The Meaning Behind All 50 State Flags
Stars and stripes are obvious; pelicans, the Big Dipper, and trees, less so. Find out the history behind every flag of the United States.
Since 1895, the Alabama state flag has been a crimson St. Andrew’s cross on a rectangular field of white. The design was likely intended to “preserve in permanent form some of the more distinctive features of the Confederate battle flag,” shares the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Fun fact: Alabama is one of only four states that doesn’t include the color blue. The others are California, Maryland, and New Mexico. Alabama does have something in common with every state—dumb laws.
Alaska was not yet a state in 1926 when, in the interest of gaining statehood, the Alaskan American Legion in cooperation with the territorial governor held a flag-designing contest for kids. The unanimous winner was the flag designed by John “Benny” Benson, 13, who lived in an orphanage in Unalaska. His design was eight stars (the Big Dipper constellation and the North Star) on a field of blue to represent the sky and Alaska’s forget-me-not flower. He included the eighth star, because, in his own words, “The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union.”
The Arizona state flag, adopted in 1917, is divided into two halves. The top consists of 13 alternating red and yellow rays that represent the original 13 colonies, according to the Arizona Secretary of State. The colors of the rays pay tribute to the Spanish flags carried by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado when he explored Arizona in 1540. The bottom half is solid blue, the same blue as that in the U.S. flag. The large copper-hued star in the center represents Arizona’s status as the largest copper producer in the United States.
The Arkansas state flag may look simple, but it is rich in symbolism, according to the Arkansas Secretary of State. The colors (red, white, and blue) signify Arkansas’s place as a state in the Union. The diamond shape is a shout-out to the United State’s only diamond mine, located in Arkansas, and the 25 stars that border the diamond reflect that Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the Union. The three stars below the word “Arkansas” have a double meaning: Arkansas has been part of three countries (Spain, France, and the United States) and it was the third state to come out of the Louisiana Purchase. The star on top of the word “Arkansas” was added in 1923 to represent the Confederacy.
The flag of California was officially adopted in 1911 but had first been hoisted in 1846 as an act of rebellion against Mexico, which still ruled California at the time. The grizzly bear, at one point ubiquitous to California, but now extinct in the state, was intended to intimidate Mexican authorities. The red star is said to imitate the “lone star of Texas.” Some in California would like to see a new flag adopted, one that is more current and less associated with a long-ago rebellion by what an editorial in the Los Angeles Times calls a band of “thieves, drunks, and murderers.”
The blue in Colorado’s state flag, adopted in 1911, represents the state’ open blue skies and the white stripe is for the snowcapped Rockies, reports the Denver Channel. The letter “C” is the same red as the American flag and represents the state’s red-hued earth. The golden disk inside the “C” celebrates the state’s many days of sunshine. Colorado neighbors many other states which is one of the 24 U.S. state facts that nearly everyone gets wrong.
The Connecticut state flag was adopted in 1895, although it had already been long accepted as the official state flag of the Nutmeg State. Its design consists of three grapevines that represent the three colonies—New Haven, Saybrook, and Connecticut (Hartford)—that merged together to become the state. Grape vines have been associated with the state since 1639 when they were part of the official seal brought from England by Colonel George Fenwick, who oversaw Saybrook. The Latin, “Qui Transtulit Sustinet,” also from Fenwick’s seal translates to, “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains.” The state name, however, is actually thanks to a Native American word. In fact, the Native Americans influenced many state names. This is how every state in America got its name.
The colors on Delaware’s state flag, buff and colonial blue, represent those of a uniform worn by General George Washington, explains the State of Delaware’s official website. The date that appears below the diamond (December 7, 1787) is the day on which Delaware ratified the federal Constitution. It was the first state to do so and therefore the first state admitted to the union, which gives Delaware the bragging rights and nickname of “First State.”
Florida was the first southern state to adopt a flag after the Civil War, but it went through several iterations before taking on its current form in 1900, shares the Florida Department of State. Its state seal appears in the center of a crimson St. Andrew’s cross (like that seen on the Confederate flag) and is the only portion of the flag that contains the color blue—look closely, it’s on a skirt worn by the Native American woman who is pictured scattering flowers. One of the oldest cemeteries in America, located in Florida, has the earliest known burials of Tolomato tribe members.
Georgia has had three state flags since 2001 alone, reflecting controversy over whether and to what degree the state flag should reference the Confederate flag. The current flag, which was selected by statewide vote in 2004, is still based on the Confederate flag’s red, white, and blue “stars and bars” but no longer bears a St. Andrew’s-style cross (in the style of the Confederate flag) as it once had.
Hawaii’s official state flag is an amalgamation of the red, white, and blue “Stars and Stripes” of the United States and the British Union Jack. However, there is another flag that Hawaiians identify as their own, and that’s the personal flag of King Kamehameha I, with a color scheme of red, yellow, and green that represent different groups within Hawaiian society (royal, landed gentry, and commoners). Another Hawaiian gem: America’s only royal palace.
Idaho’s state flag is blue, with the words “State of Idaho” in gold lettering below the state seal. The seal itself is based on a painting by Paul Evans that reflects Idaho’s main industries: mining, agriculture, and forestry. It’s no secret that Idaho has some main industries, but these best-kept secrets in every state are more shocking.
The Illinois State flag might seem simple at first glance in that it’s the Illinois state seal on a white field with the name, “Illinois” underneath. The seal shows a bald eagle, with a red banner in its beak proclaiming the state’s motto, “State Sovereignty, National Union.” In 1867, then-Secretary of State Sharon Tyndale had wanted to reverse the order of the phrases to show support for the Union during the Reconstruction era but was overruled by the state Senate. He did, however, place the word “sovereignty” upside down to make it harder to read. Check out which famous foods were invented in your state.
Iowa didn’t adopt an official flag until 1921, almost 75 years after its admission to the Union, and only after the stationing of state troops along the Mexican border during World War I drew attention to the fact that the Hawkeye State didn’t have a flag of its own. The flag consists of three vertical stripes of blue, white, and red (similar to France’s flag), with a bald eagle on the white stripe carrying a blue streamer bearing the state motto: “Our Liberties We Prize, and Our Rights We Will Maintain.”
The state flag of Kansas consists of the Kansas state seal, a golden sunflower, and the word “Kansas” on a blue background. Between the sunflower and the seal is a gold and blue bar that symbolizes the Louisiana Purchase (through which Kansas was acquired from France). Want to show your state pride? Start with the best gifts to give from each state.
Kentucky’s flag, adopted in 1918, was designed by an art teacher and features the Bluegrass State’s seal in the center of a navy blue field. The seal, as Kentucky requires by law, features a man wearing buckskin (representing the frontier) and another in a suit (representing statesmen). These two men have evolved throughout the years; previous iterations included two men in formal wear embracing and two men in buckskin embracing. The seal also includes the phrases, “United We Stand,” and “Divided We Fall,” a goldenrod wreath (goldenrod is Kentucky’s state flower), and the words, “Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
The state flag of Louisiana is azure blue and features an angular pelican that is tearing its own breast in order to feed its young its own flesh and blood, signifying the state’s willingness to sacrifice itself for its citizens. The three drops of blood shown have been required since 2006 by law. You can learn more about Louisiana and other states by visiting the most historic landmark in every state.
The current state flag, dating back to 1909, is the Maine state seal, which features a farmer with a scythe, a sailor with an anchor and a moose under a pine tree and a banner reading “dirigo” which is Latin for “I lead.” We say “current” because there is a movement underway in the state’s government to revert to a version of the flag featuring a blue star and green pine tree, which was used from 1901 to 1909. Stay tuned…
With its “bold colors, interesting patterns, and correct heraldry,” the Maryland flag has been described as “the perfect state flag,” according to Maryland’s Secretary of State. Its design comes from the shield in the coat of arms of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and colonial proprietor of Maryland, alternated with the red and white colors and symbolic cross of the Crosslands, Calvert’s maternal family. Don’t miss the strangest fact about Maryland… and all the other states.
The front side of the Massachusetts flag—which, along with Oregon is the only two-sided state flag in the United States—bears the image of a native American beneath a disembodied arm and the words, “By the Sword We Seek Peace, but Peace Only Under Liberty.” A single white star represents that the Bay State was one of the 13 original colonies. Some are troubled by the imagery, believing it represents the historic mistreatment of Native Americans. As a result, there’s a proposal currently under consideration in Massachusetts to change the flag’s design.
Michigan’s state flag is blue and contains the state’s coat of arms, which depicts an eagle holding an olive branch and arrows and an elk and a moose supporting a shield that shows a man standing on a grassy peninsula. The flag also has not one motto, but three: E Pluribus Unum (From many, one), Tuebor (I will defend), and Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you). There’s also a pleasant, charming small town in Michigan and every state.
The state flag of Minnesota bears several dates: 1819, the year Fort Snelling was established; 1858, the year Minnesota became a state; and 1893, the year the state flag was adopted. In addition, the 19 starts symbolize that Minnesota was the 19th state admitted to the Union (after the original 13 colonies). “The largest star represents the North Star and Minnesota,” according to the Minnesota Secretary of State.
Mississippi’s state flag bears quite a resemblance to Georgia’s, except that unlike Georgia, it still bears a Confederate flag-style blue-star-adorned cross. It’s the only state flag that continues to bear this particular cross, and Mississippi isn’t planning on changing that anytime soon: Mississippi lawmakers are currently in the midst of killing a proposed bill that would eliminate the cross.
For nearly a century after achieving statehood, Missouri did not have an official flag, according to the Missouri Secretary of State, who also explains: The blue stripe represents vigilance, permanence, and justice, the red stripe symbolizes valor, and the white stripe represents purity. The seal features grizzly bears, which “signify the size and strength of the state and the courage of her people” and a new crescent moon as a reminder that “we can make our future better.” Twenty-four stars surrounded the coat-of-arms, representative of Missouri’s position as the 24th state admitted to the Union. Lastly, the flag bears to mottos, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” and “Salus populi suprema lex esto,” which is Latin for, “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.” Missouri is also one of the states with Route66, which features some of the strangest roadside attractions in every state.
The state flag of Montana could double as an advertisement for visiting “Big Sky Country.” Its emblazoned with the state seal that shows off the Treasure State’s natural beauty, including mountains, waterfalls, forests, and a brilliant golden sun. The state motto at the bottom of the seal in Spanish means “gold and silver.” You won’t want to miss the best free tourist attractions in every state.
Nebraska’s state flag shows its state seal, which is filled with several totems of the Cornhusker State. In the background, you’ll spy a steamboat on the Missouri River and a train heading west toward the Rocky Mountains. In the foreground, you’ll find a smith using a hammer and anvil signifying the mechanic arts, such as blacksmithing, and a settler’s cabin, wheat sheaves, and stalks of corn, representing agriculture. The state motto, “Equality Before the Law” flies on a banner at the top the seal. Nebraska might be a sometimes-forgotten state, but they are known for being the best at graduating high school. From Nebraska’s high graduation rate to their high road rage rate, here are the best and worst qualities of each of the 50 states.
Nevada’s flag has evolved throughout the decades; the original flag dating back to 1905 was emblazoned with the words, “Silver Nevada Gold” and 36 stars, representing that the Silver State is America’s 36th. The current rendition is much more subtle, featuring two sprays of sagebrush (the state flower of Nevada) crossed to form a wreath, with a silver star (Nevada’s state metal) at the center, and the word “Nevada” positioned underneath the star.
The current New Hampshire state flag features the frigate Raleigh, built in Portsmouth in 1776. She was notable for being the first American navy ship to carry the American flag into battle, as shown on the seal. The ship is surrounded by laurel leaves and nine stars, signifying that New Hampshire was the ninth state admitted to the Union. You’ll never guess what’s banned in New Hampshire…or any other state!
George Washington himself is credited with choosing the original colors of the Garden State flag, buff and New Jersey blue. The flag features the state seal, which itself has five symbols. The helmet and horse’s head represent New Jersey’s status as one of the first states; it was the third state to sign the U.S. Constitution. The two women holding the shield are Liberty, holding a staff with a liberty cap and Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain who holds a cornucopia filled with the many fruits and veggies grown in the state. The shield in between the two women also heralds the state’s agriculture with three rows of plows. The fifth symbol is the scroll featuring the state’s motto “Liberty and Prosperity” and “1776” the year New Jersey became a state.
With its bright colors and simple yet strong Zia symbol, it’s no surprise that New Mexico was voted the best state flag in a survey conducted by the North American Vexillological Association. The Zia sun sign is attributed to Zia Pueblo in New Mexico and is said to represent the sacred number four and the Circle of Life: four winds, four seasons, four directions, and four sacred obligations. There is some controversy about how the state was introduced to the symbol of the Native Americans and, today, the tribe asks that their ancient symbol be treated with respect.
New York’s flag features its seal: two ships on a river (presumably the Hudson River), with three mountains in the background, and a golden sun suspended in a blue sky. The shield is flanked by Liberty (on the left), holding a staff with a Liberty cap and Justice, blindfolded and holding her scales. The duo represents “Liberty and Justice for all,” a sentiment that will be familiar to anyone who has ever recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Above the shield, an American eagle looking west sits atop a globe, signifying New York’s unique place in the world, as well as opportunity and optimism. The state motto, “Excelsior” (which means “Ever Upward”) appears on a banner underneath the shield.
North Carolina’s state flag is bold and straightforward. In addition to the red, white, and blue, and the state’s initials, two dates are prominent. May 20, 1775 is the day the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed in which the county’s residents declared themselves “free and independent people” (although that document’s authenticity has been called into question) and April 12, 1776, which was the date the Halifax Resolves were passed, authorizing the North Carolina delegates at the Continental Congress to vote for independence.
The North Dakota state flag features several elements that are familiar to most Americans. The first is the bald eagle, our national bird, carrying an olive branch in one foot and a sheath of arrows in the other to depict “peace through strength.” On the eagle’s breast is a red, white, and blue shield with 13 stars and above the bird are 13 stars, representative of the original 13 states. The eagle’s beak holds a banner which reads, “E Pluburus Unum,” the national motto, which is also found on the U.S. currency. Fun fact: the bald eagle had been nearly extinct in North Dakota but has now made a strong resurgence there. While Missouri is the geographical center of the United States, find out which North Dakota town lands straight in the center of North America.
The Ohio state flag, in the shape of a burgee, is the only one that is not a rectangle in all of the United States According to John Eisenmann, who designed the flag in 1901, the triangles formed by the main lines of the flag represent hills and valleys and the stripes represent roads and waterways. The circle represents the Northwest Territory and the initial letter of “Ohio” and is also suggestive of its being the Buckeye State. The 13 stars to the left of the circle represent the 13 original states and the four additional ones to the right show that Ohio is the 17th state.
The Oklahoma state flag features an Osage warrior’s shield with an olive branch and a peace pipe laying across it which together calls to mind the notion of peace; though the shield denotes that Oklahoma is willing to defend itself, if challenged. The flag was designed by a Louise Funk Fluke (the “Betsy Ross of Oklahoma“) and adopted in 1925, although in 1941, the word “Oklahoma” was added beneath the shield. You’ll scream “Oklahoma” on the rollercoasters in the best amusement park in every state.
Oregon’s flag is two-sided, one of only two states to have a double-sided flag. Featured on one side is the state seal which shows a shield with a covered wagon and pine trees in front of a mountain and a British man-of-war ship departing and an American steamer ship arriving via the Pacific Ocean. In the middle is a banner with the word “The Union” and underneath that is a sheaf, a plow, and a pickaxe. A beaver, a symbol of Oregon’s history of beaver trapping and trading, rests proudly on the back of the flag.
The Pennsylvania state flag features many symbols of our second state’s enduring history. These include a shield depicting a ship, signifying that the Keystone state products are used all over the world, a clay-red plow to show that the state is rich in natural resources and three golden sheaves of wheat, “suggesting fertile fields and Pennsylvania’s wealth of human thought and action,” according to Visit Pennsylvania’s website. Two draft horses prop up the shield and an eagle sits atop it. The banner reads, “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”
The state flag of Rhode Island is white and “anchored” by a gold anchor surrounded by 13 gold stars, representing the original 13 colonies/states. Below the anchor is a blue ribbon bearing the state’s motto, “HOPE.” The anchor would seem to have a double meaning here because Rhode Island is an important maritime port, but the use of the word “HOPE” together with the anchor suggests a biblical reference containing this phrase: “hope we have as an anchor of the soul.” “HOPE” is easy to say, unlike the most difficult to pronounce towns in every state.
The state flag of South Carolina is one of the most readily identifiable, thanks to its strong symbols shown in reverse on a blue that matches the uniforms worn by members of the South Carolina military during the Revolutionary War. “The Palmetto at the center symbolizes the heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the British fleet on June 28, 1776,” according to the South Carolina Legislature. To the upper left is a crescent that’s a reference to the shape of a silver emblem worn on the hats of the soldiers who fought in that very battle.
You’ll want to look closely at the South Dakota state flag to note all the detail in the seal. The dark blue and white drawing shows a smelting furnace and other features of mining work, a range of hills, a farmer at his plow, a herd of cattle, a field of corn and a steamboat on a river. In addition, letters reading “South Dakota, The Mount Rushmore State” are arranged in a circle around the sun—signaling the state’s pride in being the home of Mount Rushmore. South Dakota is home to chuckle-worthy street names along with the funniest-sounding street names in every state.
The state flag of Tennessee was designed by LeRoy Reeves of the Tenessee infantry, who explained its symbolism as follows: “The three stars are pure white…bound together by the endless circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together in one—an indissoluble trinity.”
It’s one of the most recognizable flags in the United States thanks to its “lone star.” The flag was originally flown over the Republic of Texas and the design “symbolizes Texan solidarity in having declared independence from Mexico,” according to Texas Hill Country. In addition, the blue stripe stands for loyalty, the white purity, and the red bravery.
The most notable element on the Utah state flag is the beehive, a symbol of hard work and industry. It is also a reference to the state’s nickname: The Beehive State. The flag was most recently adopted in 2011 but it is similar to the one in use since 1913. Stay tuned, however, because Utah legislators are currently debating whether to adopt a new flag.
It’s no surprise that the state which produces some of the United States’ finest cheese and ice cream would feature a red cow on its flag. Along with it on Vermont’s flag are the Green Mountains, wheat sheaves (for agriculture), a deer head, pine trees, and the state’s motto, “Freedom and Unity.” But cows have nothing to do with the coolest secret location in Vermont or any of the coolest secret locations in every state.
The state flag of Virginia was officially adopted when the state seceded from the Union in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War. The bright blue flag features Virginia’s seal, which itself features Virtus, the goddess or virtue holding a spear facing downward and a sword facing up. She’s standing atop a man, a figure of tyranny, with his fallen crown off to the side. In addition to the name “Virginia,” the state motto appears: “Sic Semper Tyrranis,” which means “Thus Always To Tyrants.”
Washington’s state flag, adopted in 1923—more than 30 years after the state was admitted to the Union—is unique in that it’s dark green. At the center is the state’s seal featuring George Washington’s bust.
The central image on the West Virginia state flag is a rock showing the date of West Virginia’s statehood, June 20, 1863, flanked by two men, one a farmer and the other a miner, which represent the state’s two major industries agriculture and mining. The state’s motto, “Montani Semper Liberi” (Mountaineers Are Always Free), is emblazoned on a red banner. They are encompassed by a wreath of rhododendron, the state flower of West Virginia
The Wisconsin state flag—and its coat of arms—is jam-packed with symbolism. A sailor and a miner flank the shield and represent the industrious state’s citizens who work on sea and the land. The shield itself has four quadrants, each with its own symbol: the pick and shovel represent mining, the plow agriculture, the arm and hammer the state’s artisans and laborers, and an anchor for the shipping industry. The state’s motto, “Forward” and its state animal, the badger, are shown above the coat of arms. The flag also contains “Wisconsin” and “1848” (the year Wisconsin was admitted to the Union).
One thing jumps out at you from the Wyoming state flag and that’s the large buffalo, called the one-time “monarch of the plains.” On the side of the buffalo, like a brand, is the state’s seal, which touts the state’s history as the first U.S. territory to grant women the right to vote. A draped figure in the center holds a staff with a banner that reads, “Equal Rights,” and the male figures to the sides represent the livestock and mining industries. Now that you know all about state flags, learn 100 more fun and interesting facts about practically everything.