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Who Was the Inspiration For Uncle Sam?

Military History | December 27, 2018

A participant dressed as Uncle Sam attends in Albany, New York. Source: (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Uncle Sam…he is a symbol of America and everyone’s most patriotic uncle. Images of him have been used to recruit people to enlist in the military and to uphold the American ideals. But how did this iconic character come to be? Let’s look at the inspiration behind Uncle Sam. 

Source: (heavy.com)

Uncle Sam Emerges After Two Other Characters

The character of Uncle Sam may be a blending of two earlier characters that were used to personify the colonial Americans. The British have a term for American just prior to and during the Revolutionary War…Yankee Doodle. Yankee Doodle, to the Brits, was a rebel zealot who was gung-ho for American. The second figure was Brother Jonathan, another British-inspired character. Brother Jonathan was depicted as a backwoods rural hick who was viewed as dim-witted but was actually quite smart and able to overcome any obstacle or adversity. Uncle Sam takes qualities from both characters. 

Samuel Wilson Source: (affotd.com)

Was Uncle Sam Patterned After a Real Person?

It seems more likely, however, that the character of Uncle Sam was modeled after a real person. That person was probably Samuel Wilson. Wilson was a patriot and a businessman from Troy, New York. He was well liked in his community and folks nicknamed him Uncle Sam. 

The grave marker of Samuel Wilson Source: (findagrave.com)

Who was Sam Wilson?

During the Revolutionary War, Samuel Wilson’s job in the army was to tend cattle, slaughter and pack meat for the troops. Meat was an important provision and the British often tried to disrupt the supply of food going to American troops, so Wilson also served as an armed guard, protecting the cattle from the enemy. After the war, Wilson stayed in the meat processing business and set up a butcher shop and meat packing business in Troy, New York. 

Samuel Wilson's home. Source: (atlasobscura.com)

Wilson Supplied Meat to the Military During the War of 1812

During the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson provided barrels of meat for the American troops. He wanted to make sure that they knew the meat was made in the USA and, therefore, of high quality and not tainted. So he stamped every barrel of packed beef with the initials U.S. The soldiers on the receiving end of the beef often joked that the initials stood for ‘Uncle Sam’. 

A later Punch Magazine cartoon of Uncle Sam. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

Uncle Sam Becomes the Official Symbol of America

On September 7, 1813, the nickname of Uncle Sam was officially recognized by the United States government and the term became an official mascot of the country. For the next fifty years or so, Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan were used interchangeably to symbolize a personified United States. Cartoonists at the British humor publication, Punch, drew images of both characters. Both Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan were depicted as tall, thin, older men with top hats. 

Thomas Nast's first Uncle Sam cartoon. Source: (sonsofthesouth.net)

A Famous American Cartoonist Created the Uncle Sam Image We All Know

Thomas Nast, a popular political cartoonist, began drawing Uncle Sam in the early 1870s. Nast’s drawings of the character relied heavily on the ones from Punch. Nast showed Uncle Sam as a lean, tall, man with a white beard and white hair. He wore vertical striped trousers and a star-spangled top hat. In some renditions, he wore stars and striped vest, but in others, it was a top coat. Nast’s images helped to establish a consistent look for the patriotic character. 

Source: (history.com)

Uncle Sam, the Recruiter

As World War I began, James Montgomery Flagg created a recruitment poster featuring Uncle Sam, giving a face to what the soldiers were fighting for. In this famous drawing, Uncle Sam is pointing his finger right at the view with the iconic caption, “I Want You”. The recruitment posters were used again in World War II. Uncle Sam remains a firmly planted symbol of American patriotism and pride and serves as the face of the country. 

Tags: 1800s, Uncle Sam Thomas Nast, Uncle Sam, the Recruiter, WWII, American patriotism, Samuel Wilson

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.