We are all familiar with the 50 stars and 13 stripes which, together, comprise the flag of the United States of America. The United States adopted that flag, originally with 13 stars, on June 14, 1777. But what did the fledgling nation — and its band revolutionaries — use beforehand?
The first American flag was actually the Grand Union, pictured above. Thirteen stripes, yes, but instead of stars, a smaller version of the British flag, the Union Flag. (If it looks different than the British flag you’re familiar with, check out today’s bonus fact!) The historic underpinnings of this flag remain fuzzy and may sadly be lost to antiquity. We do know two things: One, no one disputes that this British-looking flag was America’s first, used at various times during the American Revolution. Second, the flag was first adorned by the Continental Navy warship, the U.S.S. Alfred, in December of 1775, as its official emblem, signifying its allegiance to the American colonies.
Other “facts” about the history of the Grand Union are still debated. Most historians believe that on New Year’s Day, 1776, George Washington flew the Grand Union at Prospect Hill, in Somerville, Massachusetts, while forming the Continental Army. A likely apocryphal story states that the Second Continental Congress — the body which adopted the Declaration of Independence — adopted the Grand Union as the official emblem of the war efforts; however, the well-maintained records of the Continental Congress are silent to anything flag related before 1777. Finally, some believe the Grand Union was used to demonstrate to Britain that it remained loyal to the King, in spite of their differences, but that theory is conjecture without specific evidence.
Regardless, if you see this flag flying, rest assured it is a real American flag.
Bonus fact: The Union Flag as we know it today is actually three emblems in one, representing the patron saint of the member countries: The Cross of Saint Andrew(Scotland), the Cross of Saint Patrick (Ireland), and St. George’s Cross (England). Originally — and in 1775, when the Grand Union emerged — the flag only contained references to England and Scotland, signifying the union between those two kingdoms in 1603. It was not until 1800, when Ireland and the UK merged, that the Cross of Saint Patrick entered the design. Even though most of Ireland is now independent of the UK, the Cross remains in the Union Flag.
Double bonus! The Welsh Cross of Saint David is notoriously absent in the Union Flag. Why? Because when Scotland and the UK unified in 1603, Wales was already part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, the Union Flag, created by royal decree in 1606, officially is considered to incorporate Wales’ presence via St. George’s Cross — albeit controversially, even to this day.
Related: “For Which It Stands: An Anecdotal Biography of the American Flag” by Mike Corcoran. Five stars on one review.