This Day in History: The probable inspiration for Uncle Sam
On this day in 1854, the man who was the probable inspiration for Uncle Sam passes away during a cholera epidemic.
Did you know that there was likely a real person behind the Uncle Sam character that you are used to seeing?
Samuel Wilson was born on September 13, 1766, in Massachusetts. Legend has it that, when he was only 15 years old, he tried to join the Continental Army. He was not assigned to fighting duties (probably because of his age); instead, he would have served as a “service boy,” possibly guarding cattle and providing the troops with meat.
The story of his Revolutionary War service is appealing, but it hasn’t been proven.
After the Revolution, Wilson and his brother moved to Troy, New York. Before too long, they’d begun a meatpacking business that became quite successful. Eventually, they had relatives and other community members working for them. Wilson was well-loved! He gained the nickname, “Uncle Sam,” even among those who were not related to him.
This nickname became more nationally prominent during the War of 1812.
At the time, Wilson’s company was helping to provide meat to soldiers. When the barrels and crates of food arrived for the Army, they were stamped with the initials “E.A.-U.S.” The initials “E.A.” were a reference to a government contractor, Elbert Anderson. The “U.S.” meant that the crates were the property of the U.S. government. But the letters soon took on a new meaning.
As the story goes, a visitor saw barrels of meat being unloaded and did not know what the “U.S.” stood for. He asked a worker, and the worker jokingly responded: “Uncle Sam.” He meant his boss, but the joke soon spread. “Uncle Sam” was feeding the army!
Actually, the joke REALLY spread. As early as 1813, a newspaper article would reference Uncle Sam as a substitute for the United States. By the 1830s, Uncle Sam was being drawn in newspaper cartoons. After the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Uncle Sam his final makeover. Uncle Sam was drawn to look a bit more like Abraham Lincoln: He was thin and had a goatee!
Was he intentionally drawn to look like Lincoln? Nash never explained himself, but some have argued that Uncle Sam’s image was instead based on a popular circus clown from the era: Dan Rice.
Either way, the image stuck, and this idea of Uncle Sam was used extensively in recruiting posters during the World Wars.
Not everyone has bought into the idea that Samuel Wilson inspired the Uncle Sam character. However, on September 15, 1961, Congress decided that he did! A resolution was approved “salut[ing] Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”
What do you think?
Encyclopedia of Media and Propaganda in Wartime America (Martin J. Manning & Clarence R. Wyatt eds.; 2011) (Vol. 1)
Hal Marcovitz, Uncle Sam: International Symbol of America (Patriotic Symbols of America) (2014)
Nicholas John Cull et al., Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present (2003)
Terry Allan Hicks, Uncle Sam (2007)
Tom Mahoney, The Origin and History of Uncle Sam (American Legion Magazine; Nov. 1966)