suspiciously similar in design to the one favored by Ben Franklin, with four blue stripes interspersed with red and white stripes, and eight-sided stars on the field of blue.

Historians have noted it is likely Jones used Franklin’s design after losing the Bonhomme Richard. Alliance’s flag also featured eight-sided stars, but without the random blue stripes.

Known as the John Paul Jones flag, the Serapis flag, and even the Ben Franklin flag,  was never flown again.

But the sketch lives on, through a painting that depicts the flag from the Dutch sketch artist, which currently hangs in the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., Chicago, Ill.

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