Uncle Sam (1808? 1812?) (full story)
Bapopik at AOL.COM
Bapopik at AOL.COM
Tue Feb 21 05:13:02 UTC 2006
I meant Troy as the alleged home town of "Uncle Sam" (not necessarily the
home town of Sam Wilson, who was born elsewhere).
The newly digitized 1812 citation (and the others, if you think they're
relevant) means that the Sam Wilson legend (approved by a Congressional law!) is
officially a myth.
The Uncle Sam etymology is famous. In the New York Gazette of May 12, 1830
(shortly after the April 17th death of Elbert Anderson)[Proquest: Philadelphia
Album and Ladies Literary Gazette (1827-1830). Philadelphia: May 22, 1830.
Vol. 4, Iss. 21; p. 163]:
Much learning and research have been exercised in tracing the origin 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 War with England, Elbert Anderson, of
New York, a contractor, visited Troy where he purchased, a quantity of
provisions--beef, pork, etc. The inspectors of these articles of that place were
Messrs. Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson; the latter gentleman (invariably known as
"Uncle Sam") generally superintended in person a large number of workmen who
were on this occasion 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 almost entirely new to them) said he did
not know unless it meant Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam, alluding to
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 purpose of meeting the enemy, and eating the
provisions they had lately labored 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 favor rapidly, till it penetrated and
was recognized in every part of the country, and will no doubt continue to
while the United States remains a nation. It 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 silly joke, originating in the midst of
beef, pork, pickle, mud, salt and hoop-poles, eventually become a national
According to UNCLE SAM: THE MAN AND THE LEGEND by Alton Ketchum (NY: Hill
and Wang, 1959), pp. 38-39: "Accordingly, Anderson advertised on October 6, 13,
and 20, 1812, for sealed bids on two thousand barrels of prime pork and
three thousand barrels of prime beef, to be packed in full-bound barrels of white
oak. Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson furnished provisions under this contract."
Elbert Anderson and Sam Wilson were probably not even in business together
in 1812 when that first citation appeared.
The good Cecil Adams has long had the internet's best explanation and
What is the origin of Uncle Sam, the cartoon character symbolizing the U.S.?
Any relation to Sam Hill, as in what the S.H.? -- Anonymous, Denver
Hill, no. Sam Hill is just a soundalike euphemism for "hell" once used by
macho American frontiersmen in the presence of women, children, and other
sensitive souls. Uncle Sam is a whole different story.
A widely held belief, reported as fact in supposedly reliable reference
books, is that the original Uncle Sam was one Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy,
New York, who supplied rations to the U.S. military during the War of 1812.
Wilson was a subcontractor to one Elbert Anderson, and the letters
"E.A.--U.S." were stamped on all the pair's army-bound grub. On being asked what the
letters stood for (the abbreviation U.S. supposedly was unfamiliar at the time),
one of Sam's workers joshed that it stood for "Elbert Anderson and Uncle
Sam," meaning the jovial Wilson himself.
The joke was quickly picked up by Wilson's other employees. Many of these
men later served in the army during the war, and the story spread from there.
This tale appears to have first found its way into print in 1842.
Very neat, but is it true? On the surface it might seem so. Researchers have
established that Elbert Anderson and Sam Wilson did exist and did supply
meat to the government during the War of 1812. What's more, the earliest known
reference to Uncle Sam in the sense of the U.S. government appeared in 1813 in
the Troy Post.
But there are reasons to doubt. For one thing, the Uncle Sam = Sam Wilson
story didn't see print until 30 years after the event, which seems suspiciously
tardy. Second, the notion that someone in 1812 would have to ask what "U.S."
stood for is hard to swallow--the available evidence shows that the initials
were then in common use.
Third, there's something odd about the newspaper evidence. Sam Wilson was a
leading citizen of Troy, New York. Yet none of the newspapers in his hometown
seem to have had any knowledge of his connection to Uncle Sam until very
late in the day. The 1813 reference in the Troy Post says nothing about Wilson,
noting merely that "the letters U.S. on the government waggons, &c are
supposed to have given rise to [Uncle Sam]."
In 1816 the Post reprinted a story from Philadelphia claiming that Uncle Sam
originated in the initials USLD, meaning United States Light Dragoons, a
regiment of which had been formed in 1807. The account said that on being asked
what the USLD on their caps stood for, the soldiers said "Uncle Sam's Lazy
Dogs." In 1817 the Post took up the matter again, this time reverting to the
original explanation that Uncle Sam was simply a jocular expansion of the
When Sam Wilson died in 1854, none of the newspaper obituaries by Troy
writers mentioned the Uncle Sam connection. Significantly, however, two obituaries
reprinted from Albany newspapers did talk about Uncle Sam. This suggests
that the legend was concocted by out-of-towners with no firsthand knowledge of
So where did Uncle Sam originate? Nobody knows for sure, but it's likely the
original explanation in the Troy Post was correct: there was never an actual
Uncle Sam; instead the name was just a wiseguy expansion of the initials
It's worth noting that all the early references to Uncle Sam appeared in
"peace" newspapers--that is, papers opposed to the War of 1812--and in every
case the usage was derisive. This suggests Uncle Sam was dreamed up by critics
of the government who simply wanted to personify the object of their scorn.
I don't doubt, however, that the Sam Wilson story will live on. All the
dissenting facts above were set down by antiquarian Albert Matthews in 1908, for
God's sake, and you see what headway they've made. Pit truth against a
plausible legend and the truth hits the mat every time.
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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