Flamboyant, colorful and patriotic, the symbol of Uncle Sam is either loved or hated—yet, either way, he is an unforgettable character. Almost every United States citizen has at one point in their life seen an image of the iconic man clad in red, white and blue pointing at them from within a poster. Many people, however, have no clue that a man who lived in the 18th and 19th century is credited as the original “Uncle Sam.” His name was Samuel Wilson and this is the story of how he sparked America’s most vibrant mascot.
Samuel Wilson was born in 1766 within the modern region of Arlington, Massachusetts. At the time, the American colonies were at war with the British Empire. In 1781, a fifteen-year-old Samuel Wilson joined the Revolutionary Army for the last few years of the war, though he likely did not see any combat. He was given the position of a military cattle guard, and also served as a butcher and meatpacker for the American forces. After the United States secured its independence with the close of the war in 1783, Samuel Wilson returned home and began cultivating a family business with his brother.
The Wilsons invested their money into more than one field of commerce. Initially, they thrived in brickmaking, but Samuel Wilson also diverted his profits into building a meatpacking industry in Troy, New York. Wilson’s meatpacking business obtained a lofty deal when the War of 1812 broke out—the United States contracted with Samuel for around 5,000 barrels of beef and pork to be shipped to American forces.
The thousands of barrels shipped by Samuel Wilson were stamped with his company’s insignia, but were also labeled with the letters “U.S.” so as to convey that the food was being shipped to the United States forces. Soldiers and American citizens, however, had a different interpretation of the “U.S.” stamped on each barrel. Either mistakenly, or as a joke, or just out of appreciation and affection, the soldiers simply stated that the barrels were coming from “Uncle Sam” Wilson. Whatever the cause, the name stuck and soon became a national sensation. By 1813, the name “Uncle Sam” had already become a nickname for the United States and its government.
As for the cartoon mascot of Uncle Sam, that would take many more decades to coalesce into the U.S. mascot of today. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the great cartoonist, Thomas Nast (1840-1902), laid the groundwork for the iconic image of Uncle Sam. The artist’s other influential works were with the characters of Santa Claus and the donkey and elephant mascots of the Democratic and Republican political parties. His Uncle Sam included a beard or goatee and wore the signature striped American suit. Another artist named Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) finalized the Uncle Sam imagery. Flagg contributed Sam’s patriotic top hat and was the first to include the famous, “I Want You In The U.S. Army,” slogan.
Unfortunately, Uncle Sam Wilson did not live to see his name bloom into an unforgettable national image. He died in 1854, at the age of eighty-eight, before Thomas Nast had popularized the basic features of the Uncle Sam character. Samuel Wilson was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, in his adopted home of Troy, New York. The United States government formally recognized Wilson as the inspiration behind the famous image of Uncle Sam in 1961.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.