In 1776, when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, there was not yet an official American flag. However, there were various flags and banners used by the American colonists and militias during the Revolutionary War period that served as precursors to the official national flag. Determining the exact colors used on these early American flags is difficult, as dyes and fabrics varied considerably in 18th century America. However, historical research provides some insights into the likely color palettes of the flags flown by American patriots when the United States first gained its independence.
The Grand Union Flag
One of the most well-known flags used by American revolutionaries was the Grand Union flag, also sometimes referred to as the Continental Colors. This flag consisted of 13 alternating red and white stripes representing the Thirteen Colonies, with the British Union Jack in the canton. According to the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, the Grand Union flag was likely first raised on Prospect Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts in January 1776 as a symbol of colonial unity against British rule.
The red stripes on the Grand Union flag would have been cut from red dyed wool bunting. Natural red dyes that could produce a vivid crimson shade included the madder plant, brazilwood logs, and dried cochineal insects. The white stripes were likely bleached linen or sometimes undyed wool or cotton bunting. The blue field of the Union Jack canton would have been indigo, a plant-based blue dye that was widely imported at the time. So the Grand Union flag would have consisted primarily of red, white, blue and likely indigo dye.
The Guilford Courthouse Flag
On March 15, 1781, American General Nathanael Greene fought British General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. An American flag was flown during this battle that is sometimes cited as a possible precursor or inspiration for the later Star Spangled Banner. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, this flag consisted of 13 alternating red and white stripes with a dark blue field in the canton. What appears to be a circle of eight six-pointed stars surrounded by a larger circle or ellipse was situated in the blue field.
Once again, the red stripes were likely dyed with madder root or another natural red dye. The blue canton may have been indigo or possibly a blue dye made from logwood or woad plants. If the stars were intended to represent the 13 Colonies like early American flags, they would have been embroidered in a contrasting color, probably white or off-white linen thread. So the Guilford Courthouse flag was also made up of shades of red, white, indigo blue based on natural dye colors available at the time.
The Bennington Flag
On August 16, 1777, American General John Stark led New Hampshire militia to a decisive victory over British forces at the Battle of Bennington in Vermont. According to legend, his troops fought under a distinctive flag that became known as the Bennington flag, consisting of 13 stars and 13 alternating red and white stripes. However, there is debate among historians about whether this flag design really originated with Stark in 1777.
If this early version of the Bennington flag was indeed used in 1777, the red stripes were most likely dyed with madder and the white stripes were probably undyed linen or wool bunting. The blue field with stars was possibly indigo blue dye. So this flag would also have had the common red, white, and blue colors based on natural dyes that were prevalent in 18th century America during the fight for independence.
Other Colonial Era Flags
In addition to these famous early flags, various other banners and standards were used by American colonists before and during the Revolutionary War period. According to the book Vexillology: The History and Symbols of Flags, many militia groups carried flags with patriotic symbols and mottoes calling for liberty or independence. Popular symbols included coiled rattlesnakes, evergreen trees, and the Goddess of Liberty.
These locally-made militia flags used simple natural dye colors like madder red, indigo or woad blue, logwood purple, and tan or off-white shades for undyed wool, linen, or cotton. More elaborate flags sometimes used expensive dyes like cochineal red or black walnut brown. But the common trio of red, white, and blue prevailed on most flags and banners used by American colonists during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary War eras.
The First Official U.S. Flag
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act, stating that the official flag of the United States would consist of 13 alternating red and white stripes along with a blue field containing 13 white stars in a circle. Who exactly designed this first American flag is unclear, although historians believe the flag was likely inspired by the previously discussed Guilford Courthouse flag as well as the red and white striped Sons of Liberty flag.
This first official American flag would have also been made with natural dyes in red, white and blue colors. The red madder dye was sometimes referred to in old documents as “the grand dye of the Americans.” Indigo and woad provided blue dyes, while undyed linen or cotton was likely used for the white stripes and stars. The choice of these colors was influenced by their symbolism, with red representing valor, white symbolizing liberty and purity, and blue representing justice and perseverance.
While the exact shades may have varied, the historical evidence strongly suggests that red, white and blue were the predominant colors used on the flags and banners flown by American colonists and revolutionaries in 1776 and the early years of the United States. These colors derived from accessible natural dye sources like plants and insects that were widely available in 18th century America. The Continental Congress’ 1777 Flag Act essentially codified the use of these hues in the first official American flag. So while it did not yet have a single flag, the patriots fighting for American independence rallied under the symbolic red, white, and blue banner.
|Grand Union Flag||Madder red or brazilwood stripes||Bleached white stripes||Indigo blue canton|
|Guilford Courthouse Flag||Madder red stripes||Undyed white stripes||Indigo or woad blue canton|
|Bennington Flag||Madder red stripes||Undyed white stripes||Indigo blue canton|
|First Official U.S. Flag||Madder “grand dye” red stripes||Undyed white stripes and stars||Indigo blue canton|
In summary, the flags used by American revolutionaries and militias in the late 18th century were made with natural dyes in shades of red, white and blue that held symbolic meaning. These colors were codified in the design of the first official United States flag adopted by Congress in 1777, though the exact hue likely varied based on materials available. America’s early flags proved highly adaptable and provided inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner that emerged as an enduring symbol of our independent United States.