Sons of Liberty Flag

The Sons of Liberty Flag was originally flown in Boston by the Sons of Liberty, a loose knit association of colonists resisting British efforts to take away their liberties. The flag had 9 vertical red and white stripes. The flag became known as the "Rebellious Stripes" and was eventually outlawed by the British. The colonists reversed the stripes to horizontal and kept using it in protests against tyrannical attempts to tax them against their will. Eventually the stripes grew to 13, representing unified resistance from all 13 British colonies.


History of the Sons of Liberty Flag

The Sons of Liberty were formed in Boston around the time of the Stamp Act protests in 1765. Local patriots would meet at a large elm tree to protest. This became known as the Liberty Tree. They began to fly this flag whenever the leaders would want to call the townspeople together and it became known as the Sons of Liberty Flag or the Liberty Tree Flag. Legend says the 9 stripes represented the 9 colonies that attended the Stamp Act Congress to coordinate their dissent.

The Liberty Tree became a popular meeting place for the Sons of Liberty to express their dissent. Unpopular officials were hung and burned in effigy from the tree. Colonists posted notices threatening citizens who cooperated with British taxation schemes. The British finally cut the tree down in an effort to stop the dissent. The colonists erected a pole in its place called the "Liberty Pole" and flew the Sons of Liberty Flag from it instead. The flag came to be known as the "Rebellious Stripes" and was outlawed by the British. The colonists simply reversed the stripes and kept using it.

As word spread about the Liberty Tree and Liberty Pole in Boston, similar Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles sprung up around the colonies as meeting places for resistance against the British. Sons of Liberty groups formed across the colonies as well. The Boston Sons of Liberty reached the height of their influence at the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when they threw tea from the British East India Company into the harbor to protest unlawful British taxes. By the time the Revolutionary War started in 1775, the stripes had grown to 13, representing the unified resistance of all 13 colonies. From around 1776 to 1800, the Sons of Liberty Flag was used as a United States merchant flag for merchant shipping, so is sometimes called the Colonial Merchant Ensign (an ensign is a flag).

Questions about the history of the Sons of Liberty Flag

There are a few questions pointed out by historians about the traditional history of this flag. First of all, there is a very old Sons of Liberty Flag held by the Old State House in Boston that was featured in the July 1936 National Geographic Magazine. This flag was donated to the State House by a John C. Fernald in 1893. The year earlier he had loaned it to the Columbian Expedition in Chicago, which wrote this about the flag in its official catalogue of items:

Furnald told the State House he had purchased the flag from the grand-daughter of a wireworker named Samuel Adams who had died in 1855 at the age of 96. The idea that it had once flown from the Liberty Tree was passed on down through the family over the years. The problem is that this story cannot be verified from any other sources. It was purely a verbal tradition passed down in the family.

The story has several historical problems. First, the Liberty Tree was not on Boston Common, but a few blocks away. Second, there were likely no mass meetings of the Sons of Liberty at the tree in 1775 because there were so many British troops in the city. Third, Mr. Adams would have been 16 in 1775 and as a teenager would not likely have been given the responsibility of caring for the Sons of Liberty's flag, although it could have belonged to his father or grandfather before him.

The last problem is that modern historians have examined this Sons of Liberty Flag and believe it does not date from the Revolutionary War period due to its machine woven cotton cloth. Cotton cloth was not widely available until 1800 and machine woven cloth was very rare in 1775 as machine looms were very new at the time. Most cloth was still hand woven at this time.

Some historians believe this flag was not flown from the Liberty Tree at all, but instead, the flag flown was a British Red Ensign, the official flag of Great Britain and hence the official flag of the British colonies. Flying the British Red Ensign would have been illegal for colonists as the flag was reserved for military uses, but they may have flown it and added white stripes to symbolize their rebellion. This may have been the origin of the "rebellious stripes" label.

These historians point out that there are many contemporary references to the Boston patriots flying a flag from the Liberty Tree, but none of them describe the Sons of Liberty Flag with 9 red and white stripes. Instead, nearly all of those who describe the flag describe a red flag and call it a British or Union Flag (the Union representing the union of England and Scotland into Great Britain). If this is the case, as it appears to be, the Sons of Liberty Flag developed out of the British Red Ensign. Perhaps the colonists removed the British Union Jack from the corner of the flag as a gesture of defiance when the war began.

Sons of Liberty Flag in the Revolutionary War and Beyond

The Grand Union Flag, which was the first unofficial, though commonly used, flag of the united colonies, added 6 white stripes to a traditional British Red Ensign, the official flag of Great Britain. This may have been an effort to emulate the Sons of Liberty's "rebellious stripes."

The Sons of Liberty Flag may also be the basis from which the First Navy Jack Flag, the first US naval flag, was created, as well as the the first 13 star flag, the first official flag of the United States.

You may find a few variations of the Sons of Liberty Flag showing a snake, a cup of tea or other symbols in the center of the red and white stripes. These are not flags from the Revolutionary War era, but are modern variations of the flag. The only exception to this is the First Navy Jack Flag which has a snake over the words "Don't Tread On Me." This is traditionally considered to be the United States navy's first flag.


This article is a re-post from Revolutionary War and Beyond, our sister site. 

The Green Mountain Boys Flag

green-mountain-boys_1The Green Mountain Boys, under the command of Ethan Allen marched under this flag.  This militia group was from the New Hampshire Grants that later became Vermont.  This militia formed to protect their land grants which were granted by New Hampshire.  The British government officially gave them to New York. So, when New York attempted to take control of their lands, the Green Mountain Boys militia was born.  On several occasions, Ethan Allen and his boys repelled attempts to take their land.

Though they are known for capturing Fort Ticonderoga along with Colonel Benedict Arnold (before he fell in with that Redcoat scalawag Andre), one of their most impressive contributions was the capture of canon and ammunition that Colonel Henry Knox used to reinforce General Washington’s control of the city of Boston. 

This flag is unique both because of its coloring and  the scattered arrangement of the 13 stars on the canton.

TA-DA: My favorite flag – The Grand Union Flag

As promised – my favorite flag – the Grand Union Flag

In an earlier article, I mentioned that the Union Flag (Union between England and Scotland) was one of the most hated flags by the Insurgents in America.  It was a constant reminder that the Crown was not a friend to the Colonies, that the King and Parliament were taking away their rights as British citizens. 

Another flag I featured was the "Rebellious Stripes" flag of the Sons of Liberty. 

Well, today, let me introduce you to the Grand Union Flag – the "you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate" of Revolutionary Era flags.

As you can see, this flag is a hybrid of the Union flag and the Sons of Liberty flag.

It was first flown over George Washington’s headquarters at Cambridge on January 1, 1776. 

Here’s why I love this flag:  It was totally "in your face, oh, King!"  The British Union Flag was a ROYAL ensign and could only be used with Royal permission by official government organizations and His Majesty’s military.  Any other use was against the law. 

As the Colonial Army was being formed and made official, a royal decree came down from on high rejecting the Colonist’s "protestations of loyalty." 

This flag was our answer – a clear message of defiance.  They didn’t have the King’s permission.  And they just didn’t care.

Good on ya, boys!







The British Red Ensign Flag

The British Red Ensign Flag (top) was the flag that flew over the American Colonies after 1707.

It was a combination of the English Red Ensign Flag (middle) and the Scottish Red Ensign (bottom). In 1707, Scotland’s Parliament, despite the protest of the Scots, united with England to become Great Britain. Of that union, Scots poet Robert Burns said "We’re bought and sold for English gold, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation!" (Not that we’re here to discuss Scottish History.) At that point, Queen Anne decreed that this Union Flag be the official flag of Great Britain.

The flag itself goes back even into the 1600’s but was not much used as neither the English nor the Scots particularly liked having their own flags adulterated with the other.

If you’ll look at the flag of other countries that were formerly part of Great Britain, Australia, for example, you will see that many of these countries simply took this British Red Ensign Flag and added their own identifier.

For the American Insurgents, the Union Flag was a hated flag. It was a constant reminder that, while the Colonies were part of Great Britain, the King was not allowing them the rights they’d always had as British citizens.

One of the flags the Insurgents flew the colors of the Sons of Liberty Flag. Another one, the Taunton Flag, we’ll get to in due time.

On a side note, the state of Hawaii is the only state in the USA that still has the Union flag as part of its flag, a tribute to it’s history with Great Britain.Flag of Hawaii

Sons of Liberty Flag

     We’ve all heard of the Sons of Liberty.  They were the secret group of Patriots who organized the Boston Tea Party.  But they were so much more.
     They kept track of British troop movements, rode in secret missions to warn when General Gage was sending troops to confiscate arms and powder, and they organized help for Boston when the Intolerable Acts closed Boston Harbor.
     Their flag was made up of nine vertical strips which represented the Loyal Nine.
      These nine men were the founders of the Sons of Liberty in 1765.  The Loyal Nine were even more secret than the Sons of Liberty.  It is only now that we know who they were.  Their names will likely not even ring a bell with you.  They didn’t with me.
J     ohn Avery, Henry Bass, a cousin of Samuel Adams, Thomas Chase,  Stephen Cleverly, Thomas Crafts, Benjamin Edes, Joseph Field, John Smith, George Trott.
     These men went on to be very active in the Sons of Liberty.  At least four of them participated in the Boston Tea Party. 
     The flag became knows as the “Rebellious Stripes.”  It was outlawed by the Crown.  The Colonists merely switched the strips to horizontal and kept using it.  Eventually, they added more strips to equal 13 strips.
     As you’ll see in future posts, this 13 stripe Sons of Liberty flag was used in many of the famous Revolutionary War era flags.  I can’t wait to tell you about my favorite flag.  No hints – be patient. 

Revolutionary Symbols – the Snake

The snake as a symbol for the Revolution was an invention of Ben Franklin. It began with a satire Franklin wrote in 1751, criticizing the practice of Great Britain sending their violent criminals to the Americas to get rid of them. Franklin suggested that America might want to send shiploads of rattlesnakes back to the mother country as a way of returning the favor.

Then, during the French and Indian war, Franklin once again used the snake as a symbol to preach unity to the colonies. His Join or Die political cartoon showed a snake cut into eight pieces.**

There was a myth at the time that a snake that had been cut up into pieces would grow back together if the pieces were put back together. So, Franklin used this myth to urge the Colonies to come together for strength.

In 1765, the snake was again popular along with the words “Dont tread on me” as the Colonies joined together to fight the Stamp Act.

The rattlesnake was eventually incorporated into the well-known Gadsden Flag, which was the first official flag of the Commodore of the US Navy. It was also used in the Culpeper flag flown by the Culpeper VA Minutemen (think Patrick Henry.)



In December 1775, Franklin again sang the praises of the rattlesnake as a symbol of America. In an article in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin said the snake was the perfect symbol:

  • No eye-lids so she is always on the watch, always vigilant.
  • Doesn’t begin an attack, but once in battle, she doesn’t surrender.
  • Her defenses are hidden (in her mouth) so she appears weak. And though the bite is small, it’s deadly.
  • She doesn’t attack until after she gives warning.

Here’s the full article.

I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, "Don’t tread on me." As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America; and as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device — I took care, however, to consult on this occasion a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned, that it is a rule among the learned of that science "That the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered," and, "That the base ones cannot have been intended;" he likewise informed me that the ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration – both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view. Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occurred to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her.

But then "the worldly properties" of a Snake I judged would be hard to point out. This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the Rattle-Snake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the same genus or class of animals, endeavoring to fix some meaning to each, not wholly inconsistent with common sense.

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.

Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. Perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shown a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada.
‘Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.

The Rattle-Snake is solitary, and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly, they would probably perish. The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean, that those who consider the liberty and blessings which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age, "her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks."
An American Guesser


** 8 Pieces?  There were 13 Colonies.  The key here is that NE stood for New England.  The Colonies of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island made up the New England Colonies.  So, that’s how 8 pieces can represent all 13 Colonies

Revolutionary Symbols: The Pine Tree

Pinus_strobus_old_tree_Appalachian_ParkThe White Pine of New England.  It’s the Sequoia of the East Coast.  And it has a long history in the making of America.  It also plays a role in Revolution.

Shortly after the first settlers arrived on the shores of what would become New England, they discovered this amazing tree.  It grows straight and strong,  hundreds of feet tall.  But it is also a very light wood and easily worked.  Its contribution to the industry and economy of the Colonies cannot be overstated.  These massive trunks became the masts for ships all over the world. And other wood harvested was crafted into a wide array of shipbuilding pieces and even items for farm and household use.

And here’s the rub.  The English Navy needed these trees for their ships.  So, of course, the King just marked them as his.  So let it be done.  The Kings Surveyors were authorized to search out and mark trees within ten miles of any navigable waters.  Broad_arrow_288They were so thorough that only the smaller trees were left for Americans’ use.  The fine for cutting down one of the trees marked with the Broad Arrow of the King was £100.

For the most part, Americans ignored the marks and took the trees anyway.  And England pretty  much said nothing.  Until the 1770’s.  And then the enforcement became intolerable.  The very livelihood of New England was threatened and the Colonists wouldn’t stand for it.  Who was this King to tell Americans they could not use trees they owned?  Resentments flared into  skirmishes throughout New England, with such names as “The White Pine War” and “The Pine Tree Riot”.


And the pine tree became yet another symbol rallying Americans to stand for Liberty.


The Bedford Flag

BedfordFlagThe Bedford flag is the only flag thought to be carried by the Insurgent forces on April 19th, 1775.  It was carried by Nathaniel Page, of the Bedford Minutemen.  Bedford is about five miles northeast of Concord.

But the flag itself dates back to even before the French and Indian war.  It was commissioned for a Massachusetts cavalry unity by Nathaniel’s father in 1737.  As a cavalry flag, it was not the size we think of for other Revolutionary War Flags.  It measured 27″ long by 29″ wide and was made of crimson silk damask.  This flag still resides in the Bedford Public Library.

Their website describes the flag this way:  “Into the rich red damask is woven a pattern of pomegranates, grapes, and leaves.  The design is painted on both sides of the flag, mainly in silver and gold.  The emblem consists of a mailed arm emerging from clouds and grasping a sword.  Three cannonballs hang in the air.  Encircling the arm is a gold ribbon on which the Latin words “VINCE AUT MORIRE” (Conquer or Die) are painted.”

Nathaniel told his grandson the story of April 19th, when he carried this little flag to Concord and into history:  “Our people were not surprised when the messenger reached this house…  We had agreed at the last drilling to meet, in case of alarm, at the tavern in the center of the town, kept by Jeremiah Fitch, sergeant of the militia company.  The horseman banged on the house and cried out, ‘Up, Mr. Page, the regulars are out.’  We were not long at our preparations, and were soon at the tavern.”

When they reached concord, Nathaniel and the Bedford Minutemen remove and hide stores before joining the Concord militia at the North Bridge.