We all know about Uncle Sam, the lanky, grizzled character brought to life by the art of Thomas Nast. He’s been used to personify the United States for a long, long time. But where did Uncle Sam come from? Here’s the standard story copied from Wikipedia, the dispenser of all knowledge:
Samuel Wilson (September 13, 1766 – July 31, 1854) was a meat-packer from Troy, New York whose name is purportedly the source of the personification of the United States known as “Uncle Sam”.
Samuel was born in historic Arlington (known as Menotomy at the time), Massachusetts, to parents originally from Greenock, Scotland. The Uncle Sam Memorial Statue marks a site near his birthplace. As a boy, he moved with his family to Mason, New Hampshire. In 1789, Samuel and his brother Ebeneezer moved to Troy, where they went into business. In 1797, Samuel married Betsey Mann of Mason and brought her back to Troy with him. They had four children and lived in a house on Ferry Street. Samuel Wilson died at the age of 87 in 1854 and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.
At the time of the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson was a prosperous middle-aged meat-packer in Troy. He obtained a contract to supply beef to the Army in its campaign further north, which he shipped in barrels. The barrels, being government property, were branded with the initials “U.S.”, but the teamsters and soldiers would joke that the initials referred to “Uncle Sam”, who supplied the product. Over time, it is believed, anything marked with the same initials (as much Army property was) also became linked with his name.
The 87th United States Congress 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.” Monuments mark his birthplace in Arlington, Massachusetts, and site of burial in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York. Another sign marks “The boyhood home of Sam” outside his second home in Mason, NH. The first use of the term in literature is seen in an 1816 allegorical book, The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy, Esq., also in reference to the aforementioned Samuel Wilson.
This tale has been repeated so many times that it has become an immutable fact. But is it true? Unfortunately, a good deal of evidence suggests that “Uncle Sam” predates the War of 1812 and that he has nothing to do with Mr. Samuel Wilson.
Sam makes an appearance in our own Midshipman Isaac Mayo’s personal journal. On 24 March 1810, he writes, “weighed anchor stood down the harbour, passed Sandy Hook, where there are two light-houses, and put to sea, first and second day out most deadly seasick, oh could I have got on shore in the hight [sic] of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.” Here is a reference that dates to more than two years before the start of the war, and it is safe to assert that Mid. Mayo never heard of Sam Wilson or ever ate army beef.
The term seems to have gained currency during the war, when it was primarily used as a term of derision by the Federalist press. Here are a few examples:
A 23 December 1812 letter to the editor of the Bennington [VT] News-Letter asks, “pray if you can inform me, what single solitary good thing will, or can accrue to (Uncle Sam) the U.S. for all the expense, marching and countermarching, pain, sickness, death &c. among us?”
On 20 October 1813, the Norwich Courier reprinted this article: “The patriotic Militia of this State, now stationed here to guard the public stores, are daily deserting, 20 and 30 a day, and last evening from 100 to 200 made their escape. They say U.S. or Uncle Sam as they call it, does not pay them punctually, and that they have not forgotten their suffering of cold toes last fall.”
The Herkimer American, of April 28, 1814 says, “A few days since, in a neighbouring town, twelve United States’ wagons were repaired, for which the blacksmith was paid one thousand eight hundred dollars out of uncle Sam’s purse. Query. How much is the usual cost of a new wagon?”
The Niles’ Weekly Register has this note in the 1815 edition: “U. S or Uncle Sam—a cant term in the army for the United States.”
It is difficult to say when Uncle Sam was first used to personify the United States. Military arms and equipment had been marked with “US” since the Revolutionary War. What probably began as soldiers slang had entered the popular lexicon by the War of 1812 and has been with us ever since.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.