Date: Thu, 3 Jul 1997 10:46:00 -0400

From: "Barry A. Popik" Bapopik[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]AOL.COM

Subject: JULY FOURTH SPECIAL: Uncle Sam (part one)

"I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy

A Yankee Doodle do or die

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam

Born on the Fourth of July."

--Tom Lehrer (Just kidding! George M. Cohan, of course!)

Who was Uncle Sam?

Uncle Sam is obviously an extension of U. S. (United States), whom he

personifies. The creation of Uncle Sam--the famous name and the portrait

made famous by cartoons--deserves serious scholarship.

In this Part One, I'll survey the existing scholarship and provide some

important discoveries. Part Two will cover the most famous Uncle Sam of the

"I WANT YOU!" poster. If I have the time and strength for other parts, I'll

discuss the Uncle Sam caricature in great depth, the farce of Congress's

Uncle Sam declaration and the Indiana faux-Uncle Sam, and the names of

American soldiers (Sammies, Teddies, Yanks).

This survey is obviously incomplete; I did not get a chance to drive to

some towns in upstate New York and to Vermont because of the serious

illnesses and deaths of both my father and mother. I have that rescheduled

for later this year, and I'll tell you then what that yields.

Only a handful of scholars have studied the subject. The best scholar

is Albert Matthews, who worked with the American Antiquarian Society in

Worcester, Massachusetts. He did a monograph on Brother Jonathan (an earlier

representative figure of the U. S.) in 1902 and one on Uncle Sam in 1908.

His work pioneered the field and still remains important.


(1949) provides the best complement to Matthews' work.

Jessie F. Wheeler of the Troy Public Library examined Albany-Troy area

papers and wrote an Uncle Sam series for the local newspaper. I examined her

unpublished papers in the New York State Library in Albany.

Alton Ketchum combined these three sources (and left out what he didn't

like) in his UNCLE SAM: THE MAN AND THE LEGEND (1959) and "The Search for

Uncle Sam" in HISTORY TODAY, April 1990, pp. 20-26.

In 1961, Congress officially declared that Troy, New York's Samuel

Wilson is Uncle Sam.

No one has done any other serious research.

Everything is based on one single item about the War of 1812 that is

unattributed and appears as late as 1830!!

The following was in the New York Gazette of 12 May 1830 (pages 39-40

in Ketchum):

A Neat Communication--Origin of "Uncle Sam"

Much learning and research have been exercised in tracing the origins

of odd names and odd sayings, which taking their rise in some trifling

occurrence or event, easily explained or well understood for a time, yet, in

the course of years, becoming involved in mystery, assume an importance equal

at least to the skill and ingenuity required to explain or trace them to

their origin. "The Swan with two necks," "the Bull and Mouth," "All my Eye,

Betty Martin," and many others, are of this character--and who knows but, an

hundred years hence, some "learned commentator" may puzzle his brain to

furnish some ingenious explanation of the origin of the national appellation

placed at the head of this article. To aid him, therefore, in this research,

I will state the facts as they occurred under my own eyes.

Immediately after the declaration of the last war with England, Elbert

Anderson, of New York, a contractor, visited Troy on the Hudson, where was

concentrated, and where he purchased, a large quantity of provisions--beef,

pork, etc. The inspectors of these articles at that place were Messrs.

Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson. The latter gentleman (invariably know as _"Uncle

Sam"_) generally superintended in person a large number of workmen, who, on

this occasion, were employed in overhauling the provisions purchased by the

contractor for the army. The casks were marked E. A.--U. S. This work fell

to the lot of a facetious fellow in the employ of the Messrs. Wilson, who, on

being asked by some of his fellow-workmen the meaning of the mark (for the

letters U. S., for United States, were then almost 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, passed currently; and "Uncle Sam" himself being present, was

occasionally rallied by them on the increasing extent of his possessions.

Many of these workmen being of a character denominated "food for

powder," were found shortly after following the recruiting drum, and pushing

toward the frontier lines, for the double purose of meeting the enemy, and of

eating the provisions they had lately laboured to put in good order. Their

old jokes of course accompanied them, and, before the first campaign ended,

this identical one first appeared in print--it gained favour rapidly, till it

penetrated and was recognized in every part of our country, and will, no

doubt, continue so while the United States remain a nation. It originated

precisely as 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 silly joke,

originating in the midst of beef, pork, pick, mud, salt, and hoop-poles,

eventually become a national cognomen.

There are problems with this. For starters, "U. S." would have been

widely understood by the War of 1812, as Matthews comments in the Proceedings

of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. XIX, pp. 21-65 (1908). In a

footnote on page 39, Matthews states his research "is based on an examination

of newspapers published 1812-1815 in Portsmouth, Salem, Boston, Worcester,

Hartford, Troy, Albany, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington."

So he covered NY, MA, CT, NH, and Washington, DC. That's a lot of work, but

still not enough.

What about Providence, RI? Detroit, MI (scene of a battle)? New

Orleans, LA (scene of a battle)? North Carolina? Vermont (scene of much

action)? Plattsburgh, NY (VERY important)?

WHAT ABOUT CANADA????? It occurred to me that no scholar anywhere has

checked the Canadian papers. Not at all!

Albert Matthews wrote a Postscript in the same journal, October 1908,

pp. 250-252 that contained additional information (some by Jessie Wheeler of

the Troy Public Library) that cast strong doubt on the Samuel Wilson origin.

Ketchum mentions none of this information in his book. I looked at the

bibliography. Matthews' Postscript is not in the bibliography!!!!


To be continued. Gotta leave to join my sister and clean up the family

house. Anybody want 50 chess trophies free? They make fine doorstops or

paperweights! Anybody want to buy the family home? Fine for running tours.

"Yes, folks, this was his room. He wrote THE ADULT AND THE ADOLESCENT from

this desk. It got mixed reviews at first.....See this window? On a clear

day from this window, you can see the Empire State Building....."