Early American Flags

Figure 2

Gadsden's Flag, 1775

Gadsden's flag says 'Don't Tread on Me' and has a snake on red and white stripes

This was the first American flag, designed specifically as a Navy jack by Christopher Gadsden, the Congressional delegate from South Carolina.

Anyone could read its message: When pieced together into a living organism, the colonies could come alive like the deadly reptile found only in America, the Eastern diamondback rattler.

The rattlesnake—with thirteen symbolic rattles—plus the cautionary motto, probably were inspired by Benjamin Franklin's famous political cartoon of 1754.

Figure 3

Grand Union Flag, 1775

Traditional British flag as described below

The colors and design, especially the British Union in the canton, reflected the prevailing sentiment in the Second Continental Congress that a majority of the delegates still hoped for reconciliation with the mother country.

The two white crosses in the British Union represented the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The thirteen alternating red and white stripes stood for the thirteen colonies of New England and the southern Atlantic Coast.

Figure 4

Hopkinson's 13-Star Flag, 1777

Hopkinson 13-star flag with red and white stripes

The Flag Act of June 14, 1777, retained the thirteen alternating red and white stripes of the Grand Union Flag, but replaced the British Union symbol in the blue canton with thirteen white stars—"a new Constellation." The arrangement of stars, and the proportion of the canton to the field of stripes was still unspecified.

This design, first known as the "Marine Flag," was used for seventeen years without revision, to identify ships of the Navy, and American merchant ships after the Navy was disbanded.

Figure 5

Fifteen-Star Flag, 1794

1794 15-star flag with 15 red and white stripes

The so-called "Continental Colors,"1 authorized by the Flag Act of 1794, consisted of fifteen red and white stripes, with a blue canton containing fifteen white five-pointed stars or mullets arranged in unspecified patterns. The number of points on the stars was still a matter of choice.

Together they accounted for the thirteen original Colonies plus the two states that had recently been admitted to the Union, Vermont in 1791 and Kentucky in 1792. But change was a vital element in the nation's destiny, and its flag would have to follow.

During the twenty-four-year interval between the Flag Act of 1794 and the one of 1818, five more states were admitted: Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi. Congress added the first two in 1796 and 1803, respectively, whereupon a number of unauthorized 17-star/17-stripe flags were manufactured, including some by order of government agencies. In December of 1803, for example, the commander at Fort Dearborn, a new garrison on the site of the future city of Chicago, Illinois, sent an order to the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia, for "Five Flags of about 9 feet by 6 with the Eagle, 17 stars by 17 stripes made of buntin,"2 for use by the Indian Department. Presumably "the eagle" referred to the central element of the Great Seal of the United States, which would have been painted in oils on the blue canton, with 17 stars either placed around the eagle, or else in the circle of dark-bordered clouds and golden sunlight (Figure 6).

Franklin's Cartoon Flag, 1754

Snake cut into pieces, one for each colony, and the words Join or Die

Benjamin Franklin had a knack for expressing his opinions incisively. With this little sketch he created one of the first political cartoons in American journalism. With this drawing of a dissected snake Franklin evoked the then-common superstition that a snake that had been cut into pieces would return to life if they were put back together before sunset. With New England at its head, the reptile's seven remaining segments are New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Caroline, and South Carolina.

He published it in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754, along with an editorial supporting the need for the "present disunited State of the British Colonies" to join together for their own survival in order to resist the efforts of French and Indian militants to control the land west of the Appalachians. As if to test the truth of the old superstition about the revivability of reptiles, the image was restored for various purposes throughout the post-Revolutionary Era and even, with suitable emendations, on both sides during the Civil War.


Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. In Noah Webster's first dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, "flag" and "colors" were synonyms, while "colors" was separately defined as "a banner, flag, streamer, victory, honor."
  • 2. Letters Received, Coxe-Irvine (circa 1797-1842), Record Group 92, Box 47, National Archives; it is cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 16.
    "Buntin" (also buntine, or bunting) denoted a thin but strong worsted wool fabric, which was especially suitable for flags. Because bunting was more cheaply produced in England, it was imported into the U.S. until 1865. It was manufactured in strips of red, white, and blue in various widths, which were sewed together in the proper order and length. Stars, often made of light-weight muslin, were stitched onto the blue canton of the Continental Colors. The eagle, if used instead of stars, could have been embroidered, appliqued, or painted on the blue canton in oils. Today, bunting refers to any collection of flags, banners, pennants, etc., that are strung together for decorative purposes. Scot M. Guenter, The American Flag, 1777-1924: Cultural Shifts from Creation to Codification (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), 89-91.