Early American Flags

Crowd holding small American flags.

Archeological digs in northern India, datingaround 3,500 B.C., have uncovered a seal, used to sign documents. The sealshows a procession of seven men carrying square standards, held aloft on poleslike modem flags. While these ancient flags were rigid, like boards, and notmade of cloth as modern flags are, they provided ample testimony that heraldryand the displaying of banners dated to the earliest civilizations.

In American history, the Vikings carried a flagwhich bore a black raven on a field of white. In 1492 Columbus sailed to ourshores with his three small ships displaying the Spanish flag bearing two redlions on two white fields and two yellow castles on two red fields. The Dutchbrought their own striped flags when they settled in New Amsterdam, which wenow call New York, and pioneers from other nations also brought along thestandards of their countries when they settled on our shores.

It is only natural, therefore, that America should create colonial flags as soon as the first colonists settled. Given thedisparate array of settlers, it is not surprising that a wide variety of flagswas created. The first flags adopted by our colonial forebears were symbolic oftheir struggles with the wilderness of the new land. Beavers, pine trees,rattlesnakes, anchors and various other insignia were affixed to differentbanners with mottoes such as "Hope," "Liberty," "Appeal to Heaven," or "Don'tTread on Me."

In the early days of the Revolution, there werecolonial and regimental flags by the score. The Boston Liberty flag, consistingof nine alternate red and white horizontal stripes, flew over the Liberty Tree,a fine old elm in Hanover Square in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty met.Still another was a white flag with a green pine tree and the inscription, "AnAppeal to Heaven." This particular flag became familiar on the seas as theensign of the cruisers commissioned by General Washington, and was noted bymany English newspapers of the time.

Flags with a rattlesnake theme also gainedincreasing prestige with colonists. The slogan "Don't Tread on Me" almostinvariably appeared on rattlesnake flags. A flag of this type was the standardof the South Carolina Navy. Another, the Gadsden flag, consisted of a yellowfield with a rattlesnake in a spiral coil, poised to strike, in the center.Below the snake was the motto, "Don't Tread on Me." Similar was the Culpepperflag, banner of the Minutemen of Culpepper (now spelled Culpeper) County,Virginia. It consisted of a white field with -a rattlesnake in a spiral coil inthe center. Above the rattlesnake was the legend "The Culpepper Minute Men" andbelow, the motto, "Liberty or Death" as well as "Don't Tread on Me."

In December of 1775, an anonymous Philadelphiacorrespondent wrote to Bradford's Pennsylvania journal concerning the symbolicuse of the snake. He began the letter by saying:

"I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of anyother animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may, therefore, be esteemed anemblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, eversurrenders. She is, therefore, an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.

It was probably the deadly bite ofthe rattler, however, which was foremost in the minds of its designers, and thethreatening slogan "Don't Tread on Me" added further significance to thedesign.

The Moultrie flag was the firstdistinctive American flag displayed in the South. It flew over the ramparts ofthe fort on Sullivan's Island, which lies in the channel leading to Charleston,South Carolina, when the British fleet attacked on June 28, 1776. The Britishships bombarded the fort for 10 hours. But the garrison, consisting of some 375regulars -and a few militia, under the command of Col. William Moultrie, put upsuch a gallant defense that the British were forced to withdraw under cover ofdarkness. This victory saved the southern Colonies from invasion for anothertwo years. The flag was blue, as were the uniforms of the men of the garrison,and it bore a white crescent in the upper corner next to the staff, like thesilver crescents the men wore on their caps, inscribed with the words "Libertyor Death."

The Maritime Colony of RhodeIsland had its own flag, which was carried at Brandywine, Trenton, andYorktown. It bore an anchor, 13 stars, and the word "Hope." Its white stars ina blue field are believed by many to have influenced the design of our nationalflag.

The Army preferred its regimentalflags on the battlefield instead of the Stars and Stripes. A popular form ofthe U.S. flag that was used in battle had the obverse (front) of the Great Sealin the canton. The Army also used the Stars and Stripes with 13 stars in acircle. The Stars and Stripes was officially used in Army artillery units in1834, and in infantry units in 1842.

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