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
Dear Cecil:

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

Dear Anonymous:

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
letters U.S.

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
the facts.

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.


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