The New England colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries
were English people, in English colonies, so their colonial flags were based on English flags.
The English Flag.
the New England colonies were started, England was a kingdom, ruled by a king.
Before the English Civil War (1649-1660) the King effectively "owned" the
country. His flag, the flag England, was a white field with the red cross of
contrast to England, the
flag used by the King of Scotland was the cross of St. Andrew. The Scottish
flag is shown on the right.
The English Naval Ensign before 1707.
the flags flown by ships, known as "ensigns," or "jacks" are variations of
the country's flag. (An ensign is flown on the main mast; a jack is flown
on the bow of the ship, but we will skip the niceties of where and how and who can
fly a jack. It's not a part of this article.) From about 1600 to 1707 the English Navy
ships used a Naval Ensign which was a highly visible red flag with a canton in the upper left
containing the King's Colors, to wit: the red cross of St. George.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed when this English Naval Ensign was the common flag available on both English Navy and merchants ships
and also in overseas colonies.
Thus, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was started in New England in 1630, this
English Navel Ensign became the first flag flown
on official occasions by the Colony.
Virginia, and the other English colonies, as they were formed,
generally used the English Naval Ensign with --- the cross of St. George --- as their flag.
Massachusetts Bay Colony Flag (Used1636 to about 1686).
Started in 1630, the
Massachusetts Bay Colony originally used the 1630 English Naval Ensign.
However, a religious problem arose. The
Massachusetts Bay Colony was the home of thousands of
religious dissenters who came over to the New World to make get away from the
Catholic Church and the Church of England. The ministers condemned the
traditional "idols" of the the Catholic Church and the Church of England. In 1636, in a sermon in the
Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams (before he was banished and fled to
Rhode Island) fastened on the cross of St. George as an "idol" and condemned the use of the St. George's
cross in the colony's flag. The Governor of the Colony, John Endicott,
ordered the Standard Bearers of the Colony (many towns in the Colony had an
official named the Standard Bearer) to remove the St. George's Cross from
their flags. Before this was done, however, the Great and General Court of the
Colony decreed that Endicott's order changing the flag "exceeded the lymits
of his calling", removed him from office, and forbid him holding any public
office for one year. However, being composed of practical politicians, The Great and General Court of
the Colony gave the Standard Bearers permission to devise any kind of flag they
wanted. Without exception, the Standard Bearers removed the crosses from their
From Endicott's of 1636 order until about 50 years later, the unofficial flag of
Massachusetts Bay was red with an blank white canton. By the late 1600's, in New England they weren't quite so sure that the King's personal
official flag of St. George was un-Christian, and the St. George's cross again
began to appear on flags. This solved the bland style of a barren white
canton, and showed loyalty to the person of the King of England.
(English) Union Flag.
In 1707, England and Scotland were
reunited under one king. Thus, to the flag of the King of England was
added the flag of the King of Scotland. (See illustration on the right of
the result. Notice that the resulting flag was not the present flag used by the United
Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which "UK" never existed before the United
States was formed.) The Union Flag and the Union Jack (see below)
generally were not used in the colonies,
which by that time wanted to have a separate identity from the
island of England.
Union Jack (The English Naval Ensign after 1707).
the 1707 reunion of England and Scotland, and the subsequent change in the "King's
Colors", the English Royal Navy used a Union Jack which was a red flag with a canton in the
upper left with the King's "unified" flag.
The Union Jack was associated with English Navy ships. As to English-owed
merchant ships, in 1674 a royal proclamation had ordered English merchant ships to use the
English flag of the day, the plain
white flag with the red cross of St. George. Although presently much
ignored the 1674 regulation never has been cancelled, so some
English ships still occasionally fly the plain white flag with the cross of St. George
New England Ships' Ensigns.
By the time the Union Jack was used by English
Navy ships, the pine tree
had become a core symbol of
New England. The pine tree indicated not only a prime export (lumber) but also
the nature of the New World. The tree started appearing on local coinage, and eventually on the flags used on
merchant ships the colonists built and sailed on merchant voyages to various places in the New World as well
as to Europe. Sometimes New England ships used a plain white flag with a green tree of
some sort shown on it, commonly a pine tree. The New England merchants and ship
captains wanted their ships in port to be clearly understood as ships
sailing to/from New England. In a busy port, or in a port looking for New
England fish, lumber, or rum, this was an advantage.
of the plain white flag with a green tree, the
more substantial ship owners of New England (with their larger ships)
tended to use a variation of the Union Jack.
The variation substituted a green tree for the
Union Flag in the upper left white canton of the flag used by English Navy ships.
the same time, by the late 1600's-early 1700's, in New England they weren't quite so sure that the King's cross
of St. George was un-Christian, and the St. George's cross again began to reappear
in the white canton on flags.
A combination of the "King's" cross of St. George and a
pine tree eventually evolved. In a 1686 manuscript, Insignia Navalia by Lt. Gradon,
an illustration of the "New England Jack" appears, showing it as a
plain white flag with a red St.
George's Cross but with an Oak tree in the extreme upper left. Other documents from
approximately this time period show the ship's flags of ships of the New England
colonies as being a flag with a white canton in which there was both the red St. George's Cross
and a green tree (usually pine or oak) in the extreme upper left of the canton.
By the French and Indian War (1756 - 1763) the
ensign shown on the left (with the
red St. George's Cross and a green tree in the white canton) was the one most frequently
flown by the ships of Rhode Island and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Those two
dominated trade to and from the English New England colonies. Thus, by the
time just preceding the American Revolution the flag identified by many with New
England as a region was that ship flag.
When the Revolution came, the Massachusetts colony in
1775 declared its official Massachusetts Navy flag to be this naval ensign
(the one first above). About the same time, George
Washington’s military secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed, proposed that all American
ships fly a red flag with a plain white canton with only one green pine tree in
it (the second one above), so that all American ships could recognize
one another. His proposal was not adopted.
Sons of Liberty Flags.
Sons of Liberty originally used a flag of 9 vertical stripes to represent the
unity of the New England colonies that corresponded regularly with each other
regarding measures to be taken regarding the English Stamp Act.
The history of
a flag identifying the Sons of Liberty flag began in 1765, when protests of
the duties and taxes and stamps required by Parliament began in the colonies.
The Sons of Liberty took their name from a debate on the Stamp Act in Parliament
in 1765. Members of Parliament included several prominent Members supportive of
the American view that the tax was improper, William Pitt (the Elder), Charles
James Fox, and Edmund Burk. During the debate, Charles Townshend, speaking in
support of the Stamp Tax Act, spoke of the American colonists as being
"children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence...and protected by
our arms." Isaac Barre, member of Parliament and friend of the American colonists,
countered with a severe
reprimand in which he spoke favorably of the Americans as "these Sons of
In Massachusetts, after a particular protest of the Stamp Act was held under
a particular Elm tree in Boston, known thereafter as "the Liberty Tree," a group
known as the Sons of Liberty was formed. They met regularly under the tree. The
English Army cut the tree down. The Boston people erected a pole and flew the
nine-striped "Sons of Liberty" flag from it.
Among other things to protest the Stamp
Act, nine colonies sent delegates to their "Stamp Act Congress" They
petitioned the King and Parliament; the Act was repealed in 1766. The
flag of nine red and white stripes that represented these "Sons of Liberty"
became known in England as the "Rebellious Stripes."
After the Stamp Act was repealed by the English Parliament, the Sons of
Liberty erected a Liberty Pole in New York City to celebrate the repeal of the
Stamp Act. There was a long-running skirmish over these Liberty Poles with the
British troops stationed there (the most notable engagement being the Battle of
Golden Hill on January 19, 1770). As poles were alternately erected by Patriots
and cut down by troops, violent outbreaks over it raged intermittently from 1766
until the Patriots gained control of New York City government in April 1775. The
last liberty pole was cut down by occupying British troops on October 28, 1776.
After the successful
effort to repeal the Stamp Act, the nine- striped flag was modified to 13
horizontal stripes to represent the unity of all the colonies. That
13-striped flag became the one enshrined in our popular culture.
Among other things, it was used as a United States merchant ship ensign during
the American Revolution.
Read more American colonial flags, the first flags of the combined
Colonial Army, Navy, and Marines, plus the first official Stars and Stripes