Special Report

How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory

New research may settle a family feud over the origins of an American icon

(Hugh Talman / NMAH, SI)
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William Driver died on March 3, 1886, and was buried in Nashville. That same year saw the genesis of the family feud over the flag when his niece, Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke, daughter of his youngest sister and a Salem-born socialite highly conscious of her genealogy, claimed to have inherited it. She presented her version of Old Glory to the Essex Institute in Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum), along with family memorabilia that included a letter from the Pitcairn Islanders to Driver. Why Driver would have given his precious flag to a niece in far-off Massachusetts is unclear—perhaps because he didn’t trust his Confederate-sympathizing children to care for it? Cooke also produced a family memoir that she self-published in 1889, in which she omitted the existence of Driver’s daughter Mary Jane.

Roland fought back. She set about documenting the history of the flag her father had given her, and in 1918 published her own account, Old Glory, The True Story, in which she disputed elements of Cooke’s narrative and presented documentary evidence for her claim. In 1922, Roland presented her Old Glory as a gift to President Warren G. Harding, who in turn delivered it to the Smithsonian.

That same year, the Peabody Essex also sent its Old Glory to the Smithsonian. But the museum chose to regard Roland’s flag as the more important one: It was directly descended from Driver, and documentary evidence in the Tennessee State Library and Archives strongly suggested it was the one hidden in the quilt and presented to Union troops who took Nashville.It also had common sense on its side: Driver would have hoisted his largest flag over the capitol dome.

The Peabody flag sank into insignificance. It has remained on loan at the Smithsonian since 1922, but has gone largely unexamined, given the emphasis on the larger Old Glory. However, it became the subject of renewed curiosity this July during a conservation evaluation of both flags by curator Jones and textile conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. As they surveyed both flags, they began discussing the odd family history, which has been periodically resurrected in local Salem news stories along with suggestions that the Peabody flag might have a legitimate claim. They decided to embark on a more exhaustive analysis of both flags.

It’s unlikely that the Smithsonian project will lay to rest the 125-year-old family quarrel. Nor is it likely that the smaller, 12- by 6-foot Peabody flag will supplant the traditional Old Glory in the eyes of Smithsonian curators, who report that the preliminary study indicates that the larger flag still has the much stronger claim.

But the Peabody flag is a historical curiosity in its own right, says Jones. Initial analysis shows it is a legitimate Driver family heirloom and Civil War-era relic, but it is also something of a mystery, with several anomalies.

According to textile preservationist Fonda Thomsen, who has helped conserve articles ranging from flags to the garments President Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated, a single thread can tell a story. Each flag will contain signatures, clues left in seams and stitching, as well as in the dyes and materials used. “You can determine, were they made by the same person?” Thomsen says. “Did they finish their seam the same way, the stars the same way? How did they knot it off? Everybody leaves a little trail of their work.”

Although the Old Glory textile project is just beginning, there have already been a couple of definitive conclusions. While the Peabody flag clearly dates to the same era as the larger Old Glory, it lacks the wear and tear of a seagoing flag. The fly edge is intact and not worn. In fact it seems as if the flag was hardly flown. “What we’re looking at is inconsistent with use on a naval vessel,” Jones says. There are also baffling soil lines on the flag, and parts of it appear to be newer than others. “We’re thinkingparts of it are older, and parts are questionable,” Jones says. “It could be that it was remade.”

The larger Old Glory has wear and tear consistent with seafaring. It was indeed made during the 1820s and has all the earmarks of a heavily used naval flag. Its fly edge shows signs of wear, suggesting it spent a lot of time flapping in stiff winds. “When a flag is flown, you get distortion of the fabric, and wear on the leading edge,” Thomsen says. “It beats the bejesus out of them.”


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