The Bedford Flag - Colonial Militia Flag
The Bedford Flag (colonial
THE BEDFORD FLAG
colonial militia flag preserved in the Bedford Free Public Library,
Bedford Flag is the oldest complete flag known to exist in the United
It is celebrated as the flag carried by the Bedford Minuteman,
Nathaniel Page, to the Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775, the beginning
of the American Revolution, but it was already an antique on that day.
It was made for a cavalry troop of the Massachusetts Bay militia
early in the colonial struggle for the continent that we call “the
French and Indian Wars.”
The flag is a piece of crimson silk damask measuring about 27”
long by 29” wide.
This small square shape indicates that it was a cavalry flag.
Into the rich red damask is woven a pattern of pomegranates,
grapes, and leaves.
The design is painted on both sides of the flag, mainly in silver
The emblem consists of a mailed arm emerging from clouds and
grasping a sword.
Three cannonballs hang in the air.
Encircling the arm is a gold ribbon on which the Latin words
“VINCE AUT MORIRE” (Conquer or Die) are painted. On the reverse of
the flag, the design is slightly different: the sword extends in front
of the ribbon instead of behind; it is held left-handed; and the motto
is read from bottom to top instead of top to bottom.
A narrow area would have been folded and stitched to make a
sleeve for the pole to go into.
Some of the holes the needle made are still faintly visible.
All but a single thread from the silver fringe that once edged
the flag has been lost to history. That one strand was discovered
microscopically during the flag’s 1999-2000 conservation at the
Textile Conservation Center in Lowell, Mass. Evidence was also found
that there may once have been a tassel attached at the hoist side of the
ORIGIN OF THE FLAG
who made the flag and when it was made are not known. Physical and
historical evidence point to an origin early in the eighteenth century.
The distinctive floral pattern woven into the damask has been dated by
textile experts as appropriate to the early 1700s.
did the Page family first receive the flag? Displayed in the Flag Room
in the Bedford Free Public Library is an original commission dating
names Minuteman Nathaniel Page’s father John “Cornett of the Troop
A cornet was the cavalry officer just below lieutenant whose duty
it was to bear the flag.
In fact, Nathaniel’s father, uncle and grandfather are all
mentioned within the Bedford and Billerica Town Records as “Cornet
Page,” indicating that a Page had been carrying the flag for the local
militia troop as early as 1720. It was the custom in the English militia
for the colonel of the regiment or the new captain of a unit, not the
cornet, to arrange for the flag.
Thus it was not a member of the Page family but an officer of
higher rank who designed and procured the flag.
to sketches of a flag made soon after 1660 for another Massachusetts
cavalry, the Three County Troop, has made historians wonder if perhaps
the Bedford Flag is indeed that early flag.
However, the emblem, an arm holding aloft a sword, is a common
one in European heraldry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
and is certainly not unique to the Bedford Flag. Most tellingly, a
spectroscopic analysis of the paint used on the emblem revealed a
pigment called “Prussian blue” that did not exist before 1704, so
the flag cannot date from before that year.
DURING THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
flag was still in the custody of the Page family at the time of the
American Revolution, and it is believed in Bedford that Minuteman
Nathaniel Page took it with him to the battle at Concord.
Nathaniel told the story to his grandson, Cyrus, and it was
written down after his death by the nineteenth century historian, Abram
English Brown. This account
people were not surprised when the messenger reached this house…
We had agreed at the last drilling to meet, in case of alarm, at
the tavern in the center of the town, kept by Jeremiah Fitch, sergeant
of the militia company. The
horseman banged on the house and cried out, ‘Up, Mr. Page, the
regulars are out.’ We
were not long at our preparations, and were soon at the tavern.”
E. Brown continues, “On the arrival of the [Bedford] Company at
Concord, they assisted in removing the stores to places of greater
safety. Tradition says that
Cornet Nathaniel Page laid down his flag and went to work, and when
returning to look for it ‘found the boys had got it and were playing
soldiers.’” He took it
up and went to face the British regulars at the North Bridge.
While there is no contemporary account to corroborate this story,
Nathaniel Page is listed in the official military rolls of the men who
were paid for service in the American forces on April 19th.
The flag is more than old enough to have been there with him on
that day. His father, uncle and grandfather had served as cornets in the
militia. Did Nathaniel bear
the flag to Concord as he said he did? That is clearly quite possible.
FLAG IN LATER YEARS
After the battle on April 19, 1775, the flag was
returned to the Page farm. It
seemed the flag’s role was over.
In the early 1800s, Nathaniel’s youngest daughter Ruhamah went
so far as to rip the fringe from it.
She later lamented to A. E. Brown, “I took that silver fringe
from that old flag when I was a giddy girl, and trimmed a dress for a
military ball. I was never
more sorry for anything than that which resulted in the loss of the
In 1838, the battle at the North Bridge was vividly memorialized
by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous Concord Hymn:
the rude bridge that arched the flood,
flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
once the embattled farmers stood,
fired the shot heard round the world.
in Emerson’s papers indicated that he actually knew of the existence
of a brilliant crimson flag flying above the colonials at the North
Bridge. The image his poem
evokes, however, is that of the Bedford Flag.
first Cornet Page’s great-great-grandson, Cyrus Page, sent the flag to
the centennial celebration at Concord on April 19, 1875, and he flew it
from the old Page homestead for the 1879 Sesquicentennial of Bedford.
In 1885, just before his death, he presented the flag to the Town
of Bedford, into the keeping of the trustees of the Bedford Free Public
Library. Cyrus desired that this “relic of by-gone days” should be
“kept for the inspection of the public at all proper times.”
It has remained in the care of the library to this day.
original Bedford Flag is secured in a special room on the History
Mezzanine of the Bedford Library, where it is protected from heat,
light and humidity. It may be viewed at any time the Library is open.
To see the flag, please ask at the Library Circulation Desk on
the main floor.
exchange for your driver’s license or other secure deposit, you will
be loaned a magnetic key that will admit you to the Flag Room. Passing
the key in front of the red light beside the door handle will unlock
viewing space is limited, only five people may be in the Flag Room at
once. Keep the door closed as much as possible to maintain the
protective atmosphere within the room.
use no flash cameras in the Flag Room! Light is destructive to the
aged red silk.
hope you enjoy seeing our historic flag along with the accompanying
of the flag and the book The Bedford Flag Unfurled may be
purchased at the Circulation Desk.
Proceeds benefit the library.
SOURCE OF ABOVE:
Free Public Library
7 Mudge Way
Bedford, Massachusetts 01730
of Bedford Home Page