Dan Rattiner's Stories

Some Say John Hulbert of Bridgehampton Made the First American Flag

In 1929, an old tattered 13-star American flag was found in storage at Hulbert's former home.

As you probably know, Betsy Ross did not design the first American flag. She may have sewn one, but the first one, it is believed by some people, was designed by East Ender Captain John Hulbert. There is considerable evidence to support this. That original flag today sits behind glass as a centerpiece of the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead.

Here is what we know. And after that, what we don’t know.

In July of 1775, just one year before the Declaration of Independence, John Hulbert of Bridgehampton, then age 37, was asked to head up the third militia, a group of fighters from Southampton and East Hampton, to be part of a New York army of 3,000 men tasked with protecting that colony from invasion by British forces.

The British had already invaded and were now occupying Boston to punish that city for their “Boston Tea Party,” and were already in upstate New York. They had captured Fort Ticonderoga, a huge fort built by the French at the base of Lake Champlain, north of Albany. American patriots from all 13 colonies had met by this time in Philadelphia at what they called the Continental Congress. What should they do?

Hulbert, a rope maker, had his orders. His 200-man militia was to march to Fort Ticonderoga to assist in taking that fort back from the British. They headed out. They had muskets and uniforms. It is believed that when they returned from their operation at Fort Ticonderoga, they also carried a 13-star, 13-stripe flag, which was the first of its kind. But there is no sketch or drawing of it.

The militia was too late for the initial battle. The fort had fallen to a small group of rebels from nearby Vermont—the Green Mountain Boys—on May 10 of that year, before Hulbert’s men were even mustered, so they knew that before they started out. Why they went, though, was because it was feared more British Redcoats were on their way to take it back. The Hulbert militia would be part of the reinforcements to hold the fort.

When they arrived, they weren’t needed. The rebels were in full control, and new orders for Hulbert and his men assigned them to picket duty at Fort Ticonderoga and, come November, two months later, to escort a group of British Redcoats taken prisoner down the Hudson River to Trenton, New Jersey. From there, they would take them across the Delaware River and then parade them by the Second Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.

Attending this Congress was patriot Francis Hopkinson, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and, at that time, a delegate from the colony of New Jersey. Hopkinson, we here on the East End believe, watched the parade of prisoners accompanied by Hulbert’s Third Militia. We don’t know for sure. But he was there and Hulbert was there, flags flying.

Hopkinson’s presence in this story is important because, as you know, the myth that Betsy Ross designed the American flag was busted by those who believe Hopkinson’s flag came first. Hopkinson, at about the time he was also attending that Congress, designed a Stars and Stripes. He also worked on the design of the Great Seal and the first American coins. There’s a letter he wrote Congress, three years after he designed these things. In 1780, he said that it had been three years and he had not been paid. He would settle the matter for a “Quarter Cask of the public Wine.”

It is he, today, who is considered by many to be the first to make the Stars and Stripes. We here on the East End, beg to differ. We think he saw Hulbert’s flag, and designed from that.

How do we know Hulbert flew a Stars and Stripes? Well, in 1929 an old tattered 13-star American flag was found in storage at the home where Hulbert had lived. The 13 stars of this flag were six-pointed stars, not five-pointed stars. Hopkinson’s flag had six-pointed stars. Betsy Ross’s flag, later, had five-pointed stars. It was only after the initial Stars and Stripes was designed and made that it was decided to make stars with five points rather than six.

Scientists examined this old flag and some have concluded it was made around 1840, perhaps as a replica of an early American flag. But others say it is the real McCoy. It is very old, and there it is—go see it if you want. Certainly it is a flag around 200 years old. And if it weren’t real, why would it be in storage at Hulbert’s house?

And where was Hulbert’s house, anyway? Its unclear in which of his houses they found the flag. Turns out that after the British defeated George Washington at the Battle of Long Island, John Hulbert, among many other East End rebels, fled to Connecticut by boat to escape being arrested. The British were now in charge on the East End. But after the war ended, he returned home.

He may have returned to his Bridgehampton home, but clearly he did not stay long. Between the end of the war and his passing at age 75 in 1813, he built numerous other homes on the East End, both for himself and for others. He built a home for a whaling boat captain, Lester Beebe, in Sag Harbor at 20 Union Street. (Chester Arthur, our 21st president, a friend and political confidant of the home’s owner at the time is believed to have visited here in the 1880s.) Hulbert is believed to have lived in a house at 37 Mile Hill Road in the Northwest section of East Hampton. (The house was listed for sale in the past as a house he had lived in.) And onetime owners of an old mansion in Sag Harbor on Main Street—the Morpurgo House—claimed Hulbert built it.

But the strongest claim is that the house where the Hulbert flag was found was in his family home from before the Revolution in Bridgehampton. And it rings true.

The childhood home of John Hulbert no longer stands. It originally stood on the northeast corner of Main Street, Bridgehampton and the Sag Harbor Turnpike, right smack in the middle of town. Today this is the site of the Topping Rose House, the celebrated inn and restaurant that opened at that location five years ago.

Other stuff had happened between Hulbert and the Topping Rose. The Hulbert house was small and ramshackle. Behind it was a barn, believed to be his workshop and storage facility. This house and barn were reportedly built around 1740.

In 1842, a wealthy Bridgehampton lawyer and judge by the name of Abraham Topping Rose bought what had been Hulbert’s property, and had Hulbert’s house torn down. In its place he built a beautiful three-story white clapboard home in the Greek Revival style for himself and his family. That building, historic in its own right, is what was purchased by the developers of the Topping Rose House in 2005. And they saved it, restoring it in all its splendor.

During the renovation, the builders came upon what had been the foundation of the Hulbert home. That was all that was left from when Judge Rose tore it down. They also noted two buildings out back. One was a barn, in need of restoration, which was done. Today it is a conference center and spa. The other building, from the Hulbert era, was described in an article in the Southampton Press about 10 years ago as a “storage building.” It was so dilapidated that it was beyond restoration. But you could save the beams, and someday that could be rebuilt, perhaps on another nearby property.

In taking it carefully apart, they numbered the beams and then gave them to the Town of Southampton for safe keeping somewhere.

It is my belief that it was in that “storage building” that Hulbert made that flag. He was a builder after the war, but a rope maker when he was young before it. This must have been his workshop out back. And it must have been there that he left that flag when the war ended, “in storage.”

Where are these beams today? It’s a disgrace. The town piled them up upon receiving them, right on the ground across the street, just to the east of the large white mansion owned by the Bridgehampton Museum, now undergoing renovation, on the south side of the road.

Ten years ago, during the renovation of the Topping Rose House, I was told they were there and went to see them. I asked the town supervisor at that time if they could please be protected with plastic sheeting. It has never been done.

*****

In writing this story, I have come upon another important piece of American history that is little known, and worthy of becoming a good book and movie. It involves Fort Ticonderoga, immediately after the patriots recaptured it from the British.

As you recall from earlier in this story, the British had not only taken Fort Ticonderoga but also sent an army of 15,000 Redcoats to restore order in Boston and punish the rebels for what they did at the Boston Tea Party. After the fight up Bunker Hill and the battles at Lexington and Concord, the British took complete control of Boston. Boston and its harbor were on the tip of a peninsula back then. Other peninsulas were both north and south, neither of them occupied. George Washington was empowered by the Continental Congress to create an army and attempt to seize Boston. Washington was able to cut off the road out to the peninsula, but that was all. Boston was still a lively port in British hands, with ships going in and out, bringing in supplies and taking out exports.

Also, the British had cannons in Boston. They’d lob cannon balls out at Washington’s men from time to time. None came back. Washington had no cannons.

Thus, a stalemate persisted into the winter of 1775–76. And then a Boston bookstore owner, now chased out of Boston—a young man in his 20s named Henry Knox—approached Washington with an idea. Out at Fort Ticonderoga, which the patriots now held, were 42 giant brass and iron cannons. Why not bring them to Boston? Impossible, Washington said. How could we get them here? They weigh many, many tons. And this is 800 miles away.

Knox said you could send some men there, build 42 big wooden sledges, haul the cannons onto the sledges and then have oxen haul them across the iced-over Lake Champlain and through the forests of Vermont and Massachusetts. It might take a month.

If you’d do that, Washington told this young man, I’ll get Congress to fund the effort for you. Sure, Knox said.

Knox went with his younger brother and a group of about 20 other men by horseback up to Fort Ticonderoga, built the sledges, hired the oxen, dragged 42 of the cannons onto his huge sledges, had all sorts of adventures across the ice and through the forests, and presented them to Washington not in one month, but three.

During the next few weeks of March, Washington dragged the cannons around to the back of the hill at Dorchester Heights and then, in one night, built a wooden breastworks and had five of the cannons hauled up to just behind it. When dawn came, Washington began firing cannonballs down onto the British in Boston. And the British could not fire back. They were at sea level. The Americans were high on the hill. The British cannonballs could not get up that high.

After that one-day cannonade, and the several more that followed with now 10 and 20 cannons, the British sent a messenger out with a white flag and offered a solution. If the Americans would stop firing the cannons, the British would load up all their soldiers (and local loyalists) onto their man o’ war ships and sail them away back to England. An evacuation of about 12,000 men, women and children then occurred. And that’s how Washington, with the cheers of the Bostonians, won back that town.

Well, after a fashion, the British returned to take New York City and Long Island. And you know that story.

Fox Films? Spielberg? Scoop Productions? Any of you out there?

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