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Understanding The American Flag’s History

The design and history of America’s flag are a lot more complicated than you might think, despite the country being less than 250 years old. We managed to squeeze a lot of interesting events and land purchases on our way, and our flag represents that. 

 

Revolution

The Revolutionary War was easily the most influential event in the formation of our flag. The thirteen stripes and stars on the original flag design were obviously representative of the original thirteen colonies. 

 

13 Colonies

Jamestown was the first successful colony established in 1607, and you may remember making models of it in school. The town was bordered by three walls and had many buildings within it like a church, homes, and farm animals.

John Smith was the leader of the colony and famously had a friendship with the real Pocahontas. These two were not really anything like the animated characters you might remember. Jamestown would later go on to be known as the Virginia Colony.

The Virginia Colony could attribute a lot of its success to a cash crop that they could grow in abundance and was very profitable: tobacco. This product was a huge export that was mostly sold in Europe. 

Other colonies would prop up all around the east coast in the 1600s. The Pilgrims, the Puritans, and other groups shared a few interests: religious freedom, self-governance, and loyalty to Britain. 

This was a huge period of economic growth as there were thousands of people migrating to the new world for freedom and opportunity. The New England area was exceptionally rich in natural resources and known for good harbors. 

The colonies became more established and developed more sophisticated governments, but they were still all under British rule. This would obviously not last forever because the colonists would eventually get fed up with unfair British taxes.

 

Declaration of Independence

The British spent a lot of money protecting the thirteen colonies from the French, who were occupying basically a third of what is now America to the west. The British began taxing the colonists to make up for all the money spent protecting them.

The colonists were understandably frustrated with the significant rise in taxes, all while not actually being represented in Parliament. There were protests and boycotts of British businesses. Tensions were very high between the colonists and British troops that were stationed there. 

Skirmishes erupted along the coast and in towns, and the British just kept doubling down with more aggression. Finally, the continental Congress created and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. 

At this point, the American flag looked familiar but still didn’t have the classic stars. The flag at the time had 13 red and white stripes, just like today, but the canton was just the British Union Jack. 

After a year of war, the American people wanted to separate themselves from the British visually just a little more. So, George Washington commissioned a flag from Betsy Ross (or so the story goes). The flag with the blue canton and 13 stars in a circle was born. 

 

Expansion

After the Revolutionary War, the United States entered a phase of unprecedented expansion. And with each new state came a new design for the flag. We often think of countries being formed solely by war, but it was a little more complicated than that for America’s expansion.

 

Louisiana Purchase

Today, we know Louisiana as a mid-sized state in the South, but between 1682 and 1762, it was a huge French colony that comprised roughly two-fifths of America today and a little bit of Canada. 

France wanted to basically copy Britain's strategy of colonizing huge parts of North America but eventually realized the venture was too costly and too difficult to maintain. After all, look at what happened to Britain. 

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana territory for $15 million. That is roughly $18 per square mile! It was an excellent deal for us at the time, but that land was only good for the states if we could control it. 

This historic purchase facilitated two very important things besides the vast amount of land: The Port of New Orleans and control of the Mississippi River. These two things weren’t just good for our economy; they were also strategically important to the military. 

With a vote and a flick of a pen, America added the following areas that would facilitate their future states:

1. Louisiana 
2. Missouri
3. Arkansas
4. Iowa
5. North Dakota
6. South Dakota
7. Nebraska
8. Oklahoma

and parts of:

9. Kansas
10. Colorado
11. Wyoming
12. Montana
13. Minnesota  

Texas

The state of Texas was originally owned by Mexico and it was named Tajas. Mexico realized that this massive swath of land was vulnerable to invasions from other countries because of how sparsely populated the region was. So, they started renting out plots of land to Americans.

Mexico hoped that these Americans renting land would contribute to their economy, but the Americans brought with them attitudes of freedom and independence. The Mexican military had to be brought in to remind the settlers that they still had to abide by Mexican laws. 

This resulted in conflict and all-out battles between them. It escalated until American settlers lost a famous battle called the Battle of the Alamo. This sparked huge numbers of Americans to come to Tjas for the next fight that they would eventually win.

When the American settlers won, they established the Republic of Texas in 1836. Texas was now a sovereign state! In 1845, Texas decided to apply for statehood because it was seen as politically advantageous to them.

While Texas was its own nation, America fought the Mexican-American War for disputed territories west of Texas. The war didn’t last long, and with Mexico’s defeat, they sold everything they had west of Texas to America, including California.  

Many of the territories in the west would go on to become states as they gained larger populations thanks to railroads, immigration from the east, and the Gold Rush. This was a time of monumental economic growth for America. 

 

Alaska

Alaska is one of the most valuable pieces of land on Earth because of its natural resources like gold, fish, fur, lumber, and other precious metals. Any country controlling this land would be insane to give it up. 

So, Russia sold it to us. And this deal would go down as one the worst decisions in history. The land of Alaska was sold by Russia for a mere $7.2 million. That was outrageously cheap for the time and for that much land.

For a long time, Alaska was a kind of economic hub for Russia, but it was very difficult for settlers to live there. The climate made it difficult to grow crops and sustain a large number of people. In order for Russians to even get to the state, they had to travel through the harsh Siberian wilderness and then sail to the Alaskan coast. 

At the time, Russia knew that Alaska was rich in resources but thought it would be too difficult to control over time. America would go on to earn back the purchase price many times over, thanks to other natural resources that would be discovered later, like lead, platinum, and oil.

Alaska wouldn’t actually become a state, however, until 1959. There was some political turmoil even within the population of the territory on whether or not it should gain statehood at all, though. 

 

Hawaii

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, many visitors, mostly American, came to Hawaii on expeditions and to spread their religion. There were generally good relations between the native people and visitors. Hawaiians even incorporated the British flag into their own because of the international friendship. 

The missionaries who stayed and raised families eventually started a prolific trade in the sugar industry. The sugar businesses brought huge amounts of money to the islands, and this piqued America's economic interests. 

Hawaii became an official territory of the United States in 1898. Hawaii would eventually gain statehood in 1959. The state has a controversial past involving the American government, but eventually, social and historical programs were put into place to maintain Hawaiian history and culture. 

The last two states of Hawaii and Alaska entering the Union would mark the beginning of how we see the flag today with the familiar fifty stars

 

The Union Today

The Flag of the United States of America is drenched in rich and exciting history. It’s commonly believed that we simply fought for the lands we occupy today, but our true story is stranger than fiction. It’s sometimes hard to imagine the American flag without its recognizable blue canton and iconic silver stars. 

If you’re looking to honor our heritage by buying flags made right here in the states, head over to Allegiance Flag Supply for hearty and beautiful flags that will outlast the competition. 

 

Sources:

 

Louisiana Purchase 1803 · Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny. · HST 325 - US Foreign Relations to 1914 (MSU) | MSU

The Declaration of Independence | National Archives

The Republic of Texas | TSLAC