Samuel Wilson (September 13, 1766 – July 31, 1854) was ameat-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 a historic town, Arlington (known as Menotomy at the time, township of West Cambridge), Massachusetts, to parents Edward and Lucy Wilson. Samuel Wilson is a descendant of one of the oldest families of Boston, Massachusetts. Through direct heritance of his grandfather, Robert Wilson, originally from Greenock, Scotland, he was Scottish with a Massachusetts background. As a boy, he moved with his family to Mason, New Hampshire.
In 1789, at the age of 22, Samuel and his older brother Ebeneezer, age 27, relocated, by foot, to Troy, New York. The Wilson brothers were amongst the first pioneer settlers of the community. Troy, New York was attractive to earlier settlers for its proximity to the Hudson River. Samuel and his brother Ebeneezer partnered together and built several successful businesses. Both were employees of the city as well as successful entrepreneurs. Samuel was invested in the community. He was rumored to already have had the nickname Uncle Sam because he was friendly and so well liked.
While living in Mason, New Hampshire, at the young age of fifteen, Samuel joined the Revolutionary Army on March 2, 1781. His duties while enlisted consisted of guarding and caring for cattle, and mending fences, as well as slaughtering and packaging meat. Guarding meat was a priority during the war. It was not uncommon for enemies to tamper with and poison food sources. Samuel’s service to the Revolutionary Army most likely came to an end around October 19, 1781 with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
After his relocation to Troy, New York, Samuel drew upon his prosperous location. He purchased property on Mount Ida (now Prospect Park), closely located to the Hudson River. The combination of natural elements produced exceptional clay, ideal for brick making. This began a new business venture for Samuel Wilson. His bricks were the first native bricks of Troy. Many historical buildings in Troy include bricks made by Wilson. This was revolutionary during the 18th century. Many bricks during this period were imported from the Netherlands.
Samuel Wilson’s career role during the War of 1812 is what he is most noted for today. The demand for a supply of meat for the troops had significantly increased. The business held a staff of 200 men during this period. Samuel Wilson was appointed meat inspector for the Northern Army. His duties included checking the freshness of meat and assuring that it was properly packaged and that the barrels were according to specification.
Many soldiers stationed in Greenbush were locals of Troy. They knew of and/or were acquainted with Sam Wilson and his nickname Uncle Sam, as well as his meat packing business. These soldiers recognized the barrels being from Troy and made an association between the "U.S." stamp and Uncle Sam. Over time, it is believed, anything marked with the same initials, as much Army property was, also became linked with his name.
Samuel Wilson died July 31, 1854 at the age of 87. 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. 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."
However, an Uncle Sam is mentioned as early as 1775 in the original “Yankee Doodle” lyrics of the Revolutionary War. It is not clear whether this reference is to Uncle Sam as a metaphor for the United States. The lyrics as a whole clearly deride the military efforts of the young nation, besieging the British at Boston. This is the 13th stanza:
Old Uncle Sam come then to change / Some pancakes and some onions, / For ’lasses cakes, to carry home / To give his wife and young ones.
The image of Uncle Sam has always been a topic of conversation. He is the highest ideal for national character. His varying images can be attributed to several artists. However, James Montgomery Flagg might be the most influential. James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was a political cartoonist from the late-1800s onwards. He created the most iconic poster of Uncle Sam. Flagg evolved the image of Sam, applying a white beard as well as change in wardrobe. Stars and stripes were added to the personification’s suit, depicting the character we are familiar with today.
It was originally published as the cover for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly with the title "What are You Doing for Preparedness?" Between 1917 and 1918, over four million copies were printed. This poster served as propaganda for the United States as it entered World War I. This image was widely distributed and has been re-used with different captions. During the same war, WWI, this image reached its peak popularity when the words "I Want You For The U.S. Army" were chosen.
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