Research Upholds Traditional Prospect Hill Flag Story

A researcher contradicts the idea that George Washington flew a British flag—not an American one—during one of Somerville's most important historical events.

The Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill. Credit: Chris Orchard
The Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill. Credit: Chris Orchard
Does Somerville's annual New Year's Day flag ceremony on Prospect Hill commemorate something that never really happened, or is the legend surrounding the celebration rooted in actual historical events?

One researcher, who will speak at the Prospect Hill ceremony on Wednesday, argues the traditional story of the Prospect Hill flag is accurate.

What flag did George Washington fly on Prospect Hill?

The traditional story, briefly, is this:

On Jan. 1, 1776, Gen. George Washington, who was stationed in Cambridge during the Siege of Boston, raised the Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill to boost morale for his new continental army. This flag, with 13 red and white strips and with the British Union Jack in its canton, was the first unofficial flag of the United States and the forefather of the modern American flag.

The image of George Washington raising the first American flag on Prospect Hill, it goes without saying, plays a significant role in how the city of Somerville views its own history.

In recent years, that traditional story of the Grand Union flag has been questioned, notably by Peter Ansoff, who published a paper in 2006, "The Flag on Prospect Hill," that makes a persuasive argument that Washington flew a British union flag—basically the Union Jack—and not the 13-striped Grand Union Flag.

See: New Research May Contribute to Prospect Hill Flag Debate >>

Defending the traditional story

However, Byron DeLear, a member, like Ansoff, of the North American Vexillological Association, which studies flags, recently presented a paper to the association called, "Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill: Grand Union or just British?"

The 58-page paper takes another look at contemporary sources from the time of the original flag-raising, in 1776, and concludes the traditional story of the Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill makes historical sense.

The paper argues some of the following things:

  • The term "union flag"—a key description used by primary sources at the time—was commonly used to refer to flags containing the Union Jack in the canton and other colors, such as red, blue or stripes, in the field, so it's consistent with the language of the time that the Grand Union Flag would be called the "union flag"
  • One eyewitness of the Prospect Hill flag-raising described stripes; whereas Ansoff argued those stripes belonged to a separate flag, DeLear suggests it was part of the same flag
  • Secondary sources at the time, such as newspaper articles, also described a flag with stripes
  • The Grand Union Flag was previously flown on Dec. 3, 1775, in Philadelphia, aboard the Continental Navy's first flagship, Alfred, so there was precedent in considering it the unofficial flag of the Continental cause when it was flown from Prospect Hill

DeLear's paper also includes some other interesting research:

  • The first documented written reference to the phrase "the United States of America" was found in a letter written by one of Washington's aides on Jan. 2, 1776—suggesting Washington's camp was well on the way to considering the 13 colonies as an independent country at that time, and it would fit that the flag-raising on Jan. 1 featured a new, "American" flag
  • A discussion of the Grand Union Flag's similarity to the flag of the British East India Company—the two are almost identical—and what that might mean

"It's origin is shrouded in mystery"

The annual flag-raising ceremony on Prospect Hill, which includes a George Washington re-enactor on horseback, men dressed as colonial militiamen and British soldiers, volunteers in period costumes, speeches and, of course, the raising of the flag on Prospect Hill Monument, is about modern Somerville remembering its past.

Regardless of what flag was actually flown, it's true that Prospect Hill was an important fortification during the Siege of Boston, that Somerville—then part of Charlestown—was at the center of the action during those early days of the American Revolution, that Washington, Paul Revere and other Patriots traversed the roads and hills of modern-day Somerville at that time.

DeLear's paper notes that "[The Grand Union Flag's] origin is shrouded in mystery as there is simply no historical record of when—or more importantly why—the Grand Union flag's particular design was proposed and adopted. And yet, in a relatively uniform manner, starting in December of 1775, the Grand Union became the de facto standard of the American colonies, and following the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, the 'Union Flag of the American States.'"

That said, from DeLear's perspective, the legend of the Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill remains intact.

Hear the research in person

DeLear will be speaking Wednesday—Jan. 1—at the annual flag-raising ceremony, which begins at 11:30 a.m. at City Hall for a procession up Prospect Hill.

If you haven't been to the ceremony in a few years, because, well, it's always the same and you had one too many glasses of bubbly the night before, this may be the year to attend.
Joe Lynch December 30, 2013 at 04:01 PM
One of the more credible pieces of information regarding the two main components (stars and stripes) of what is now our national flag origins, comes from a piece written in the 1860's by a Somerville historian(sorry, the name escapes me right now). The Washington coat of arms, brought to our shores by Washington's ancestors, bears the stars and stripes as the two main components. Years ago, my Dad salvaged a 125 year old reprint of "The Origin of the Stars and Stripes" wall hanging from the Bingham school prior to its demolition. That document states the same theory about the stars and stripes, the Washington family coat of arms and how our flag got its design. I still have that reprint hanging in my home today.


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