Seeing Stars


While New Mexicans tried harder and waited longer than any other state to become part of the Union, they lost no time hoisting a flag emblazoned with forty-seven bright stars to give proof of their hard-won and newfound admission into the United States of America.

Oh, say, does that forty-seven-star-spangled banner yet wave? Well, no. Perhaps it never should have. President William Howard Taft signed New Mexico’s statehood proclamation on January 6, 1912, followed by Arizona, which became a state thirty-nine days later. By law, two stars were added to the flag on July 4, 1912. Official or not, the flag with forty-seven stars was waved in parades, above the Palace of the Governors, at the State Capitol, and in the hands of men, women, and children celebrating their state’s bona fide acceptance into the Republic for which it stood, albeit briefly.

And then New Mexico’s version of Old Glory was relegated to a dusty attic, a back closet, a bottom drawer—a fuzzy memory of fading stripes and how many stars, again? Nevertheless, forty-seven-star flags are still to be found in the New Mexico History Museum, the Alamogordo History Museum, and elsewhere.

The New Mexico History Museum possesses three forty-seven-star flags in different sizes, two in an 8-8-8-8-8-7 staggered-star pattern, and one in an 8-8-8-8-7-8 non staggered pattern. The Alamogordo Museum of History currently displays a flag with the 8-8-8-8-8-7 star pattern. Forty-seven-star flags appear with other arrays of star patterns and star points in diverse sizes, hues, and fabrics. Staggered and nonstaggered star configurations exist in 8-7-8-8-8-8, 8-8-8-7-8-8, 7-8-8-8-8-8, and 8-7-8-8-7-9 arrangements, in addition to the two previously described.

Together that comes to six designs, and it’s possible there are more starry arrangements in private collections. In my research, I’ve not found any forty-seven-star flags that possess manufacturer’s labels or stamps.

Individual citizens may have made up more designs. In the century before New Mexico became one of “US,” twenty-eight states—and stars—were added. Because not everyone could afford a new flag every time a state was admitted to the Union, some forty-seven-star parade flags that have survived were updated with hand-sewn squares with star patterns. Fort McHenry National Monument obtained one such flag, originally a forty-four-star flag, with three additional stars sewn on.

So what makes a national flag official? For decades, all we had to go on was a June 14, 1777, resolution by the Continental Congress “that the flag of the 13 United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” During the country’s formative years, flag designs were all over the map. Different branches of government flew different types of flags, and as more states were added to the Union, variations in flag designs proliferated. In the late eighteenth century, Congress instituted several laws to standardize the design as new states were admitted. The 1818 flag law created the elements with which we are now familiar: thirteen alternating red and white stripes to represent the original colonies, one star for each state, and a new star added on the Fourth of July following the admission of a new state.

Over time, June 14 became recognized as Flag Day, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag was published (1892), Francis Scott Key’s 1814 ode to the flag became our national anthem (1931), and Apollo 11 astronauts planted a fifty-star flag on the moon (1969).

After passage of the flag law, designs for new flags still varied in size, star patterns, number of star points, variations in red and blue colors, grommet placements, and fabrics. Only weeks before the forty-eight-star flag was unfurled, Taft reined in designs by signing an executive order to establish a standard size and star arrangement for the national flag, and the new requirements were used to fashion the flag with stars added for New Mexico and Arizona.

Until Taft’s order, citizens were allowed to create unconventional flags, and forty-seven-star flags demonstrate the latitude employed by manufacturers. How many forty-seven-star flags were manufactured is unknown, though dozens exist today. Research files at the New Mexico History Museum contain correspondence from many forty-seven-star-flag owners, and just a cursory survey on the internet reveals forty-seven-star flags for sale or in private or public holdings throughout the United States. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, flags were hand sewn, and output was limited. Later, the advent of sewing machines fostered a new industry of manufacturers who could mass-produce flags. In its haste to be the first to add new stars, the industry often misjudged how territories would be partitioned into states or when fickle government officials would admit new states. Manufacturers often anticipated the admission of new states months, even years, in advance, and created US flags as unofficial as New Mexico’s.

The Dakota Territory is a case in point. In 1889 a star was added to create a thirty-nine-star flag for the anticipated state of Dakota; however, four new states were carved from the territory and admitted in November 1889. A forty-two-star flag was created, but it became unofficial a day before it would have become official. Idaho was admitted on July 3, 1890, making both the thirty-nine- and forty-two-star flags obsolete, and the forty-three-star flag became official. Few such flags were made, because only a week later, on July 10, 1890, Wyoming became a state, and flag manufacturers began making a forty-four-star flag.

Congress passed a joint statehood bill in 1906 calling for a single state called Arizona that was to consist of the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The merger failed. At the same time, the Oklahoma Territory was making another bid for statehood, which it gained in 1908 as the forty-sixth state. When New Mexico and Arizona made separate bids for statehood in 1910, New Mexico’s chances seemed more favorable than Arizona’s. It could be that manufacturers started producing forty-seven-star flags at that time, even though the outcome was impossible to predict as each territory waged campaigns to end its territorial status. In the end, New Mexico was admitted January 6, 1912, and Arizona was admitted February 14, 1912, which made New Mexico’s forty-seven-star flag unofficial and the forty-eight-star flag official on July 4, 1912.

As part of a year of events marking New Mexico’s centennial on January 6, 2012, the New Mexico History Museum will unveil, to be proudly hailed, its forty-seven-star flags, alternating the three over time in the museum’s exhibition Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now, in the lower-level statehood section. Although officially unofficial, the broad-striped and bright-starred forty-seven-star flag is New Mexico’s alone, a flag designed to celebrate New Mexico’s rightful place in the land of the free and the home of the brave. O’er this, our centennial year, may it wave.

Louise Stiver retired after twenty-two and a half years with the Department of Cultural Affairs, having worked with the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Historic Preservation, and the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. She continues to collaborate and advise on museum projects nationwide and contribute to El Palacio.