On Flag Day we pay homage to the Stars and Stripes, a banner that adorns flagpoles across the United States and beyond. The U.S. flag is instantly recognizable for modern Americans, although their Colonial ancestors weren’t so familiar with such a standard. What flags would have been known to residents of 18th-century Williamsburg? Not many, according to Josh Bucchioni, a Colonial Williamsburg Military Programs interpreter who has conducted research on early flags.
“Flags weren’t used as commonly in the 18th century as they are today,” he said. “Flags tend to use large amounts of expensive materials and require a large amount of production time which in turn causes them to be fairly expensive. People in Williamsburg may only have seen a flag on top of the House of Burgesses, maybe the Governor’s Palace or when a military unit came to town.”
Nevertheless, there were a few standards that flew in Williamsburg, and here’s a primer on the ones that graced Williamsburg long ago.
The Red Ensign
Before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, this is the flag that likely flew over the Capitol in Williamsburg to signify that the building was a seat of British power, according to Bucchioni. Though the Red Ensign originated as a flag flown by the Royal Navy and British merchant ships, the colors were soon adopted on land as well.
The British Grand Union flag, which combines St. George’s Cross and St. Andrew’s Cross, might have flown by itself in some parts of the 13 colonies, but was more often represented in the canton — the rectangle occupying the top corner — of the Red Ensign.
The Grand Union
When Americans began fighting against the British in 1775, they acknowledged their British heritage, and the slim possibility of reconciliation, by adding six white stripes to the Red Ensign.
The 13 stripes that resulted were a symbol of the united effort to resist tyranny. This coincidentally bore a strong resemblance to the flag of the British East India Company, a merchant shipping union.
The first time American soldiers raised the Grand Union around Boston, some confused British adversaries mistakenly thought the gesture was an attempt to surrender.
The Gadsden Flag
The yellow flag sporting a serpent and the iconic slogan “Don’t Tread On Me” has made a resurgence in recent years. It’s a symbol that has been largely adopted by the Tea Party movement. But Bucchioni explained that the elements included on that flag — the snake and slogans that promote liberty and resistance — were among the motifs on perhaps hundreds of different military standards flown during the war, some of which came through Williamsburg.
The specific combination of the serpent and “Don’t Tread On Me” on a yellow field was the designation, oddly enough, for the Commodore of the American Navy.
The Hopkinson Flag
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, enacting a design created by Francis Hopkinson’s committee, stipulated that “the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Bucchioni said it is important to note that the description of the stars in the blue field did not mention a specific arrangement or star shape. For a century-and-a-half, the growing number of stars in the canton took all sorts of configurations—circles, squares, whatever fancied the designer’s whimsy.
Not until June 14, 1923, with the passage of the United States Flag Code, would a uniform flag fly over the United States.
Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and George Wythe were aflame with revolutionary fervor when they created an early design of Virginia’s state seal showing virtue conquering tyranny.
Later, when this design began to be included on flags representing Virginia, the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis, or Thus Always to Tyrants, was added to underscore the hostility toward unjust rule in the commonwealth.
Although Virginians would have seen this seal on a few military flags in the 18th century, they saw it more often on the state’s paper currency.
GUEST BLOGGER: BEN SWENSON
Ben Swenson lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and two sons. His writing career has led him to all sorts of odd corners of the world: he has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, wrestled crab pots on a Chesapeake Bay work boat and taken a helicopter ride through a twisting river gorge. Odds are good you will find him outside with them somewhere when he is not chasing or telling stories.