Marie Watkins Oliver (1854–1944)
Marie Watkins Oliver was the creator of the Missouri state flag. She has been called the “Betsy Ross of Missouri.” Because of her intelligent research, determination, and vision, Missourians have a flag that represents Missouri as a state and as part of the Union.
Childhood and Young Adulthood
Marie Elizabeth Watkins was born in Ray County, Missouri, on January 11, 1854. Her parents were Charles Allen Watkins and Henrietta Rives Watkins. Marie’s father operated a brickyard, flour mill, sawmill, store, and warehouse. Marie was taught at home by governesses. Later, she attended private schools and Richmond College in Richmond, Missouri. On December 10, 1879, Marie married Robert Burett Oliver, a lawyer from Jackson, Missouri. For the next seventeen years, the Olivers lived in Jackson where Robert worked as a lawyer and Marie cared for their six children—five boys and one girl—and volunteered in her community.
Missouri Needs a Flag
In 1896, Marie’s life changed. She and Robert moved to Cape Girardeau and Marie’s activities took a serious and historically important turn. As her husband was elected to the Missouri Senate, Marie became active in a national group with local chapters called the Daughters of the American Revolution or DAR. In 1908, the state DAR discovered that Missouri did not have an official flag. The state seal, which contains the Missouri coat of arms, had been officially adopted in 1822. The DAR appointed Marie chairperson of the committee to research and design a flag for the state.
First, Marie wrote to the secretary of every state and territory in the union. She wanted to know how other states had designed their flags. She also wanted to know how flags were adopted by each state legislature. Once she had enough information, Marie designed a flag that she thought would represent Missouri. She worked her design around the Missouri coat of arms. Marie wrote:
The design I offer embraces all the colors of the national flag—red, white and blue—which recognizes that the State of Missouri is a part and parcel of the Federal Government. At the same time it represents the state as possessing a local independence, a local self-government, but in perfect harmony with the great national compact as shown by the mingling of the colors red, white and blue, on every side of it.
The coat-of-arms of the state is in the center of the national colors and represents Missouri as she is—the geographical center of the nation. The twenty-four stars on the blue band encircling the coat-of-arms signifies that Missouri was the twenty-fourth state admitted into the Union of States. The blue in the flag signifies vigilance, permanency and justice; the red, valor; and the white, purity.
Then Marie asked Mary Kochtitsky, an artist from Cape Girardeau, to help her make the flag.
The Flag Travels to Jefferson City
The completed flag was brought to the State Capitol for viewing in 1908. Marie Oliver’s husband drafted a bill to have the flag made the official flag of Missouri. He sent it to their nephew, Senator Arthur L. Oliver, who introduced it to the Missouri Senate on March 17, 1909. The bill passed in the Senate but failed to pass in the House of Representatives. Senator Oliver reintroduced the bill two years later. Again, it passed in the Senate but failed in the House. The General Assembly was also considering a design by Dr. G. H. Holcomb. The “Holcomb flag” was opposed by many people who felt it looked too much like the United States flag and didn’t show Missouri as an independent state.
Then disaster struck. In 1911, the Missouri State Capitol burned, destroying the original flag. Marie and another woman, S. D. MacFarland, made a second flag. On January 21, 1913, the Oliver Flag Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. It passed on March 7 and was quickly signed by the Senate. Governor Elliott Woolfolk Major signed the bill on March 22, 1913.
Preserving the Original Flag
In 1961, Allen Oliver, Marie’s son, gave the State of Missouri his mother’s original flag. The flag was on public display until it began to split and tear due to age. It was put in storage for preservation. Then, in 1988, on the flag’s 75th birthday, Missouri elementary students raised funds to restore the flag. The restored flag is on display at the James C. Kirkpatrick State Information Center in Jefferson City.
Marie Elizabeth Watkins Oliver worked hard to create an appropriate and attractive flag for the State of Missouri. She died in Cape Girardeau on October 18, 1944.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 583–84.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 258.