Flag Facts

Sotheby's Custer's Last Flag
The Culbertson Guidon from the Battle of the Little Big Horn

With Contribution of Appendix 2 by Zaricor Flag Collection (ZFC) in the body of the sales catalog by Sotheby's

New York 10 December 2010

ZFC0327 - Detail of "Custer's Last Stand" Print by Edgar S. Paxson

Zaricor Flag Collection was asked by Sotheby's to contribute a summary disposition, Appendix 2, for the December 2010 auction sales catalog of one of the last remaining flags from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25,1876. For the first time, since that hot dry day on the high plains of the Montana Territory, a detailed accounting has been completed of the flags Custer's men took into battle against an overwhelming force of Native American Indians.

From a total of 14 flags only three flags can be accounted for today. Reading like a baseball score from the beginning to the final accounting of the number today one is struck by the complexity involved in knowing definitively what happened to each flag. Our ZFC curator, and co researcher, James Ferrigan, a long time flag enthusiast and expert draws an abstract map of each flag’s disposition before, during, and after the horrific battle. Of special note, Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s personal battle flag referred to as a Personal Guidon, which followed him into the battle at the Little Big Horn (1st flag on the list) is believed by historians, and flag experts to be identical to the 3rd Personal Guidon in the Zaricor Flag Collection (see ZFC0489).

Sotheby's auction of one of the few remaining flags that exhibits the fear, loyalty, and heroism shown by both sides in that epic struggle between two cultures is a poignant testament to the power of flags. An example, of one man's attempt to carry out his colonel's order to save the flag, illustrates a person's commitment to his duty and fellow comrades, all doomed to die as he himself was, so that this silent witness survives to represent what happened to Custer and his five companies during the chaos that June day in 1876.

We would like to express our gratitude to Sotheby’s, for the opportunity, to make a contribution to one of the most important American history auctions of 2010. It offered an opportunity for the Zaricor Flag Collection to add a dimension to this auction that revealed, for the first time, a body of knowledge previously not well understood by the public or historians. This infamous epic event of the Plains Indian War, in the closing decades of the 19th century, is one of the markers to the end of the Wild West. Ben Zaricor

Appendix 2 - © 2010 Zaricor Flag Collection/Fog Kist of Santa Cruz LLC. Published in Sotheby's catalog © 2010
ZFC0327 - Detail of "Custer's Last Stand" Print by Edgar S. Paxson, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 22 April 2012

20 Flag Facts

1. Flags are "the undiscoverable collectible." Flags have been around in human societies for over 5000 years, they have served primarily symbolic and practical purposes such as signaling. Thus, with the exception of a few banners of historical or religious significance, most flags were used until they wore out. Only very recently have Americans become aware of the value of old flags for their artistic beauty, educational significance, and appeal to the collector. The broad category of "Americana flags" is particularly sought after.

2. The study of flags is known as vexillology. The word comes from the Latin vexillum, which literally means "a small sail." People have studied flags for hundred of years, but the term for that specialty was only coined in 1956 by a teenager who later became director of the Flag Research Center. Flag collectors are known as vexillophiles; flag desingers are called vexillographers. Variations of the word vexillology also have been used in many other languages around the world.

3. Flags served a utilitarian function on the battlefield - to indicate the direction the troops were heading; being on long poles enabled flags to be seen above the smoke and brawl of battle. Flag bearers were wounded or killed in proportionately high numbers. With the advent of smokeless gunpowder and the machine gun, carrying any flag into battle was with great risk and soon discontinued.

4. The flag of The United States has at least three dozen names. "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Old Glory" were specific flags whose names eventually came to be applied to any version of the Stars and Stripes. In addition, the flag has been referred to as the "Banner of the Free," the "Red, White and Blue," the "Flag That Makes you Free," and the "Flower Flag." George M. Cohan, quoting a Civil War veteran, wrote the song "She's a Grand Old Rag," but public opinion forced him to change it to "Grand Old Flag."

5. The Stars and Stripes was the world's first secular national flag. Throughout history rulers and countries were closely associated with a single predominant religion, which was reflected in the design and use of their national flags. In contrast, the red-white-blue colors and the symbols (stars, stripes) of "Old Glory" were chosen in 1777 to represent the structure of American government and the guiding principles of the country, including liberty of conscience. Freedom for Americans to exercise choice in religious belief was a principle enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 12 years later.

6. The Stars and Stripes stands for all Americans, but it contains symbols only for the 50 states. Territories of the United States are not represented in either the stars or the stripes of the national banner, although most states started out as territories. Currently the United States has six territories: the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and American Samoa. Their total population, well over four million people, has U.S. citizenship and the protection of the Stars and Stripes.

7. Francis Hopkinson was the designer of the original Stars and Stripes. Hopkinson, a revolutionary War judge, poet, and member of Congress, made a contemporary claim for his design work. Years later, however, others came up with distinctive versions of the Stars and Stripes that have been associated with their names. Navy Captain Samuel Reid, flag-maker Digby Chandler, Samuel F. B. Morse (inventor of the telegraph), and lecturer Wayne Whipple are among others who claimed to have "designed the American Flag."

8. Just about every American knows the name Betsy Ross, widely regarded as the maker of the first American flag. Unfortunately, most of what they "know" about her is misleading. Betsy herself made no known claims concerning the first Stars and Stripes. Century-later assertions by her family that she sewed the very first flag at the request of George Washington are unsubstantiated. It is only known for certain that she made some ships' colors for the Pennsylvania Navy in 1776 before becoming a general flag-maker.

New evidence has revealed that the pattern of a circle of 13 stars often attributed as the first American flag of our country was not a design in use but in fact the pattern was a circle of 12 stars with a larger star in the center. There are no known examples or evidence that there ever was a Betsy Ross design of 13 stars in a circle until much later at the time of the American Centinel in 1776 and there are infact surviving original 13 star flags with 12 stars in a circle with a larger star in the center of the circle. There are even renderings of the 12/1 design that date to 1788 and before. Maybe the family of Betsy Ross got the oral history wrong and lost count of how many stars were in a circle. The 12/1 circle pattern is not the only contemporary design of the Revolution there were at least three other designs of which two were popular with the Continental Navy in a horizontal pattern. The country was still searchiong for another 40 years until the Third Flag Act in 1818 did the country decide on what it's national flag would look like, except for the pattern of the stars which to nearly another 100 years to be codefied in 1912. Until then there were hundreds if not thousands of star designs used to express the personality of a flag maker or a region of the country.

9. The real "Betsy Ross" of the American Revolution was Rebecca Young of Philadelphia and later of Baltimore. Rebecca was the sister of Colonel Benjamin Flower, George Washington's Commissary General. She made many military and national colors for the Continental Army and George Washington.

It is beleved by some historians, Betsy Ross Claypole, who also made flags though mainly making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy, worked under contract for Rebecca Young. 10. Rebecca Young was the mother of Mary Pickersgill, who made the Star Spangled Banner for Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. At the time, Rebecca Young was living with her daughter in Baltimore; it is believed she assisted her daughter in the construction of what is referred to today as "America's Flag-The Star Spangled Banner," made famous by Francis Scott Key in the song that became our national anthem.

11. All of the children of Rebecca Young were accomplished flag makers who received many government contracts for flags up through the early 1820s; this included her son, who actually competed with his mother in advertisements at the time. It is thought he may have made some of the flags for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 that were used as gifts to various Indian tribes.

12. The American Flag has changed more often than any other national flag. Although its red and white stripes and its blue field with white stars have been familiar to Americans for 225 years, some of the details of the flag have been changed. From 1795 to 1818, for example, there were 15 stripes instead of 13. Various arrangements of stars appeared before they were standardized in parallel rows for governemtn flags only in 1912. The simple addition of a new star for each new state has meant that the Stars and Stripes has had 27 different versions. Afghanistan has the second most changed flag in the world today, having had 18 national banners in its history.

13. The number of stars in the American flag has decreased as well as increased. Unofficially, many individuals and groups have reduced the number of stars for specific symbolic reasons. In the 19th century, for example, Abolitionists and Suffragettes flew versions of Old Glory with only as many stars as there were Free States, Slave States or states giving women the right to vote. Other flags were made with too few stars through carelessness or to simplify making the flag, especially as the number of states increased. "Abbreviated flags" with too few stars and stripes, which today often appear in graphic designs, are still recognizably American.

14. The U.S. National Colors were first carried into land battle (with the exception of the Navy) in the Mexican-American War (1846) and last carried into land battle during the Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion (Chinses Nationalist), and Mexican border intrusion (1912 - (1901). Prior, during and after this period, designating flags (or units), militia, states and regimental flags/colors were used on the field of battle.

15. From the first time a ship ventured out if its home waters, flags became a necessity at sea. Wherever men have sailed on the oceans, their flags have indicated their nationality and allegiance, and the ship without a flag has justly been recongnized in international law as a pirate.

16. Thirteen Star U.S. flags were manufactured and used until 1912. They were used by the U.S. goverment and other groups and individuals, but primarily by the Navy. The fewer the stars the easier it was to recognize the national flag from a distance at sea.

17. In the past, famous flags were often cut to pieces. Starnge as it seems today, some of the most important flags in history lost much of their fabric to souvenir hunters. Veterans, family members, historians, and the general public often wrote to the owners of battle flags (such as the Star-Spangled Banner) for pieces. The owners woudl oblige by cutting out pieces of material, large or small, which were then cherished as mementos of the events the flag had been associated with. At the time, this practice was not considered flag desecration.

18."The blue canton symbolizes the union. The 50 stars stand for the 50 states. The 13 stripes represent the 13 colonies that formed the independent nation (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). The blue symbolizes loyalty, devotion, friendship, justice and truth; the red stands for courage, zeal and fervency; and the white represents purity and rectitude of conduct." (Alfred Znamierowski, The World Encyclopedia of Flags, 2002.)

19. The United States has no "keeper of the flag." Important as the Stars and Stripes is to America, no one government official or agency is responsible for regulating the usage, design, and other aspects of the flag. Congress has passed a number of flag and various presidents have issued Executive Orders on the subject. The Flag itself, however, belongs to all of the American people, to use as they see fit.

20. Amazingly, there is no museum in the United States dedicated exclusively to flags. A number of museums have some flags in their archives and there are some outdoor displays of flag replicas. The Smithsonian Institution's original Star Spangled Banner, which inspired our national anthem, is spectacular - but it represents only one moment in the nation's three-century-plus flag history. An imaginative Flag Interpretative Center could present hundreds of impressive and significant original banners to delight patriots, scholars, students, and casual visitors alike. To create such a museum would require a commitment of the people.

For more information on The Flag Center and the efforts to establish a permanent Center in San Francisco, please email your name and address to info@flagcenter.org. Copyright 2002 Whitney Smith & Ben Zaricor.

Compiled with the assistance of the world's leading vexillologist, Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center, Winchester, Massachusetts.