An Iconic Artifact Re-examined

Arts & Literature

January 13, 2015
by Norman Fuss Also by this Author


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Sometimes taking a closer look at an iconic and widely accepted primary source artifact can lead to unanticipated insights. And sometimes those unanticipated insights call for re-examination of long held beliefs. Such is the case of the watercolor of Yorktown viewed from Gloucester Point during the 1781 siege of Yorktown shown above.[1]

For almost a century, this watercolor of has appeared in numerous books, articles and photomurals about the American Revolution. Discovered among a batch of his papers, it has long been attributed to John Graves Simcoe, the famed commander of the Queen’s Rangers, and has been used by several writers as documentation for a blue and red striped version of the American colors (shown in the upper left quadrant of the painting) used by American land forces.[2] It has been widely held to be an important piece of primary source evidence for this flag. But is it?


Take a close look at the two British flags flying over Yorktown and Gloucester point.

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These flags are depicted as having a white cross and what appears to be the red saltire[3] of Saint Patrick on a blue field. The British flag at the time of Yorktown had the red cross of Saint George with white fimbriation[4] and the white saltire of Saint Andrew on a blue field. The red saltire of Saint Patrick depicted on these flags did not appear until the early part of the 19th Century, after Ireland was admitted to the British union.

There are anomalies in other flags as well.

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The blue ensign flying from the British warship in the upper right, apparently intended as a “Blue Squadron” ensign, has the same anomalous depiction of the British flag in the upper staff canton and a white cross in the field. Ensigns of the Blue and the Red Squadrons of the period had solid fields. Only the White Squadron ensign displayed the red cross of Saint George, as shown on the flag flown from the largely hidden warship in the lower right of the painting. This flag lacks only the white fimbriation around the red cross of Saint George in the upper staff canton to be correct for the period.


Then there is the ship in the center of the painting flying a large flag that appears to be a French tri-color, a flag that did not come into existence for at least another 10 years.

These anomalies prompted a closer examination of the painting and its provenance.

The original of the Yorktown watercolor is owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It is one of a number of drawings, maps, plans and other papers acquired in the 1930s which make up the collection of Simcoe papers in the Special Collections Section of the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg.[5]

The Yorktown watercolor is in virtually pristine condition with no tears, smudges or other apparent defects. While it has a bucolic, “folk art” quality, it exhibits the clean, precise draftsmanship of a trained “draughtsman” or artist. There is no artist’s name or other indication of who painted it.

Several authorities on the staff of Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation, which is building the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown planned for completion by late 2016, examined the painting and concluded that many of the details are accurate.[6] The Nelson house and other prominent houses in Yorktown are correctly positioned. The soldier’s and officer’s tents are correctly represented. The small boat pennants shown on the tips of the masts projecting above the land line on the lower left are properly rendered. The position of the two deck warship shown on the Yorktown side corresponds to the known position of the 42 gun HMS Charon before she was set afire by hot shot from the French Batteries on 10 October 1781. The position of the other British warship on the Gloucester Point side corresponds to the known position of the 24 gun HMS Guadeloupe during most of the siege. The sunken ships shown before the Yorktown shoreline represent the ships that General Cornwallis ordered sunk on 16 September 1781 following the French victory in the Battle of the Capes.

Even the representation of the ship in the York River flying what appears to be a French tri-color proved to be historically correct. Records show that the ship Leendert & Matthy, a Dutch merchantman taken prize by the British privateer Goodrich and brought into Portsmouth on 19 May 1781, was present during the siege.[7] She was such a slow sailing vessel that she could not get convoy to New York and was eventually brought up river to Yorktown, where part of her cargo of sugar, coffee, and chocolate was used to supply the British and Hessian troops.[8] The high stern depicted in the painting is characteristic of Dutch merchant ships of the time. What was first thought to be a French tri-color is actually the Dutch flag flown upside down, the conventional sign of a prize. The only thing missing is a Union Jack flying over the inverted Dutch flag, which was commonly, but not always done.

But those anomalous flags, especially the two large British unions, remained a mystery. Diligent research and inquiries among vexillologists in the United States and in England turned up no independent evidence to support the representations of these flags or the Blue Squadron ensign with the white cross shown in the watercolor.

These findings raised several additional questions. Was Simcoe really the author of the Yorktown watercolor? How can the many correctly rendered elements of the painting be reconciled with the apparent anomalies in the various flags? And what does it all imply about this watercolor’s reliability as a primary source of documentation for the blue and red striped version of the American colors? Research into Simcoe’s life, the provenance of the painting and study of the other drawings and documents in the Simcoe collection yielded some interesting and suggestive insights.

John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was the son of a Royal Navy Captain killed at Quebec in 1759. Given his father’s connection to the Royal Navy, Simcoe seriously considered a naval career, but ultimately decided for the army, becoming an ensign in the 35th Regiment of Foot in 1771. He accompanied that regiment to Boston in 1775, serving with the 35th and the 40th Regiments until October 1777. After being wounded at Brandywine, he was promoted and named commander of the Queen’s Rangers. In the ensuing years he built a brilliant record as an aggressive, prudent, skillful and effective field commander. At Yorktown in 1781, Simcoe was posted at Gloucester Point. Following the surrender of the British forces he was invalided home. In 1782 he married Elizabeth Posthuma, with whom he sired seven children, two boys and five girls. In 1791, after some years tending his estate at Wolford Lodge, serving in Parliament, and writing and supervising publication of his Journal of the Queen’s Rangers, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, a post which he held until his return to England in 1797. In 1806, now a Lieutenant General, Simcoe was named Commander in Chief for India, succeeding Charles Cornwallis, but fell ill on the voyage out and returned to England, where he died on 26 October 1806.[9]

Was Simcoe the artist of the Yorktown watercolor?

There is nothing in Simcoe’s background to suggest that he had the training to produce such a precise rendering. Additionally it was customary for officers of his rank to have others on their staff to take care of such things. Even British engineers such as John Montressor, who were trained in draftsmanship, had subordinates who did the actual drawing. And Simcoe had his — Lieutenant George Spencer.

Internal evidence in Simcoe’s Journal casts doubt on him as the artist of the Yorktown watercolor. In writing of the siege, Simcoe relates that he was worn down by the pressures of the war and the siege, was so ill that he had to be carried to his horse to make a visit to a redoubt, and was ultimately obliged to turn over his command to Banastre Tarleton. It seems unlikely that he would have painted such a picture under those circumstances even if he had the talent. Furthermore, had it been painted during the siege, under the conditions of foul weather, dirt, confusion and uncertainty that prevailed, and then survived the trip back to England in Simcoe’s baggage, it seems highly unlikely that it would be in the pristine condition that it is.

Might Simcoe have painted it later? It seems unlikely. What reason could Simcoe possibly have had to paint a rather bucolic representation of what had to have been one of the most difficult, tragic and humiliating events of his life? And if he did, why would he represent flags, with which he was intimately familiar from a lifetime of close association, as they appear in the watercolor?

If Simcoe was not the author of the Yorktown watercolor, who was? Among the possible candidates are the people who converted Simcoe’s (and others’) rough sketches into the detailed maps and plans that served as the master drawings for the engravings in the Journal.

The Simcoe collection at Colonial Williamsburg, of which the Yorktown watercolor is one element, consists of three lots of documents purchased in England in the 1930s. The first lot was acquired in 1930 from an English antiquities dealer who had purchased the documents from a descendent of Simcoe. It consists of “17 manuscript Maps and Plans, 5 Engraved Maps, being proofs of those in Simcoe’s Journal of the Queen’s Rangers, 1787,” and several other documents, one of which one is listed as a “Water-color sketch of Yorktown, Virginia.” The second lot was a single plan map of the City of Williamsburg, also purchased in 1930 from another English antiquities dealer. The third lot, acquired in 1936 from the same English antiquities dealer as the 1930 lot, is a copy of Simcoe’s Journal of the Queen’s Rangers privately printed in 1787, together with other documents establishing its provenance.[10]

Examination of the documents of the 1930 purchase confirmed that all but one were probably part of the “working papers” developed by Simcoe and his “team” while preparing the Journal for publication. There are printed copies of four of the ten plates in the Journal. There are detailed manuscript drawings of these four plates and one other which appear to be the master drawings from which the plates were engraved. There are also several other manuscript drawings of these plates and of several other plates which appear to be early drafts. There are no renderings in the working papers of two of the ten plates that appear in the Journal. But there are several renderings of actions that were not included in the Journal. There is even a list of documents that are “done,” including one listed as “bad.” The only document in the collection that has no apparent connection to the Journal is the Yorktown watercolor. There is nothing in the Journal or the rest of the documents like it

Simcoe clearly employed a “team” to help him prepare his Journal for publication. The work of at least three different hands is evident. While the overall style and organization of the drawings are consistent, differences in the way details, such as woodlands, morasses, small buildings, ships and smoke are rendered are apparent to even the untrained observer.[11]

Were any of these “team” members the artist who painted the Yorktown watercolor? Comparison of the Yorktown watercolor to the manuscript maps and plans in the Simcoe collection indicates that the answer is probably no.

There are noticeable differences in both the style and the execution of details between the manuscript maps and plans and the Yorktown watercolor. Details in the Yorktown watercolor, such as the way in which smoke from burning ships and buildings is drawn, and the way in which ships and small buildings are represented, have no parallels in any of the working paper drawings. In addition, the manuscript maps and plans of the working papers are done on two types of paper: one with a very light brown cast, the other of a very light gray cast, both of an estimated 20# weight and with a barely discernable deckle wire watermark. The Yorktown watercolor is executed on paper of a very light blue-gray cast of an estimated 30# weight with a much more prominent deckle wire watermark.

So if it wasn’t Simcoe or a member of his “team,” who executed the Yorktown watercolor, who was it? We will probably never know. Some unknown artist working independently, possibly after the addition of the Cross of St. Patrick to the British flag, and possibly in another country is one possibility. If true, perhaps the Yorktown watercolor was acquired as an interesting curiosity by someone in the chain of possession of the Simcoe papers that extended some 130 years before the collection was purchased by Colonial Williamsburg, and placed among them as a convenient place to keep it. Might the Yorktown watercolor be something that was done for the American Revolution Centennial? One can only speculate.

While we will probably never know who actually executed the Yorktown watercolor or when, what now seems clear is that it is highly unlikely that it was executed by Simcoe as previously believed, or by any of the persons associated with him in the preparation of his Journal for publication. The most likely scenario seems to be that it was executed by an unknown artist sometime after the admission of Ireland to the British union in 1806.

Whatever the true story behind the “Simcoe” watercolor of Yorktown viewed from Gloucester Point during the 1781 siege, it is clearly not a reliable primary source document.

What, then, does this imply about the use of a blue and red striped version of the American flag by Continental land forces?

There is seemingly reliable primary source evidence that variants of the American flag with red, white and blue stripes and with blue and white stripes were used on land.[12] There is similar evidence that a flag with blue and red stripes was flown by some ships of the fledgling United States Navy.[13] The only two known pieces of primary source “evidence” of a blue and red striped American flag used on land are the watercolor discussed in this article and the artifact “Guilford Battle Flag.”[14]

Recently, research has been presented which strongly suggests that the artifact “Guilford Battle Flag” was altered from a later 15 star, 15 stripe flag, in the 1790s.[15] Now the reliability of the other source used to document the use of such a variation at Yorktown in 1781 has been called into question.

Was a blue and red striped variation of the American flag actually used by the Continental land forces during the American Revolution? If so, when and where was it used?

These questions invite further inquiry.


[1] Image courtesy Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

[2] Examples include: Edward W. Richardson Standards and Colors of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 22, 181, 187; Henry W. Moeler, Shattering the American Myth: Unfurling the History of the Stars and Stripes (Matituk, NY, Ameron House, 1992), plate 11A, among others.

[3] In Vexillology (the study of flags) “cross” signifies a cross in the form of a plus sign (+), “saltire” signifies a cross in the form of an X.

[4] Fimbriation: A border of contrasting color around a cross, saltire or other figure.

[5] The author wishes to acknowledge with thanks the generous assistance of Gail Greve, Special Collections Librarian and Associate Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Colonial Williamsburg; and George Yetter, Associate Curator of Architectural Drawings and Research Collections, Colonial Williamsburg, who provided repeated access to original documents and suggested several valuable avenues of investigation.

[6] Special thanks are due to Kevin Kelly, Historian, Colonial Williamsburg, Pete Wrike, History Professor and Historical Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, Erik Goldstein, Curator, Mechanical Arts and Numismatics, Colonial Williamsburg, Donna Cooke, Archivist, Colonial Williamsburg, Edward Ayres, Historian, Yorktown Victory Center, and Peter Ansoff, President, North American Vexillological Association who generously contributed their time and knowledge to this investigation.

[7] John O. Sands, Yorktown’s Captive Fleet (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1983, for the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia), 203. Sands cites as one of his sources the “Affidavit of Protest filed by John Buchanan, Master of the Privateer Goodrich, 1 November, 1781,” HCA 42/134, British National Archives; Report, Archives de la Marine, B4, 185, folio 350.

[8] In the words of one Hessian soldier, “We drank chocolate three, four, or more times a day. Also we ate it with sugar on bread, but we could not use it all.” Johan Conrad Döhla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 183 (Translated by Bruce Burgoyne from the 1913 Bayruth edition by W. Baron von Waldenfels).

[9] Excerpted from Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, David McKay, 1966), 1009-10.

[10] Bound into the front of the volume are hand written notes indicating that this copy was given by Simcoe to his lifelong friend, William Wolcot, who, on 22 May 1823, returned the volume to Simcoe’s daughter, Charlotte, with the following note

“This Book, presented to me by its Author, who’s friendship I had the pride and pleasure of enjoying from almost from infancy to the time of his decease, I now present to his beloved daughter Charlotte Simcoe, well knowing it to be a gift more acceptable to her than any other it can ever be in my power to present for her acceptance.” Wm. Wolcot


May 22, 1823

[11] One member of Simcoe’s “team” was G(eorge) Spencer. Spencer served as a Lieutenant in the Queen’s Rangers throughout most of the war. Notations on five the engraved plates in the Journal indicate that they are “From a sketch by Lt. Col Simcoe, Taken on the Spot. Copy by G. Spencer, Lt. QR” Although none of the master manuscript drawings for these five plates appear in the “papers,” a detailed manuscript drawing that could be the master for an engraving of one of the actions that is not included as a plate in the Journal contains a small “GS” in the lower left corner. Comparison of this drawing with the others indicates that at least one other drawing in the collection is by the same hand.

Another member of the team may have been Simcoe’s wife, Elizabeth. The Duke de la Rochefoucald-Liancourt, who visited Simcoe in 1795, wrote:

“Mrs. Simcoe is a lady of 36 years of age. She is timid and speaks little, but she is a woman of sense, handsome and amiable, and fulfills all the duties of mother and wife with the most scrupulous exactness. The performance of the latter she carries so far as to be of great assistance to her husband by her talents for drawing, the practice of which, confined to maps and plans, enables her to be extremely useful to the Governor.”

Examination of her numerous works in the Sigmund Samuel Canadiana Gallery of the Ontario Archives reveals that Mrs. Simcoe worked in an entirely different style from that of the Yorktown watercolor. Duke de la Rochefoucald Lliancourt, Travels in North America in 1795 &c., (London, 1799).

[12] See, for example, the sketches of John Montressor’s (Chief Engineer of the British Forces in Philadelphia) staff draughtsman, Pierre Nicole, of Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer during the October-November 1777 siege, in Richardson, Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, 23.

[13] Richardson Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, plate 45, 223.

[14] North Carolina Museum of History, Accession Number H.1914.246.1

[15] Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen Star Flags: Keys to Identification (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 26-28.


  • Great article Norman, obviously a lot of expertise and diligence went into it. I was wondering what your thoughts may be on the Hulbert Flag from Bridgehampton, Long Island, which we exhibit in Riverhead, NY. I did download Simcoe’s “Journal of the Queen’s Rangers” from Google and will be reading it shortly.


    1. Zak,

      Thank you for your kind words. Doing the research for this article was a lot of fun. It introduced me to new sources and gave me insights into a host of peripheral topics that, sadly, I had not the “band width” to follow. If truth be known, the journey was more rewarding than the destination.

      I must confess that I am not familiar with the Hulbert Flag from Bridgehampton, Long Island, and hence cannot comment on it. If you can post an image of it, or tell me where I might find such an image, I will be happy to share my thoughts for what they may (or may not) be worth. But I am no expert on flags. Pretty much all I know about flags is what I learned in the course of my research for this article. If you want more knowledgeable comment, you might want to ask the folks at the North American Vexillogical Association (NAVA). Their web site is .

        1. Zak,

          VERRRY Interesting!

          The tradition of the flag, i.e. that it is the flag that was made by Hulbert and carried by him and his militiamen from Fort Ticonderoga to Philadelphia in 1775 is, of course, possible. But I consider it to be highly unlikely. Here’s why.

          The flag with its thirteen stripes and thirteen stars is clearly designed as a national flag for the thirteen colonies/states. In 1775 we were not a nation or even declaring ourselves to be one. There was no assurance, even among the most enthusiastic supporters of separation from England that, if/when we declared our independence, all thirteen colonies would go along. So a flag with thirteen stripes and thirteen stars would, in 1775, be a hopeful wish at best. Would promoting the idea of a nation of all thirteen colonies to the extent of designing a flag for that not yet achieved “nation” be something that a militia captain from Bridgehampton would be engaged in? While we cannot totally dismiss the idea, I think it is quite a stretch.

          Then there is the militia connection in the story. Hulbert apparently was captain of a militia company that allegedly marched from Ticonderoga to Philadelphia with that flag. What would a militia flag of the period have looked like? Especially one at the company level? The British, American, French and other national practices of the time were that the military units of the nation carried flags specific to the unit and very different in design from the national flag. Yes, British regiments carried the King’s Color in addition to their regimental color, but that King’s Color had the regiment’s distinctive crest on it, so it was still unique to the regiment. Even after the Declaration of Independence, the colors of individual regiments in Continental service were totally different from the national flag(s). (See the “Tarleton flags” that were exhibited at Colonial Williamsburg several years ago.) I think a flag for a militia unit would almost certainly have been designed to be specific/unique to that unit.

          Bottom line, I think that for a militia unit to be carrying as its standard a “national” flag before there was a nation is highly problematic.

  • Excellent article that provides new information to update the question of the source of the illustration. Hope to see more like this with this kind of source analysis.

  • I wonder if this picture could’ve been copied from an original done by someone else on the spot, or have been colored long after it was originally sketched? While the design of the flags point to a later date, details like the specific ships depicted suggest a great deal of first-hand knowledge about the event.

    1. Don,

      Excellent questions. I wish that I had excellent answers to them — or indeed any answers at all.

      What you suggest is certainly possible. But I found nothing in the research that I did for this article that would either confirm or refute them. As I have found so many times when doing research, I solve one mystery but discover several others in the process. Perhaps someone else will pick up the baton on this and carry it to the next stage.

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