Why do people keep asking me about green eggs and ham, dammit?”
America is a young enough nation that history can pretty accurately tell us about our founders, with some embellishment and omissions because if we’re being honest and cynical enough we can admit that history writers used to pretty much be the old time equivalent of PR agents. But we know a lot about the lives of the people that helped create this nation. We know about George Washington’s wooden teeth (which is a myth), we know that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite with a key on it to discover electricity (which was also probably a myth) and we know about Paul Revere riding through the streets warning “The British are coming” (also bullshit). Okay, so these are some bad examples. But the point is, the people that represent America, people like Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe, are at least historical figures that we know a decent amount about.
Which is why it’s interesting that we don’t often talk about Uncle Sam, the finger-pointing goateed patriot who is basically timeshares with bald eagles to be America’s mascot. That’s because we just assume he was an invention created to get people to support various war efforts. But most of us don’t really think much about his actual origin. Sure, you might point to Columbia or Brother Jonathan as examples of America-personifying precursors, but you’d have to be a very specific type of person to both know about those examples and want to nerd out over it. But for the rest of us, not only does Uncle Sam have a relatively rich history, but he’s actually based on a real person. So let’s talk about Samuel Wilson, the man who actually was Uncle Sam. Well, at least officially.
Samuel Wilson- The Man Who Was (More or Less) Uncle Sam
We’re not sure if we love this fact, or are mortified by it, but the man who inspired Uncle Sam was, basically, a meat packer. Actually, no, we love that tidbit. This is America, dammit, and nothing screams “American dream” more than “a dude that packaged food ended up becoming the enduring image of America.” Now, before we get into the story of Samuel Wilson’s life, we’ll have to address the elephant in the room here. As we mentioned before, America’s a new enough country that we know a lot about its founders, but it’s also old enough that pretty much every story is told by an unreliable narrator. So, yes, Samuel Wilson is credited as being the inspiration for Uncle Sam, to the point that Congress in 1961 actually passed a resolution saying “Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Same.” At the same time, the origin of him influencing the name Uncle Sam comes from the War of 1812, and there are references from Uncle Sam that date back as far as 1775 when the name popped up in the thirteenth stanza of Yankee Doodle-Dandy (people were really bored back then, so they needed songs that never fucking ended, apparently).
So, Uncle Sam as a general term probably existed before it became tied to Samuel Wilson. But Samuel Wilson definitely did have a part in the term transitioning from a rare literary mention to the definitive personage of the United States, even though Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan, the emblem of New England, were pretty interchangeable until the mid-19th century.
Though Brother Jonathan got kind of preachy on the anti-capitalist front in his later years.
With all that out of the way, here is the story of Samuel Wilson. Wilson was born in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1766, the seventh of thirteen children. And yes, the amount of siblings he had will eventually partially account for his nickname. As a 15-year-old, Samuel joined the Revolutionary Army, with the it-sounds-like-we’re-being-sarcastic-but-we’re-not important duty of guarding cattle, slaughtering said cattle, and packaging the meat to be distributed to the rest of the Army. While “Army meat maker” might not sound like a very glamorous job, it’s important to remember that in the 18th century keeping meat untarnished was actually not that easy, especially given that a common wartime tactic involved trying to poison or otherwise tamper with military food sources.
His time in the army was relatively uneventful, as he joined up in 1781 just months before the Revolutionary War came to an end with the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown. After spending the next few years, you know, growing up like a normal person, he moved to Troy, New York at the age of 22 along with his brother, where they were some of the first to settle the land, which they used to establish several successful businesses. The Wilsons purchased a very profitable tract of land, and began using the local clay for brick making, making a good profit during a time where the majority of bricks had to be imported from The Netherlands. Many old buildings in Troy still have bricks made by Samuel Wilson, which is a very interesting tidbit that very boring residents of Troy might make a point to tell you.
Because, if we’re being honest, as boring as meat packing sounds, that’s a goddamn Blockbuster film compared to brickmaking.
From there, the brothers used their land to establish E & S Wilson, a meat business. They had a slaughterhouse, and access to a dock which allowed them to take in cattle and send out meat with relative ease. Sam Wilson became an important part of the Troy community, eventually working for the city as a road commissioner (which at the time had the much more badass title of Path Master) in addition to running his business. He was so fond of his large family of nieces and nephews calling him “Uncle Sam” that the nickname began to spread throughout the town. We’re not saying he told people that weren’t his family “Please, call me Uncle Sam” but we wouldn’t be surprised if that happened at least a few times. During this period, the War of 1812 broke out, which was largely responsible for Wilson’s nickname transcending the Troy, New York community.
The war brought an increase in demand for meat to supply to troops, and when Secretary of War William Eustis made a contract with Elbert Anderson Jr. of New York City to provide all army rations for the states of New York and New Jersey for a year, E & S Wilson was contracted to supply 5,000 barrels of meat to meet that goal. Much of this meat was shipped to a camp of 6,000 soldiers in Greenbush, New York, and each barrel was labeled “E.A.-U.S.” This was supposed to indicate Elbert Anderson, and the United States, but the Greenbush soldiers, many of whom hailed from Troy and knew Samuel Wilson as well as his nickname, assumed that the U.S. stamp was supposed to refer to “Uncle Sam’s” role in sending the meat out. This slowly but surely led to every item labeled “U.S.” being linked with Uncle Sam, because sure, why not.
Then we let that nickname marinate for a hundred years, and this came out.
Sam Wilson lived to be 87, passing away in 1854, at which point the Uncle Sam nickname had stuck, though the more iconic images of the emblem had yet to be illustrated. By the 1850’s, Uncle Sam was a common caricature for the United States, though each illustrator added their own flare (like one who made him look like Benjamin Franklin). Uncle Sam, at the time, wasn’t the recruitment image it is today—that didn’t occur until James Montgomery Flagg drew the now iconic “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” poster. Since then, the typical goatee and top hat Uncle Sam, baring a mild if probably largely incidental to the few photographs of Samuel Wilson in existence, has been the default personified image of America. Now, we see Uncle Sam and we think “America.” And while he would have likely existed in one form or the other no matter what, we can thank Samuel Wilson’s large family and profitable meat packing business for the Uncle Sam we know and love today. Which, hey, it’s not the most exciting origin story, but hey, we were under a bit of a time crunch to come up with national symbols when we were just getting started, and sometimes you have to make do with what you got.