The Earliest Surviving American Revolutionary War Era Flag Incorporating 13 White Stripes to Represent the 13 Original Colonies
Descended in the Family of American Patriot Samuel Forster of Massachusetts for 200 Years, and Now Property of the Flag Heritage Foundation
Sold to Benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin
Doyle New York is honored to auction the Forster Flag on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 10am. This rare American Revolutionary War-era flag is generally acknowledged as the earliest surviving banner to incorporate thirteen white stripes to represent the thirteen original colonies. Created for the Manchester Minutemen of Massachusetts, the Forster Flag is not only an important artifact of our history, but also a powerful emblem that expresses the earliest patriotic impulses of our republic.
One of only approximately thirty Revolutionary War era flags known to survive, the Forster Flag is likely the last to be offered at public auction.
The Flag is named for Samuel Forster (1739/40–1794), a prominent shipmaster, merchant and lifelong resident of Manchester, Massachusetts, a seaport on the coast twenty-five miles north of Boston between the larger commercial harbors at Marblehead and Gloucester. Forster was active in town affairs and held numerous important political positions, among them Selectman, Surveyor of Highways, Culler of Fishes, and Constable. As tension between the Massachusetts colonists and the British intensified in the years following the Stamp Act (1765), the Boston Massacre (1770), and the Boston Tea Party (1773), the need to protect the town from within deepened. In 1775, Forster was elected to the Committee of Correspondence, the main source of communication between Manchester and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which convened in nearby Salem. As a Minuteman – a term used in the American colonies for what we would call a “first responder” today – in the Manchester Company of the Essex County Regiment, Forster was elected First Lieutenant, second in rank to Captain Andrew Marsters, the company commander.
Forster family history reports that the Flag was carried by the Minutemen of the Manchester Militia Company when they responded to the Lexington Alarm – the first battle of the American Revolution, resulting from Paul Revere’s famous ride – on April 19, 1775. Although the first skirmishes at Lexington and Concord ended quickly, they marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, which would continue for eight years. The Manchester Militia Company marched as far as Medford on that first day, and was then ordered to remain there for three days in anticipation of further fighting near Cambridge. One can only imagine the thoughts of these largely untrained and untested men while they waited to be attacked by the British Army, at that time the strongest fighting force in the world. Afterward, Forster and his Company returned to Manchester to prepare the defenses of the town, which was vulnerable to attack from the sea. Watchtowers were erected and guards watched the coast constantly, as Forster and others armed, outfitted and trained the militia in preparation for the war that they knew was coming.
Originally, the upper left quarter, or canton, of the Forster Flag likely featured a British Union Jack. This was replaced by thirteen white bars, probably during the first months of the Revolution and certainly well before the June 1777 resolution by the Continental Congress adopting our national flag. Thus the Forster Flag is a very early symbolic representation of the union of the thirteen colonies into a nation.
Modern research shows that the Forster Flag is closely related to “Grand Divisional” militia flags, which were used, together with other divisional and regimental standards, to signal the movements of troops on the battlefield. Of the approximately 1,500 American Revolutionary War flags thought to have been made, only about thirty survive, each in a distinguished museum, institution or private collection. Notable Revolutionary flags, such as the Monmouth Color, the Dansey Flag, and the Brandywine Flag, all incorporate materials and construction techniques similar to those of the Forster Flag.
The Forster Flag descended to Samuel Forster’s son, Israel (1779-1863), a prominent citizen of Manchester and a major in the War of 1812, whose stately home on the town’s main street, built in 1804, still stands today. A canton of white and blue stripes from a second flag found there is now in the collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Early newspaper accounts report that the Forster Flag was on loan to the Massachusetts State House in Boston when Samuel’s brother, Israel, died in 1818, and that the younger Israel (Samuel’s son) had a difficult time retrieving it, since “state authorities … were for a time disposed to cling to it.” After this, the Flag descended through further generations of the Forster family, who held it for a total of two hundred years. The Flag was first mentioned in print during the 1876 Centennial, when Manchester’s newspaper, The Beetle & Wedge, reported, “On learning of the Battle at Lexington, April, 1775, the militia under Captain Andrew Marsters started immediately for the scene of action… The colors carried by the Militia Company was a red flag, now in a good state of preservation, kept by Major Israel Forster until the time of his disease.” It was mentioned again in the official Manchester town history written in 1895. In 1975, the family sold the Forster Flag to the Flag Heritage Foundation. Since then,the Forster Flag has been examined in depth by flag and textile authorities, including the Smithsonian Institution, which found it consistent with a date early in the Revolutionary War. It is included in published censuses of Revolutionary War flags, and in 2000, it was featured on a commemorative stamp by the United States Postal Service. It is the subject of a scholarly essay by flag expert Dr. Whitney Smith.
The Forster Flag is in a superb state of preservation for its age. Although it is worn in areas that indicate it was flown, it has been protected from the reuse of its valuable silk for clothing or from souvenir hunters seeking relics of the Revolution. Most importantly, it has been protected from sunlight, thus preserving its original deep crimson color.
“A New Constellation”
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved "That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." The poetic language of this resolution changed the design of American flags from that time on, replacing the alternating stripes that had been used in cantons before then with a blue canton of thirteen stars. Thus the stripes in the canton of the Forster Flag show that it was almost certainly in its present form before then. This remarkable witness to our earliest stirrings as a nation, created so close to Boston in the first years of the Revolution, is a landmark of American flag design. It is also a powerful expression of the patriotism that created the United States and an historic emblem close to the heartbeat of the American Revolution.
The Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection in
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at
The University of Texas at Austin
The Forster Flag is being sold by the Flag Heritage Foundation to benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Library, to be established in the Dolph Briscoe Center at The University of Texas at Austin. This collection is a vast and unique library and archive documenting flags and their history. It includes the holdings of the Flag Research Center, created in 1962 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the subject. The collection contains thousands of books, charts, pamphlets, serials, clippings and flags, as well as many associated objects. Including considerable research materials related to American history and Americana, with detailed information about the development of our national and state flags, as well as those of every foreign country, the collection is widely considered the greatest of its kind in the world. A research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History’s special archival collections encompass key themes in U.S. history and foster exploration of our nation’s past.
Traveling Exhibition, By Appt
In addition to the New York exhibition, the Forster Flag will be exhibited in Boston, MA and Washington, DC by appointment.
Boston, MA: March 18, 3-5pm
Washington, DC: March 20, 3-5pm
Private viewings in New York through April 3
Qualified bidders are invited to arrange a private viewing of the Forster Flag. Please contact Peter Costanzo at 212-427-4141, ext 248 or [email protected]
The public is invited to view the Forster Flag at Doyle New York from April 4 - 7.