The Bedford Flag is the oldest known flag in the United States. It was supposedly borne by the Bedford Minuteman Company and might have flown at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. Its history is controversial. The flag is commonly believed to be the inspiration for the first stanza in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord Hymn which opens:
- By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
- their flag to April's breeze unfurled...
The flag is made of crimson silk damask with the design painted on. The painted image was made slightly different on the two sides, with the Latin motto Vince Aut Morire ("Conquer Or Die") reading from top to bottom on one side and from bottom to top on the other. This is similar to the Vincere Vel Mori mottos of the Scottish Clan Macdowall and Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie. Furthermore, the sword which appears behind the motto on one side, appears in front of it on the other side.
The exact age and origin of the flag are not known, but physical and historical evidence are consistent with a date early in the 18th century. At one point, because of its heraldic similarity to another flag made for another Massachusetts cavalry unit in the 1660s, historians thought that the Bedford flag might actually be that earlier flag. However, spectroscopic analysis of the paint used on the emblem revealed the pigment called “Prussian blue”, which did not exist before 1704. The Bedford Minutemen Company was part of the 2nd Middlesex Regiment.
There is, however, no proof, either from testimonies, depositions or diaries written around April 19, 1775, or even in memoirs written years later by any participants that day, mentioning any such flag flown that day by either side. The sole exception is that of Lt. Barker of the British expedition to Concord, who noted a liberty pole with a cap and an unknown flag on it, standing on a hill before Concord center. The British grenadiers chopped it down and destroyed the flag and pole. This was hours before Bedford's militiamen arrived outside Concord, far to the west of this hill. The first mention of the "Bedford flag" does not come until the Centennial celebrations of 1875. Whatever its provenance and history, the flag is still on display in the Bedford Free Public Library in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Notes and references
- "The Bedford Flag". Bedford Free Public Library. - Official history
- Bedford Minuteman Company
- Historical Flags from U.S. Embassy, Stockholm
- An Unfurled Flag: The Concord Fight and Controversy