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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Evolution of Uncle Sam


Samuel Wilson via Wikimedia

     Samuel Wilson had no idea he’d go down in history and not in a way he ever would have imagined. 

     Samuel joined the Continental Army on March 2, 1781, at the age of fourteen. He was not assigned to fight on the front lines, but to care for and guard the army’s cattle, an important food source for the soldiers. During the Revolutionary War, the enemies often tried to tamper with and poison food sources. As part of his duties during his seven months of service before the British surrendered, Wilson also slaughtered, packaged, and guarded the meat.

      When he was twenty-two years old, Samuel and his older brother Ebenezer moved to the emerging settlement of Troy, New York. Upon arrival, the brothers worked for the town and began a string of successful businesses. Soon Samuel bought property close to the Hudson River and established the first brick-making company in the area, which was unique because most of the bricks at that time were imported from the Netherlands. Today, many of the historical buildings in Troy include bricks made by Wilson.

     In 1793, Samuel and Ebenezer began the E&S Wilson meat business. Their slaughterhouse was located close to the Hudson River, which allowed them to easily ship their products, enabling the company to grow. According to the folklore of Troy, Samuel became known around town as Uncle Sam “because he employed a lot of nephews and was an amiable, honest fellow.”

     E & S Wilson was a prosperous, well-established enterprise by the time the War of 1812 broke out. The company contracted to supply meat, salted in barrels, to the Army for its northern campaigns. Since the barrels were United States property, they were stamped with the initials, “U.S.” Since much of the meat was sent to nearby troops, many of the soldiers and teamsters were from the local area. They joked that the initials belonged to “Uncle Sam.” Over time, any Army property marked with “U.S.” became associated with Samuel Wilson.

     Even after his death in 1854, the initials U.S. relating to the United States continued to be linked to “Uncle Sam” Wilson. In the next two decades, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast utilized and evolved the image of Uncle Sam. He is credited with adding the white beard and a suit with stars and stripes to the character.  

J. M. Flagg Poster via Library of Congress

      This Uncle Sam figure was especially exploited when the United States entered World War I. James Montgomery Flagg created a recruitment poster with Uncle Sam pointing straight ahead, based on the design of a British poster that first appeared three years earlier. In Flagg’s version, Uncle Sam wore a blue jacket and a tall top hat with stars on the band. The poster was wildly popular and often reused with different captions.

World War II Poster via Wikimedia Commons

       During World War II, Flagg’s poster was resurrected and slightly revised. During the war, the Uncle Sam image was used so widely by the U.S. government that the German military intelligence service Abwehr assigned the codename “Samland” to the United States.

     Today, the Uncle Sam image is still employed for various purposes in the USA.

     On September 15, 1961, Congress recognized the original Uncle Sam with a resolution stating: "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."

     Thus, Sam Wilson’s legacy has been preserved in the annals of United States history.

.    Ann Markim




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  1. A really interesting piece of history, Ann. The evolution of 'Uncle Sam' is something I didn't know anything about. I was shocked, too, to learn about the tampering of food during the wars, although sadly I suppose I should not have been surprised.

    1. I'm always horrified to learn of tactics like poisoning of food that have been used in wars. I guess that's why the saying "All is fair in love and war" became widely used.

  2. Fascinating history, Ann. I had no idea that Uncle Sam was a real person, and his story alone would kae a great book. Thank you for posting.

    1. It would be fun to write in that historical period. There are so many interesting "real people" stories. Might move to that when I finish my current series.