The Bedford Flag
THE BEDFORD FLAG
colonial militia flag preserved in the Bedford Free Public Library,
THE BEDFORD FLAG
Bedford Flag is the oldest complete flag known to exist in the United
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 flag.
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 1737.
It names Minuteman Nathaniel Page’s father John “Cornett of the
Troop of horse.”
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.
Similarity 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.
THE FLAG’S ROLE