BEDFORD EXPLAINED: Before our Flag Was the Bedford Flag

Images from both the front and back of the Bedford Flag are visible on these reproductions hanging in the mezzanine of the Bedford Free Public Library – Image (c) JMcCT, 2019 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

By Town Historian Sharon McDonald

Each April, during the Pole Capping and Patriot’s Day parades, you will see the bright crimson Bedford Flag flown.  Even out of season, you will see its image sewn on the uniforms of the women and men of Bedford Police and Fire Departments… hanging in the entry hall of each of the schools… being brought forward at the beginning of Town Meeting… and worn (maybe by you?) as a t-shirt. We’re proud of it. It’s the emblem of Bedford.

It is usually defined as the flag that went with the Bedford Minutemen to the battle at the Concord Bridge in 1775. But it has a long history that is not well known. When and where was it made? Why does it display an arm sticking out of clouds? How did it get to be Bedford’s flag? I researched all of this as I wrote the book “The Bedford Flag Unfurled.” Let me share what I discovered.

The original Bedford Flag is displayed in a protective case and an environmentally correct room in the Bedford Free Public Library – Image (c) JMcCT, 2019 all rights reserved – Click to view a larger image

As it turns out, the original Bedford Flag, which is displayed in the Bedford Free Public Library, was already an antique in 1775. The exact date of its creation is unknown, but evidence in how the cloth was woven and the pigments used in its paint point to circa 1710. This makes it the oldest flag in the United States. (If you have an older one stored in your attic, I don’t want to hear about it!) It was first carried not by Bedford Minutemen, but the local cavalry troop of the Massachusetts Bay Militia. (In this case, as Bedford had not yet broken off from its mother towns, this meant Billerica.)

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You’ll remember that Massachusetts Bay was governed by Britain, so it was a royal warrant they followed. It decreed that a cavalry flag should be made of a 27”x 29” piece of damask silk “suitably fringed about.” While we can’t name who designed our flag, in the British militia the honor usually fell to the captain, and then the flag was made in England. The creator of the design chose a red for the damask – red, the color of blood and battle. For the emblem, he chose a common one of the times: an arm holding a short sword projecting out of the clouds. (In heraldry, am arm coming up from the ground is the strong arm of Man, but coming from the clouds, it is the unconquerable arm of God, implying “God is on our side.”) The design also included a banner circling three sides of the arm which proclaims “Vince Aut Morire” – in English “Conquer or Die.” This was not a parade flag. These men meant business. Their enemy? The French and Native American forces who were vying with them for the domination of North America.

Our flag has been called a battle flag, and yet in its early years it would not have seen battle. By the time the cloth was painted, King Philip’s War was thirty years past. It was almost twenty years since Billerica had been attacked by Indians. In the previous decade, the Billerica militia had been called out to the aid of towns farther out in the wilderness, like Dracut. After 1710, individuals would enlist in the King’s army and range through New Hampshire and Maine ambushing French and Indian troops, but the Billerica militia unit – and its flag – stayed at home, focused on protection, not attack.

The officer in a cavalry unit who carried the flag was called the “cornet.” Starting about 1720, the Cornet of the Billerica cavalry was Nathaniel Page. When he retired, it was his son – also named Nathaniel – who was elected Cornet by the company. Next, in turn, was the younger Nathaniel’s brother, John. His parchment commission dating from 1737 hangs beside the flag in the Library.

The Pages lived in the portion of Billerica that split off to become Bedford. When the cavalry disbanded, the flag remained with John. In 1775, both John and Nathaniel were above the age to serve in the Bedford military. Nevertheless, they may have gone to Lexington on the morning of April 19th. It was John’s son – also named Nathaniel – who went to Concord as a Bedford Minuteman. While there is no document that proves this, it is more than likely that he grabbed up the old cavalry flag under which his forebears had fought so bravely. For long afterward, Nathaniel told his story to friends and relations alike: he had put the flag down to help hide the ammunition in Colonel Barrett’s barn, and came back to find some boys playing soldier with it. In his account, the flag then went to the bridge.

Oral history? Yes. But it is a fact that the old flag was in the possession of the Page family at the time. It is also a fact that Nathaniel’s name can be found in the official roster of men who fought on April 19th. Was the flag at the bridge with him? I do not think it is too much of a leap to say it was.

In this image of the original flag, it’s easy to see the damage done by Ruhamah Page – Image (c) JMcCT, 2019 all rights reserved – Click to view a larger image

The flag came home to the Page homestead and was put away for many years. Then Nathaniel’s youngest daughter, Ruhamah, in a moment of thoughtlessness cut the fringe from the flag to trim a ball gown. Visitors today are surprised to see a flag with tattered edges and love to hear her story.

It was Cyrus, the minuteman’s grandson, who presented the flag to the Town of Bedford in 1885. He gave it into the keeping of the library, “so that all may look upon it.” And there it has stayed for a hundred thirty-four years. If you would like to, you may go and borrow the key and see it for yourself whenever the library is open.

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