Heraldry in America
BRITISH ARMS TO THE COLONIES
The early British settlers brought their customs and ways, including heraldry, with them to the New World.
The first known use of arms in an American context dates from 1584, when Sir Walter Raleigh added arms, as Governor of the land then known as Virginia, to his seal. The earliest coat of arms granted in America was to the "City of Raleigh" in 1586. Numerous early colonists had the right to use British armorial bearings and the result can be seen in old churches and historical buildings, and on seals, porcelain and silver of the period. Their descendants and those of later immigrants continue to use arms to this day.
George Washington, a descendant of a 15th century arms holder, John Wessington of Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, was entitled to bear arms and did so on seals and household articles before and after the Revolutionary War. In fact, shortly after Independence he was in correspondence with the College of Arms about his family pedigree. The elements composing Washington family arms - red stars and stripes on a white background - are reflected in the American flag but there is no hard evidence to show that they inspired the design of Old Glory. However, the official flag of Washington D.C, is based on his arms, and his arms appear on the Purple Heart, the medal awarded to American servicemen wounded in battle.
The use of heraldry in America did not end with the War of Independence. Today, the Institute of Heraldry, the only American arms granting authority located in Alexandria, VA, and part of the United States Army, creates armorial bearings and insignia for all branches of the US military, including newly commissioned US Navy vessels, as well as governmental and civilian entities of the federal government.
The links between America and the College of Arms have been permanently commemorated in wrought iron gates at the entrance of the College, a gift of an American citizen. The American Ambassador formally inaugurated them in 1956.
GRANTING ARMS TO AMERICANS
Can an American bear English arms? Possibly. Qualifications must be met.
One way is to successfully trace your ancestry to a British subject who had already been issued arms, then these arms or a differenced version could be used.
The other way is to acquire a grant. Today those eligible for a grant from the College of Arms include British and Commonwealth subjects, descendants of such persons - in the male or female line - be they British or foreign, and persons who have been honoured by the British Crown, for example with an appointment to an order of chivalry.
Although technically Americans cannot be granted English arms because they are not Royal subjects, in practice US citizens who can trace descent from a British subject living in America before 1776 can be granted "honorary" English arms, which are similar in validity, appearance and cost to arms granted to a subject. (An American may be eligible for a grant of Scottish arms provided qualifications can be met, and the potential armiger would then be referred to office of the Lord Lyon, also a member of the Royal Household.)
Since the 1960s, American corporate bodies have been eligible to have arms "devised" for them by the College of Arms and since then cities, banks and even the Commonwealth of Virginia have received such "devisals." The granting of honorary arms to individual Americans or the devising of arms for corporate bodies is considered legal in both the United States and England.