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Flag Day: CBP's Ensign Was America's First For Government Agency

Release Date: 
June 11, 2010

Flag Day, celebrated each June 14, brings to mind the lyrics of the The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key upon seeing our nation's flag raised over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814 in the midst of the War of 1812.

But for more than 10 years before our national anthem was written, another flag also was flying in our country - one that now graces the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington and ports of entry from one end of the country to the other. That flag is the U.S. Customs ensign.

The U.S. Customs Ensign flying over CBP Headquarters in Washington.

The U.S. Customs Ensign flying over CBP Headquarters in Washington.

Photo Credit:Donna Burton

On Aug. 1, 1799, the ensign was formally adopted, making it the first official flag of a U.S. government agency, and the word "ensign" sheds light on the origins of the flag we see used today. An ensign is a banner flown on a ship to distinguish its allegiances and functions, and the customs ensign originally was designed to mark those American ships that helped collect the bulk of the young nation's revenue.

A law, the Customs Administration Act, was passed in the spring of 1799 requiring that "revenue cutters," as they were known, should have a banner of their own. The need for the banner was simple: the cutters needed a visible sign of their authority to stop and inspect ships. Indeed, the cutters by law were given permission to fire on other ships that did not heed their calls to stop upon flying the new banner.

The task of designing the ensign fell to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who presented to President John Adams a proposed ensign with 16 vertical stripes, alternating in red and white. It would have a union in the upper left corner -- like that of the national flag, but in white -- with the recently adopted national arms in its center.

Why 16 stripes and not 13? At the time, Congress initially had adopted a practice of adding both a new star and a new stripe with the addition of new states, and it had changed the national flag to 15 stars and 15 stripes in 1794. Since that time, Tennessee had joined the Union as the 16th state, so Wolcott included a 16th stripe.

Why were the stripes vertical? It is believed that Wolcott turned the stripes to more readily differentiate the customs ensign from the national flag.

Customs officials around the country hired local flagmakers to make the ensigns, a process in place until the 1860s, when the Treasury Department began issuing standardized versions to customs houses nationwide.

The ensign was only designed to be flown on the revenue cutters, but shortly after its adoption, it also flew above many customs houses around the country - a tradition formalized in 1874 by Treasury Secretary William Richardson, who ordered the flag be displayed next to the U.S. flag at customs locations during business hours.

The flag flew with few changes until 1915, when the newly-formed U.S. Coast Guard, which was born from the revenue cutters, adopted the ensign for its use by adding an emblem in the flag's field, though the flag used by customs vessels and on land at customs facilities was unchanged.

Since its first hoisting, the flag's most significant change occurred in 1951, when government experts realized that the flag had a glaring error. It was supposed to contain the Arms of the United States, a design that can be seen on the back of a $1 bill as part of the Great Seal.

The emblem used in the original ensign's union was essentially a very rough approximation of the arms' design, with the most obvious error being that 13 stars were arranged in a semicircle around and above the eagle, as opposed to the "constellation" design actually called for in the arms.

That change brought about the customs flag that now flies at CBP headquarters, ports of entry and other facilities nationwide. The flag even continues in its role as an ensign, flying on some of CBP's marine vessels.

CBP takes pride in the long-standing tradition of national service within our agency as symbolized by the flag that now unites it. So on this Flag Day, as you celebrate the Star-Spangled Banner, take a moment to appreciate the flag you might see flying next to it - one that represents more than 200 years of CBP history.

Last modified: 
February 8, 2017