Your Uncle, My Uncle, Every American’s Uncle: Uncle Sam!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about the origins and history of an American icon: Uncle Sam.

All of us who love genealogy and family history know that every family member seems to have their own “favorite uncle.” I have two favorite uncles: Uncle Chuck Clark and Uncle Jim Vanek. I bet you have a favorite uncle or two as well, so it is only fitting that the entire United States should also have a favorite uncle. And who should that be but “Uncle Sam,” of course!

World War I recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam, by James Montgomery Flagg, 1916-1917

Illustration: World War I recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam, by James Montgomery Flagg, 1916-1917. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

September is the month to celebrate Uncle Sam. For the past 25 years, every September 13th has been the National Day of the country’s favorite uncle. And while Uncle Sam Day has only been official since 1989, Uncle Sam has been with us a lot longer than that—and he makes for a colorful story.

Origins of Uncle Sam

This article from a 1910 Michigan newspaper begins with an Uncle Sam truism when it says: “There are nicknames and nicknames, but the most popular and best understood one in the United States is Uncle Sam.” Interestingly, this article also says that there are other national nicknames such as “John Bull” for the English and “Johnny Crapand” (crapand means a toad) for the French. I have to admit that while I do recall a rare use of “John Bull” now and again, the use of “Johnny Crapand” was a new one to me. But Uncle Sam still reverberates with national pride and recognition, even as these other nicknames have fallen out of fashion.

How Uncle Sam Began, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 23 July 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 23 July 1910, page 4

So where did the famous patriotic persona Uncle Sam come from? Was he just a figment of some talented artist somewhere or is he rooted in someone’s real history?

If you access the above article in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives and read it fully, it gives an account of the possible origin of Uncle Sam:

One story is that at the time of the war of 1812 there lived at Troy, N.Y., a man named Samuel Wilson, familiarly known thereabouts as Uncle Sam, who was employed as an inspector of pork and beef bought by the government.

However, the article goes on to say: “The story is so clumsy and improbable that it may safely be classed as untrue.” So I decided to continue looking.

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As I continued searching the old newspapers, I did note that there were no references to Uncle Sam prior to 1812. An article from an 1814 New York newspaper caught my eye. This article contrasts how soldiers were paid by the U.S. (“Uncle Sam”) and British (“John Bull”) governments. Although it was interesting to learn about “Chequer Bills” and the phrase “Ready Rhino,” there was nothing in the article about Uncle Sam’s origins.

Uncle Sam and John Bull, New-York Gazette newspaper article 6 December 1814

New-York Gazette (New York, New York), 6 December 1814, page 2

This 1817 Rhode Island newspaper article says the expression “Uncle Sam” began during the War of 1812 based on the initials “U.S.” stamped on soldiers’ knapsacks—and goes on to tell this amusing story:

The Indians at the west, from hearing it [Uncle Sam] often used, have imbibed the idea that it is actually the name of the President; and while at Sackett’s Harbor, a considerable number of Indians and Squaws crowded around the President, wishing, as they expressed it, ‘to shake hands with Uncle Sam.’

article about Uncle Sam, Providence Patriot newspaper article 23 August 1817

Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), 23 August 1817, page 1

Thirteen years later, this Pennsylvania newspaper ran an article about the origins of Uncle Sam. This story relates the earlier story from the War of 1812 and the inspector of meat for the U.S. Army, Samuel Wilson, looking over meat purchased by a government contractor, one Elbert Anderson. On the barrels of these provisions was stamped “E.A. – U. S.”

The old newspaper article goes on:

This work [hauling the meat] fell to the lot of a facetious fellow in the employ [of Samuel Wilson] who, on being asked by some of his fellow workmen the meaning of the mark (for the letters U.S. for United States, was almost then entirely new to them) said ‘he did not know, unless it meant Elbert Anderson, and Uncle Sam’—alluding, exclusively, then to the said ‘Uncle Sam’ Wilson. The joke took among the workmen, and passed currently; and Uncle Sam himself being present, was occasionally rallied by them on the increasing extent of his possessions.

The 1800s news article concludes:

It [the joke about Uncle Sam] originated precisely as above stated; and the writer of this article distinctly recollects remarking, at the time when it first appeared in print, to a person who was equally aware of its origin, how odd it would be should this joke eventually become a national cognomen.

Origin of Uncle Sam, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 15 May 1830

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 May 1830, page 1

Iconic Artwork of James Flagg

Over the decades, Uncle Sam flourished as a symbol of the United States of America. Perhaps the most memorable image of our Uncle Sam was drawn by the famous pen-and-ink artist James Montgomery Flagg for a recruiting poster during World War I, with a stern-faced Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying “I want you for U.S. Army!” You can see this famous image above, and also reprinted in this 1992 Alabama newspaper article, along with the attribution of the name to “Uncle Sam” Wilson again.

article about James Flagg and Uncle Sam, Mobile Register newspaper article 29 June 1992

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 29 June 1992, page 40

In 1960 James Flagg passed away, and his obituary stated:

His greatest work was his World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, ‘I want you.’

obituary for James Montgomery Flagg, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 28 May 1960

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1960, page 13

Brief Biography of Uncle Sam

This 1961 article from a Massachusetts newspaper gives us further background on “Uncle Sam” Wilson. It says that he was born in 1766 and died in 1854. He ran away from home to fight in the Revolutionary War. After the war he became a successful merchant and meat packer in Troy, New York, was quite a popular fellow and was universally known as “Uncle Sam.”

Tribute to Uncle Sam, Springfield Union newspaper article 9 July 1961

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 9 July 1961, page 47

Who’s the Real Uncle Sam?

An article written by Blake Ehrlich in a 1961 Massachusetts newspaper brings to light the role of one Thomas Gerson in the life of Uncle Sam. Calling from his hospital bed to a reporter for the newspaper, Mr. Gerson explained he was the “Official Uncle Sam Historian and Director of Education for the Troy Area Committee for Uncle Sam.” It seems that Gerson, also “an editorial writer and feature man,” was on a mission to get the United States Congress to recognize his hometown hero, Samuel Wilson, as the “real” Uncle Sam. Interestingly, in this article we are introduced to yet another option for Uncle Sam’s origin. It seems Gerson was working to “triumph over the forces of evil from the state of Indiana, which tried to block the resolution with claims for its own Sam Wilson.”

The Man (Thomas Gerson) Who Carries a Torch for Uncle Sam, Boston Traveler newspaper article 3 November 1961

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 3 November 1961, page 16

It seems that the image of Uncle Sam has changed over the years, according to writer Ehrlich, having first appeared as a cartoon character in The Lantern, a comic weekly drawn by a fellow named Bellew in 1852. That Uncle Sam was dressed in a beaver hat, boots, and striped pants and was “tall, thin, with a clean-shaven hatchet face, much like Sam Wilson.”  In the 1860s, cartoonist Thomas Nast added whiskers and a starry vest.

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This 1961 Massachusetts newspaper article reported that historians in Indiana were still fighting Mr. Gerson’s efforts to recognize Troy’s Samuel Wilson as the one, true Uncle Sam, saying: “Indiana historians disagree, claiming the Troy meat packer was born in Wilmington, Del., and later moved to Merriam, Ind.”

Troy Bows to Mass. as Home of Archtype for 'Uncle Sam,' Boston Herald newspaper article 30 October 1961

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 30 October 1961, page 18

This 1961 New Jersey newspaper reprinted an article from the Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. This article, headlined “Interest Increasing in National Shrine,” tells us that the quibble over the “real” Uncle Sam continued even as “The nation also is about to doff its hat to ‘Uncle Sam,’ although it isn’t quite sure who ‘Uncle Sam’ was.” The article goes on to explain that the dust-up between New York and Indiana continued, reporting:

The New York Congressional delegation backs Samuel Wilson, a meat dealer who supplied the troops during the War of 1812 and who died in New York. The Indiana delegation backs a Samuel Wilson who earned the title of ‘Uncle Sam’ in Troy, but who is buried in Merriam, Ind.

And for good measure Connecticut was now in the act, believing:

the original ‘Uncle Sam’ was Sam Huntington of Connecticut, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and President of the Continental Congress.

And finally, there’s this:

The Texans are touting for ‘Uncle Sam’ none other than Sam Houston, beard and all.

article about Uncle Sam, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 6 September 1961

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 6 September 1961, page 11

While Indiana, Texas, and Connecticut were touting their Uncle Sam versions, New York was fast at work. This 1959 Washington newspaper article reported that then-Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller was declaring September 13th as “Uncle Sam Day” following a resolution passed by the State Legislature.

N.Y. to Observe September 13 as Uncle Sam Day, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 March 1959

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 March 1959, page 5

This 1988 Alabama newspaper published a sarcastic article by well-known columnist James J. Kilpatrick, in which he excoriated the recently-adjourned 100th U.S. Congress for accomplishing almost nothing, saying: “We are well rid of this Congress. Be gone! And don’t come back any time soon.”

To drive home his point, Kilpatrick pointed to the creation of Uncle Sam Day as one of the very few things the Congress did manage to do.

article about Uncle Sam Day, Mobile Register newspaper article 6 November 1988

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 6 November 1988, page 9

While it seems that Congress, in their infinite wisdom, decided for us who the “real” Uncle Sam was, I am now thinking I should really have some fun and start researching National Jukebox Week!

Related Articles about Famous American Icons:

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Ephemera: A Surprisingly Fertile Genealogical Resource

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about an unusual—but a personal favorite—source of family history information: ephemera.

As I research my family history I look forward to finding unusual sources that reveal different aspects of my ancestor’s life beyond what an online index provides. One unusual source I find myself searching for is ephemera. In fact, I LOVE ephemera.

What’s ephemera you ask? Well one of the official definitions is “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles” (from Miriam Webster). At first glance that may seem to refer to only a few items but, according to the Ephemera Society of America, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists 500 categories of ephemera. Vintage ephemera can provide details of your ancestor’s life, even vital record information, or a specific place and time for them.

ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation

Ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation. From the author’s collection.

In genealogical terms it can include everything from your grandparents’ World War II ration books, a Christmas card your great-grandparents sent out, newspaper clippings of obituaries and marriage announcements, to the letters your 4th great-grandfather wrote from the battlefield during the Civil War. But it’s even more than that. In some cases it may be tidbits that provide social history information like a World War I recruitment poster or a menu from the first restaurant in your hometown.

ephemera example: restaurant menu

Ephemera example: restaurant menu. From the author’s collection.

Not everyone fully embraces ephemera in genealogical research. Why? These types of historical records can be difficult to find. In searching for ephemera that has your ancestor’s name on it you will need to start with home sources. When I refer to a home source, I’m not just suggesting looking for items in your home. Ask your family members about any types of items they may have inherited. In some cases family members may not realize what genealogical treasures they have. It might take several discussions where you reminisce or conduct an interview before they remember some of the items they have been holding on to.

I recently blogged about a letter I found in my childhood stamp collection that was given to me by my maternal grandmother. She had given me the letter to keep because of its interesting stamp. As I read this long-forgotten letter, I realized it contained important genealogical information from her own research on an English family line from the 1800s.

Cast your genealogical fishing line far and wide, and reach out to a distant unknown cousin who may have an heirloom or a forgotten item in their home. Utilizing social media can help get the word out about your research. Consider using a blog, website, Twitter or Facebook as just some of the ways to help other researchers find you.

ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure

Ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure. From the author’s collection.

Ephemera can also be found in collections housed at archives, libraries, societies and museums. One way to find these types of historical collections is to search either the repository’s catalog or a union catalog (one that includes multiple repositories), such as ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). When researching collections, search on the place your ancestor was from to find materials that might have originated with an acquaintance or neighbor. Also consider groups and organizations your ancestor was a member of when searching through collections.

ephemera example: postcard

Ephemera example: postcard. From the author’s collection.

Do you have ephemera from your family or someone else’s? Consider sharing this by scanning and posting it on the Internet. Several non-genealogy blogs share ephemera they have found or collected. Check out Forgotten Bookmarks, Paper Great, and Permanent Record for ideas of how others are sharing ephemera. By sharing their genealogical finds and collections they make it possible for descendants to be reunited with their family history.