The Continental Flag?

Just because it’s in a historic painting doesn’t mean its true… We all know that, right?

Well, let’s talk about a certain flag that John Trumbull put in one of his famous Revolutionary War paintings. Called “The Continental Flag”, it’s one of the historical questions to ponder and dig into what we can really know about the facts behind the story (or the painting.)

A Mythical Flag?

According to British stories about the fighting on Bunker and Breed’s Hills on June 17, 1775, the rebellious colonials carried a “red flag” that became known as “the Continental Flag.” But what did it actually look like? That went unrecorded – as far as we know.

However, artist John Trumbull talked to eyewitnesses and came up with this flag for his paintings and “historical details” for the Battle of Bunker Hill. It is mostly red, with a pine tree in the upper left field and supposedly came from memories of battle participants.

So was this flag actually real? Trumbull certainly used it, but not everything in artwork is actually authentic.

Real Flag History

The flags carried and used by the Americans in June 1775 may be a question for long research hours and late night debates, but here’s a little historical perspective. We know that red was already seen as rebellious color, thanks to the Sons of Liberty’s flag. So it’s possible that they could have been carrying forms of that banner or other red flags.

Where did the pine tree emerging from in the legendary flag? There, we have some solid evidence that may lead to the answer of the flags on Breed’s and Bunker Hill.

An example of a Colonial New England Merchant Flag

Pine trees have long been associated with New England, in a symbolism and tradition that pre-dates European settlers. Those early colonials though latched onto the imagery and started using it on their merchant ship flags. A pine tree was added to the upper left corner of the British flag to show that the ship sailed from one of the British “New England” colonies and variations of this flag were in common use by the early 18th Century.

With the conflict on the horizon, the pine tree represented independence and was commonly used on local militia and military unit flags. This produced a variety of flags that had pine trees on them, including maritime ensigns. In fact, Massachusetts actually adopted an official state ensign for its navy: a white banner with a simple green pine tree at the center.

Thus, it is possible that if the American troops during June 1775 fight had flags, they probably carried at least one with a green tree on it, using that already historic image in their cause for independence. Whether they actually carried “the Continental Flag” that Trumbull painted, remains a question!

Flags Symbolizing Independence

Flags – particularly in the 18th Century – bridged a cultural development between feudalistic heraldry and increasing awareness of nationalism. Oftentimes, the symbols on flags had meanings which stemmed from old traditions of heraldry which had been developed in Medieval Europe as a way to identify families or ruling houses.

An artistic version of a flag carried by an American “naval” squadron in 1775.

Let’s talk context. The New Englanders were using a tree to symbolize independence by 1775, but what would they have known and acknowledged in the imagery from their own traditions and history?

In heraldry, a tree can represent strength and an ancient history. They were also used to represent an idea of home/property and focused an idea of long life.

Does that make sense in the New England merchant and patriot use? Yes, I think so. It’s a nod to the region’s wealth of timber, an acknowledgement of an ancient history in the land (Native Americans), and the representation of growing prosperity and the safety of a homeland.

Why This Flag Matters

The supposed “Continental Flag” – though questionable in its authenticity – actually features elements of real and documented flags from the colonial era and early revolutionary days.

Personally, I find this flag’s symbolic imagery – the tree – fascinating. It’s a blending of Old World/New World. It morphed into a defiant banner that fluttered on the high seas and appeared with militia units – making a statement that American Colonies wanted to be treated fairly or seek independence. And with that New England pine it’s a subtle reminder that some of the first to take action hailed from that region, particularly Massachusetts.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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