This Day in History: September 7th- Uncle Sam

This Day In History: September 7, 1813

uncle-samOn September 7, 1813, the Troy Post in New York published an article on the War of 1812 that contained an early reference to “Uncle Sam” as the personification of the United States of America:

“Loss upon loss, and no ill luck stir[r]ing but what lights upon Uncle Sam‘s* shoulders, exclaim the Government editors in every part of the country. (…)

*This cant name for our government has got almost as current as ‘John Bull.’ The letters U. S. on the government waggons, &c., are supposed to have given rise to it.”

Two weeks later, a newspaper in Burlington, VT reported the need for volunteers to protect private property from the British troops, as there was a shortage of enlisted men because: “Uncle Sam, the now popular explication of the U.S. does not pay well…”

After the war ended, a political satire written in 1916 by Connecticut’s Seth Richards (writing as “Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy”) called The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor, unequivocally denotes Uncle Sam as the physical embodiment of the U.S.

Decidedly anti-war in sentiment, the book portrays Uncle Sam as a bit foolhardy, full of hot air, and overconfident of his ability to defeat any adversary. He also refuses to face the consequences of his arrogance or deal with the financial fallout of the War of 1812.

But Uncle Sam also (supposedly) had a real-life inspiration. During the war, a businessman named Samuel Wilson from Troy, New York, had been contracted by the armed forces to supply the troops with meat rations. His company shipped out barrels stamped with the letters “US” to indicate them as property of the United States government.

Legend has it the local workers loading these barrels on delivery wagons didn’t know what the “US” markings stood for, but joked it must have meant “Uncle Sam,” as the well-liked and friendly Samuel Wilson was known. This story didn’t gather steam until well after his death in 1854. It wasn’t long before, whether true or not (read: probably not, see Barry Popik’s research on this), it was accepted as fact that Mr. Wilson was the origin of the nickname.

The grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, “Uncle Sam” Samuel Wilson was born in Massachusetts, grew up in New Hampshire, and walked to his home in New York, where he was one of the first settlers of Troy. Despite the fact that he may well not have really been the original inspiration for “Uncle Sam”, that didn’t stop his hometown of Arlington, MA from erecting a statue adorning him with a top hat and Sam-esque duds. Nor did it sway Troy from building a memorial park in his name.

Congress has also given Samuel Wilson the nod as the origin of the U.S. moniker. The following resolution was adopted on September 15, 1961, “Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • The “Abe Lincoln” look, along with the star spangled outfit, for Uncle Sam was the brain child of political cartoonist Thomas Nast in the late 1800s (aside: Nast was also the cartoonist who came up with the now popular image of Santa Claus, the Republican Elephant, and the Democratic Donkey)
  • The famous recruiting image of Uncle Sam during WWI that depicted a stern Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying “I want you” was drawn by artist James Montgomery Flagg in 1917.  This was based on a famous series of British war recruitment posters featuring Lord Kitchener and is now the standard image used to depict Uncle Sam.
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  • “Uncle Sam” has been cited in print before September 7, 1813, proving that Troy’s Samuel Wilson did not give us “Uncle Sam.” I have to correct the record every year!
    But word sleuth Barry Popik shot down the Wilson story by finding an example of “Uncle Sam” in the December 23, 1812 issue of the Bennington (Vermont) News-Letter, appearing well before Wilson was awarded the meat contract. Despite that seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Troy partisans have held on to the Wilson tale, as described in a recent article in the Albany Times Union on Popik’s discovery.

    Those clinging to the idea of Samuel Wilson as the original “Uncle Sam” will now have to grapple with an even earlier attestation. According to Log Lines, the blog of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Mass., “Uncle Sam” as a stand-in for the U.S. government is cited in a March 24, 1810 journal entry by Isaac Mayo, then a Navy midshipman. Here is the museum’s transcript: …

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Barry Popik: Great stuff as always Barry. I don’t suppose you’d be at all interested in writing for TIFO? I’ve recently been looking for someone with your exact expertise to write more “origin of…” language type articles.

  • The History Channel also has it wrong, although I’ve told them the true story many times:

    There’s also an interesting “Uncle Sam” cite from early January 1813 up at Samuel Wilson’s contract began in January 1813, but this cite is from western New York, not at all close to Troy. It’s on my website.

    I have no spare time and struggle to finish five new entries each day for my own website.

    I’m working on an amazing discovery about Hettie Anderson, the African American model who posed as Liberty for TWO of our coins, the 1907 Gaudens $20 (gold eagle) and the Weinman 1916 Half Dollar (silver eagle). She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Maybe you can pick it up and it will go viral.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Barry Popik: That does sound extremely interesting. Let me know when you publish it ([email protected]) and I’d be happy to either republish it with all credit going to you (and linking to your site and all that) or, if you prefer, simply having one of TIFO’s authors cover the topic as well and again giving all credit to you for your research being the source of the presented information.

      And do let me know if you’re ever interested in a little side work. 🙂