Genealogy Trails

The Original Uncle Sam



From The Guin Gazette - Marion County, AL - April 30, 1897
Transcribed by Veneta McKinney

The Original Uncle Sam
When we talk of the United States government in a familiar sort of way we call it “Uncle Sam” and you have often seen pictures of Uncle Sam – a long, lean, old-fashioned Yankee, with a high hat and a swallow-tail coat and breeches marked with the stars and strips of the flag. The way in which the United States came to be called Uncle Sam is this:

During the war of 1812 the United States government entered into a contract with a man by the name of Elbert Anderson to furnish supplies to the army. When the United States buys anything from a contractor, an inspector is always appointed to see that the goods are what the contract calls for, and that the government gets full value. In this case the government appointed a man by the name of Samuel Wilson, who was always called “Uncle Sam” by those who knew him. He inspected every package and cask that came from Elbert Anderson, the contractor, and if he found that he contents were all right, the package or cask was marked with the letter “E. A. – U. S. “the initials of the contractor and of the United States. The man whose duty it was to do this marking was a jovial sort of a fellow, and when somebody asked him what these letters meant, he said they stood for Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam. Everybody including “Uncle Sam” Wilson himself thought this was a very good joke; and by and by it got into print, and before the end of the war it was known all over the country; and that is the way the United States received its name of “Uncle Sam.”

Mr. Wilson, the original “Uncle Sam” died at Troy, N. Y. in 1854 at the age of eighty-four. – [St. Nicholas]

Uncle Sam Poster from Library of Congress
From the Library of Congress:

Originally published as the cover for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie's Weekly with the title "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" this portrait of "Uncle Sam" went on to become--according to its creator, James Montgomery Flagg--"the most famous poster in the world." Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918, as the United States entered World War I and began sending troops and matériel into war zones.

Flagg (1877-1960) contributed forty-six works to support the war effort. He was a member of the first Civilian Preparedness Committee organized in New York in 1917 and chaired by Grosvenor Clarkson. He also served as a member of Charles Dana Gibson's Committee of Pictorial Publicity, which was organized under the federal government's Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel.

Because of its overwhelming popularity, the image was later adapted for use in World War II. Upon presenting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a copy of the poster, Flagg remarked that he had been his own model for Uncle Sam to save the modeling fee. Roosevelt was impressed and replied: "I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears."

Uncle Sam is one of the most popular personifications of the United States. However, the term "Uncle Sam" is of somewhat obscure derivation. Historical sources attribute the name to a meat packer who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812-- Samuel (Uncle Sam) Wilson (1766-1854). "Uncle Sam" Wilson was a man of great fairness, reliability, and honesty, who was devoted to his country--qualities now associated with "our" Uncle Sam.
James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960)

The 87th Congress of the United States adopted the following Resolution 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.

Here's a review of this very topic by the website "the Straight Dope"

A widely held belief, reported as fact in supposedly reliable reference books, is that the original Uncle Sam was one Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy, New York, who supplied rations to the U.S. military during the War of 1812. Wilson was a subcontractor to one Elbert Anderson, and the letters "E.A.--U.S." were stamped on all the pair's army-bound grub. On being asked what the letters stood for (the abbreviation U.S. supposedly was unfamiliar at the time), one of Sam's workers joshed that it stood for "Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam," meaning the jovial Wilson himself.

The joke was quickly picked up by Wilson's other employees. Many of these men later served in the army during the war, and the story spread from there. This tale appears to have first found its way into print in 1842.

Very neat, but is it true? On the surface it might seem so. Researchers have established that Elbert Anderson and Sam Wilson did exist and did supply meat to the government during the War of 1812. What's more, the earliest known reference to Uncle Sam in the sense of the U.S. government appeared in 1813 in the Troy Post.

But there are reasons to doubt. For one thing, the Uncle Sam = Sam Wilson story didn't see print until 30 years after the event, which seems suspiciously tardy. Second, the notion that someone in 1812 would have to ask what "U.S." stood for is hard to swallow--the available evidence shows that the initials were then in common use.

Third, there's something odd about the newspaper evidence. Sam Wilson was a leading citizen of Troy, New York. Yet none of the newspapers in his hometown seem to have had any knowledge of his connection to Uncle Sam until very late in the day. The 1813 reference in the Troy Post says nothing about Wilson, noting merely that "the letters U.S. on the government waggons, &c are supposed to have given rise to [Uncle Sam]."

In 1816 the Post reprinted a story from Philadelphia claiming that Uncle Sam originated in the initials USLD, meaning United States Light Dragoons, a regiment of which had been formed in 1807. The account said that on being asked what the USLD on their caps stood for, the soldiers said "Uncle Sam's Lazy Dogs." In 1817 the Post took up the matter again, this time reverting to the original explanation that Uncle Sam was simply a jocular expansion of the letters U.S.

When Sam Wilson died in 1854, none of the newspaper obituaries by Troy writers mentioned the Uncle Sam connection. Significantly, however, two obituaries reprinted from Albany newspapers did talk about Uncle Sam. This suggests that the legend was concocted by out-of-towners with no firsthand knowledge of the facts.

So where did Uncle Sam originate? Nobody knows for sure, but it's likely the original explanation in the Troy Post was correct: there was never an actual Uncle Sam; instead the name was just a wiseguy expansion of the initials U.S.

It's worth noting that all the early references to Uncle Sam appeared in "peace" newspapers--that is, papers opposed to the War of 1812--and in every case the usage was derisive. This suggests Uncle Sam was dreamed up by critics of the government who simply wanted to personify the object of their scorn.

I don't doubt, however, that the Sam Wilson story will live on.
[All the dissenting facts above were set down by antiquarian Albert Matthews in 1908...]




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