The European settlers who came to North America brought their flags with them, and these came to play a significant symbolic role in American history. The flags of many present-day states, provinces and cities, such as Florida, Quebec and New York City, derive from the flags that flew over the European colonies. Many of these were actually ensigns, intended for use at sea, for example the English and British Red Ensigns. The first distinctively American flags were usually variants of these ensigns. This was particularly the case in New England, where the Red Ensigns modified by the addition of a pine tree in the canton, became a familiar sight.

For more information on colonial-eras flags of Canada see FROM THE UNION JACK TO THE MAPLE LEAF.




Cross of St. George


First Union Jack  • 1606-1801


East India Company Ensign  • Early 17th Century


English Red Ensign  •  Later 17th Century-1707


British Red Ensign  •  1707-1801


New England Ensign  •  17th Century


New England Ensign  •  18th Century

The early explorers and settlers of what would become British North America sailed under the Cross of St. George and the ensigns derived from that ancient symbol of England. The Union Jack, combining the crosses of SS. George and Andrew, was created by a royal writ issued in 1606 by King James I. Initially it was intended for the use of English and Scottish merchant vessels, being flown together with the Cross of St. George by the former and the Cross of St. Andrew by the latter. In 1610, when the English explorer Henry Hudson sailed into the immense bay that was to be named after him, his ship, the Discovery, may have flown the Union Jack together with an early version of the ensign of the East India Company, which financed his final (and fatal) expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. Similar striped ensigns, in common use in the early seventeenth century, gave way to ensigns with a solid-color field around 1630. By this time the Union Jack was reserved for the Royal Navy and, legally, English merchant vessels should have flown the Cross of St. George only. Many, however, flew the Red Ensign also and in 1674 a royal proclamation legalized this practice. In 1707 the Act of Union between England and Scotland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Union Jack replaced the Cross of St. George in the canton of all ensigns. The two versions of the Red Ensign were a familiar sight in North American waters between the mid-seventeenth century and 1775. With a green pine tree added in the upper hoist they served as merchant ensigns of colonial New England, though without official sanction.


Flag of the Massachusetts Bay Colony  •  1636-86


Governor Andros Flag  •  1687-89

Claiming that the Cross of St. George was idolatrous and papist, Governor John Endicott of the Massachusetts Bay Colony demanded to have it removed from the militia colors of the town of Salem. The Great and General Court (legislature) of the colony, finding that Endicott had "exceeded the lymits of his calling," vacated his order and banned him from holding public office for one year. The decision on the cross was left up to local officials, many of whom, particularly in the Boston area, shared Endicott’s opinion and suppressed the cross. The English Red Ensign was similarly modified and for fifty years the ensign, albeit unsanctioned by the English government, of the colony was red with a blank white canton.  Religious sentiment against it have largely died down with the passage of time, the cross was restored in 1685-86.

Seeking to consolidate royal authority in North America as well as in England, King James II proclaimed a united Dominion of New England in 1686. As governor he appointed Sir Edmund Andros, who arrived in Boston the following year to take up his office. The Dominion, consisting of the New England colonies plus New York, was exceedingly unpopular with the colonists, who by this time were well used to self-government. When the Glorious Revolution broke out in England in 1688 the colonists rose against Andros, he was deposed along with the King and the Dominion was dissolved. The so-called Governor Andros flag was probably the company color of the military guard that accompanied him to Boston; it was similar to the company colors of the English foot guards.


Colonial Union Jack  •  1701-?

The Colonial Union Jack, defaced with a pain white escutcheon, was created in 1701 after complaints from the Admiralty that merchant vessels registered in the colonies were illegally flying the Union Jack. It was probably not much used, being largely superseded by the British Red Ensign after 1707.




The Banner of France


Variant Design


Variant Design  •  Semé of Fleurs-de-Lis




French Merchant Ensigns  •  17th-18th Centuries

The French settlement of North America was centered on Canada. A banner of the arms of France—three gold fleurs-de-lis on a field of blue—was probably the first French flag to fly over North America. Variants of this flag with a white field—white being the livery color of the House of Bourbon—are also known to have existed, either with the three fleurs-de-lis or semé of fleurs-de-lis in the manner of the ancient arms of France. Several versions of this ensign are known to have existed. A common sight in North American waters was the French merchant ensign, blue with a white cross throughout and the arms of France at the intersection of the cross. Though Canada was lost to Britain in 1763 French social and cultural influence in what was to become the province of Quebec remained strong, as it is to this day.




Kingdom of Spain  •  State Ensign  •  16th-18 Centuries


Kingdom of Spain  •  Merchant Ensign
16th-18 Centuries

The Cross of Burgundy had been the symbol of the Dukes of Burgundy since the early fifteenth century. Around 1525 it was adopted by King Philip I of Castile, the first Spanish Habsburg monarch, whose mother was Mary of Burgundy. With a white field and a red cross it served as the Spanish state and war flag and ensign. For merchant vessels there was a variant with a blue field and white cross. The Cross of Burgundy was flown throughout Spain's vast possessions in North and South America until being superseded by the red-yellow-red flags of King Charles  III in 1785.


Kingdom of Spain  •  State Ensign  •  1785-1931


Kingdom of Spain  •  Merchant Ensign  •  1785-1927

In 1785 King Charles III adopted a new ensign for the Spanish Navy, striped red-yellow-red with the crowned state arms on the yellow stripe. For many years its use was restricted to state and naval vessels and installations. A new merchant ensign in the same colors but of a different design was adopted at the same time. These flags flew over Spain's American colonies until the last of them were lost in 1898.




Dutch Republic  •  The Princevlag  •  16th-17th Centuries


Dutch Republic  •  Doubled Princevlag


Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie

The Dutch settlement of North America, which began in 1614, came to center on Manhattan Island and the Hudson River Valley. New Netherland, as the colony was known, eventually established its capital, New Amsterdam, on the island of Manhattan. Like various other European colonial settlements in the New World, New Netherland was a private business venture, the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (Chartered West India Company) being primarily interested in the American fur trade. Though at first New Netherland grew slowly its settled area eventually came to include portions of the current states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut plus small outposts in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. The Anglo-Dutch wars of the later seventeenth century led to the loss of New Netherland to England in 1674 and its name was changed to New York. Dutch cultural, political and economic influence remained strong, however, and persist to this day.

The orange-white-blue Princevlag was the de facto flag of New Netherland. Often it was made with multiple stripes: the basic flag doubled or even tripled. From about 1640 red began to replace orange, probably because of the unreliability of the orange dyestuffs of the period. The Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie used both the orange-stripe Princevlag and the later red-stripe version with its monogram on the white stripe as the ensign of its ships.


Kingdom of Sweden  •  State & War Ensign  •  1520-1650

The colony of New Sweden was established in the Delaware River valley at the instigation of Queen Christina, who granted a charter to the Svenska Västindiska Kompaniet (Swedish West India Company) in 1637, the colony’s purpose being to develop transatlantic trade. By 1650 there were a number of settlements on either side of the Delaware River. However in 1655 New Sweden was invaded and occupied by the Dutch, who incorporated it into New Netherland. The Swedish state and war flag, which up to 1650 had two rather than three tails, was the colony’s flag and ensign.