The Origins and Evolution of an American Icon
January 17, 2017
Prof. Don Hickey
Wayne State College
Wayne, NE 68687
Journal of Midshipman Isaac Mayo (March 1810)
On 1 March  reported myself for duty on board the Wasp of 18 guns, lying at the navy yard Brooklyn. Cannot say that I am much pleased with first appearances. The first night on board was put in for rather more than four hours of mid watch, through a snow storm, those 24 hours seemed longer to me than all my previous life. Have dined with my Commander [Lieutenant James Lawrence] and much pleased with him, but the reefers [seamen] say that there are no favors shewn on board this ship. The Frigate Constitution, Brig Hornet and Schooner Enterprize are the only Public vessels at the navy yard. In the absence of Capt. Lawrence I was ordered to the Enterprize Lt. Commdr Tripp, but on Capt Ls return he requested the order of Comd Rodgers might be revoked which was done—from the time of my joining the Wasp untill the 20 March the crew employd rigging ship, stowing Hold, &c. Bent sails and hauld in the North river, been but twice on shore to the City of N. York. [March] 24 weighted anchor stood down the harbour, passed sandy Hook, where there are two light-houses, and put to sea. First and second day out most deadly seasick. Oh could I have got on shore in hight of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.
Doggerel from broadside mentioning Uncle Sam (Spring 1813?)
My name is Bona, the terror of nations,
Give Quebec up to James, or I’ll hew you to
This makes me to laugh like a man that is
For then I’ll be able to cross the Atlantic
If uncle Sam needs I’ll be glad to assist him,
For it makes my heart bleed we live at such a
If he calls me to Quebec, I’ll lead on the van, and for Johnny Bull we’ll not leave him a man.
My fleet to John Bull no true homage will pay
Though his orders in council should forever
He talks for a right for to search for his slaves,
Before I shall grant that I shall sink in the waves;
He had better be silent and send me no threat,
Les I catch his fish in my old yankee net.
He builds on the Indians that’s now with him
But if Uncle Sam lives, they will all be Bur-
New York Gazette, May 12, 1830
Origin of “Uncle Sam”
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 a 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 his research, I will state the facts as they occurred under my own eye.
Immediately after the declaration of the last war with England, Elbert Anderson, Esq. of this city, then a Contractor, visited Troy, on the Hudson, where was concentrated, and where he purchased, a large quantity of provisions—beef, port, &c. The inspectors of these articles at that place, were Messrs. Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson. The latter gentlemen (invariably known 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 by 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. Wilsons, 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 extend 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 of 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 so long as U. S. remains a nation. It originate 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 cognomen.
Hickey, Donald R. “A Note on the Origins of ‘Uncle Sam,’ 1810- 1820.” New England Quarterly 88 (December 2015), 681-92.
Ketchum, Alton. Uncle Sam: The Man and the Legend. New York, 1959.
Matthews, Albert. “Uncle Sam.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 19 (April 1908), 21-65.
Roberts, Sam. “Alternate Uncle Sam Spotted in the Mists of New York History.” New York Times, April 19, 2016. Online at: < http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/20/nyregion/alternate-uncle-sam- spotted-in-the-mists-of-new-york-history.html?_r=0 >.