Falmouth, as its sign declares, may have been the birthplace of “America the Beautiful” author Katharine Lee Bates. But Oak Bluffs (then Cottage City) was once home to the flag described variously as “the original Stars and Stripes,” the “original ‘Old Glory,’” and the “the first flag of the nation.”
Martha’s Vineyard has had its share of historical flags. Betsey Legg of Kennebec Avenue in Oak Bluffs flew a flag outside her home in 1882 which the Hartford Courant noted was “used to cover the casket of the late President Garfield.” In 1887, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Mrs. Mary Ferguson of Edgartown displayed a faded 34-star flag on the Fourth of July “which had been carried at the battle of Ball’s Bluff” in 1861.
But the flag owned by Mrs. Harriet Stafford of 23 West Clinton Avenue in the Campground was “the” original flag, “the oldest American flag in existence,” according to many accounts of the day. It had been widely exhibited. She had cut off a piece and presented it to Abraham Lincoln. It was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was showcased at a Grand Army of the Republic event, where it was billed as “the first Stars and Stripes ever made.” It was loaned to fairs and festivals in Philadelphia and New York and elsewhere, and even shown at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
A widow, Mrs. Stafford lived alone in Oak Bluffs from at least 1891 until her death in 1903 at the age of 84.
Her home in the Campground, described variously as a “cosy cottage” and a “quaint little home,” was set up almost as a private museum. In addition to the flag encased under glass in her front hall, she also exhibited a Revolutionary War musket and sword, among other relics. Mrs. Stafford, or “Mother Stafford” as she was sometimes called, was charming, hospitable, and “a most entertaining lady,” as the Boston Herald described her. Her home was a tourist attraction. The Weekly Democrat of Huntsville, Ala., called her “one of the most interesting characters in Martha’s Vineyard.” For souvenir hunters, she sometimes even cut pieces of the flag with scissors to give away.
The Stafford flag was made of cream-colored English bunting (or by some colorful accounts, of strips from silk wedding gowns), with 12 cotton stars and 13 stripes, canvas heading, and sewed grommets. It was often described as tattered and bullet-torn.
A 1910 account in the Baltimore Evening Sun describes a visit by an unnamed Baltimore high school history teacher: “Wandering idly about Cottage City, Martha’s Vineyard, one hot summer day in their vacation period, this schoolteacher and some friends happened into the queerest little cottage there, occupied by the queerest little lady. The queer little lady was living alone — save for the flag. She was then nearly 80 years old, a widow, to whom the flag was husband, child, and a single purpose. The house was packed with furniture which had survived from the days of the gallants and the quilting parties. The little widow lady prized none as she prized this flag.”
Mrs. Stafford would tell the flag’s story to anyone who would listen. It was made in Philadelphia by sisters Mary and Sara Austin, she said, under the supervision of George Washington, and presented to naval commander John Paul Jones, who placed it on the masthead of his frigate, Bonhomme Richard. But the flag was shot into the water in his famous “I have not yet begun to fight!” battle with the British frigate Serapis in September 1779.
Mrs. Stafford’s late husband’s father, crewman James Stafford, jumped overboard, rescued the flag, swam back (“through a perfect storm of shot and bullets,” added the Boston Globe) and returned it to Jones. Mrs. Stafford kept a letter from the Secretary of State pro tem, dated 1784, presenting the flag to James Stafford as a gift for his valor. It passed to his widow, then his daughter, then his son, and finally to his son’s widow. The Stafford flag was even carried in the Harrison inaugural procession at Washington in 1841, she said.
In 1898, the flag left the Island for good. Mrs. Stafford traveled to D.C. and presented it to President William McKinley, who turned it over to the Smithsonian. More than half the flag had been cut away over the years for souvenirs. (Fragments continued to circulate in exhibitions for many decades afterward, typically arranged in a frame upon a background and accompanied by a letter written by Mrs. Stafford.) The Smithsonian exhibited it through the 1920s.
But there were holes in Stafford’s story that weren’t caused by British guns.
That Vineyard-vacationing high school teacher from Baltimore anonymously brought her suspicions to the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1910, which published an article with the subheading “Relic in National Museum Declared a Fraud.” In it, she noted that Jones had written specifically in his own journal that his flag had gone down with his ship.
Many more historians weighed in afterwards, pointing out that the bunting material used in the flag didn’t exist in 1779. They also note that no crewman named “Stafford” appears on any of the ships’ papers. And the committee that supposedly awarded him the flag in 1784 had disbanded five years earlier. The flag only surfaced some 80 years later, during the Civil War, when Stafford’s daughter Sarah produced it to use in a fundraiser.
Whether Mrs. Stafford knew she was peddling a hoax, or whether she was a patsy to it, has never been determined. Some theorize that James Stafford himself may have concocted the tale while trying to win a pension for his war service. After a Georgetown University history professor examined the flag and declared it a fraud in 1942, Smithsonian finally withdrew it as a fake. It remains in the Smithsonian collection, ID number “AF.7521,” credit line: “Harriet R. Perry Stafford,” location: “Currently not on view,” Date made: “mid 19th century.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.