Was The First American Flag Really Made Of Hemp?

Now that independence day has come and gone, it’s the perfect time to reflect on a piece of American history—the origins of old glory.

Historically, hemp functioned as a major cash crop in the early American economy. Even our first president George Washington grew industrial hemp at his Virginia estate. However, the mythos around early American hemp cultivation isn’t always based on reality. Take, for example, the many hemp-related quotes incorrectly attributed to another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, or the persistent false rumor that James Madison wrote the Constitution on hemp paper. 

Some people say the first-ever American flag was made of industrial hemp. Is this just another urban legend, or is it actually true? Let’s delve into the history of both the flag and early continental hemp cultivation to find out!

History of Hemp In North America

hemp in north america

Today, wild hemp flower grows all over the middle of the country, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the cannabis plant isn’t native to North America at all.

Originally, cannabis grew somewhere around what is today central China and Mongolia. Ancient Chinese farmers quickly found several uses for the versatile plant, cultivating hemp as early as 2800 BC. Cannabis seeds were used in the culinary arts, fibrous hemp stalks were used in some of the earliest paper and textile production, and the cannabis flowers were already being used medicinally. 

During the middle ages, the practice of hemp cultivation spread to the Mediterranean and eventually to the rest of Europe. When the first American colonizers set sail towards Plymouth Rock, they brought with them a supply of hemp seeds to plant upon their arrival in the New World.

Historical Uses Of Hemp In North America

historical uses of hemp

The 2018 Farm Bill recently federally legalized hemp flower, though it’s more correct to say that the bill re-legalized hemp, as it had been grown in abundance for hundreds of years before cannabis prohibition even began. 

The puritans brought hemp seeds with them when they first arrived in America because nautical exploration would be impossible without hemp. Not only were the large sails on the Mayflower made from hemp, but the ropes used to hoist them were also composed of hemp fibers.

Within a few decades, hemp became a major part of the first colonies’ economies. Everything from paper to clothing came straight from the fibrous stalks of the hemp plant for these early settlers. 

History Of The American Flag

American flag made of hemp

In 1777, the continental congress approved the design for the first American flag, which they called the Stars and Stripes. This original flag featured only thirteen white stars, one for each of the original British Colonies.

However, that iconic flag had been flying for over a year by the time Congress made it official. While the exact details of the flag’s original design are somewhat hazy and prone to exaggeration, the story taught in most schools goes like this: 
George Washington, who at the time led the Continental Army, enlisted the help of a friend of his—a young seamstress by the name of Elizabeth Griscom Ross. You may know her better as Betsy. Washington and three other members of the continental congress met with Betsy Ross secretly in her Philadelphia home, where they presented her with a rough draft for a new American flag. The group collaborated, and Betsey sewed what would eventually become an international symbol for independence from the Great British Empire.

While it’s unclear how much of the Betsy Ross story is true, since there are no records or evidence and the tale didn’t originate until a century after the fact, one thing is certain: that original flag was indeed made from hemp. Not only was hemp an important symbol of the colonies’ economic independence, but it served a practical purpose as well. Hemp is a much more durable fabric than cotton. It’s much less likely to fade in the sun or tear in the wind, making it an ideal material for a battle flag.

So remember, when you celebrate this American Flag during the Fourth of July, you’re also celebrating hemp!