The star-spangled banner gets plenty of time to wave in vast numbers during the Fourth of July. But which of these thousands of flags is the oldest? Does it within one of America’s important seats of power or watching over a decisive battlefield from centuries passed? Actually, it resides in Bristol, Rhode Island, and offers history worth visiting.
Known as the Nathaniel Byfield flag, the banner dates back to approximately 1690, which places it back in the Colonial era – in fact, the oldest surviving flag from that era. It rested among other important flags that saw celebrations like Memorial Day and Independence Day. Learn more about its remarkable history here.
Delve into Bristol’s historic flag collection
— SteelToad (@SteelToad) June 26, 2021
Hope Street’s Burnside Building housed a case containing several flags used for significant holiday events. It was among these other flags that the Nathaniel Byfield flag turned up, believed to be the oldest surviving banner from the Colonial Era. Former Town Clerk Lou Cirillo specified, “The flags were probably there from the time the Burnside building was built in 1883.” Initially, Cirillo had little clue what a treasure the stash housed because “I was always told the case contained General Burnside memorabilia.”
Dominion over these flags changed hands a few times with bureaucracy thrown in to lead to the formation of the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society. When Joe Parella had the case refurbished, flags ended up shuffled around as Bristol’s oldest was quite large and ended up forsaken. But some military history enthusiasts would see it resurface again.
Honoring a piece of history
Varnum Armory is a military history museum of growing fame and acclaim, directed by Patrick Donovan. Even without knowing Bristol housed the oldest Colonial American flag, both foundations knew the town had flags dating to at least the Civil War, and so were very interested in making an arrangement.
So, it ended up with the East Greenwich museum for careful conservation. Indeed, fabric of that age is susceptible to damage. Silk flags can outright shatter after so long and some did; this meant no more very historical flags would be unfurled at Town Hall, lest more silk shatter. Safely handling something so old and delicate ended up a joint effort, explained expert textile conservatory Maria Vazquez. Sadly, the Bristol flag’s age means some people don’t entirely understand what they’re seeing when they look upon the banner, hence why she’s making a replica so that the residents of Bristol can derive due pride in their history and American history as a whole.