Discovering Why Flags Are Lowered to Half-Staff

Discovering Why Flags Are Lowered to Half-Staff


SWEETWATER COUNTY — Flags all across Wyoming and the United States have been flown at half-staff for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away on September 18.

But how did this tradition begin?

On Friday the staff of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River noted that many historians believe it dates back to 1612, when James Hall, captain of the British exploration ship Heart’s Ease, was killed along the coast of Greenland by an Innuit spear.

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His officers and crew, it is said, lowered the ship’s flag to make room above it for the “invisible flag of death” and to honor their commander, and the ship’s flag was still at half-mast when they returned to England.

Over the years the practice spread, particularly among sailors, and in 1799 the Navy Department ordered all American naval vessels to lower their flags to half-mast to mark the death of George Washington.

The practice continued informally for over a century and a half until 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3044, standardizing the custom.  

Eisnehower’s complete proclamation can be found at
www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/proclamations/03044.html