Sam Wilson
a.k.a. "Uncle Sam"

This popular figure from American folklore achieved his fame in Troy, Rensselaer County, NY. For a genealogy of "Uncle" Sam Wilson, click here.

Historians aren't completely certain how the character "Uncle Sam" was created, or whom (if anyone) he was named after. The prevailing theory is that Uncle Sam was named after Samuel Wilson, and on September 15, 1961, Samuel Wilson of Troy received the official seal of approval as THE Uncle Sam. On that date, the 87th US Congress passed the following Congressional Resolution: "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."

Samuel Wilson was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on September 13, 1766. His childhood home was in Mason, New Hampshire. In 1789, he and his brother Ebenezer Wilson walked to Troy, Rensselaer County, New York.

During the War of 1812, Samuel WILSON was in the business of slaughtering and packing meat in Troy. He provided large shipments of meat to the US Army, in barrels that were stamped with the initials "U.S." Supposedly, someone who saw the "U.S." stamp suggested - perhaps as a joke - that the initials stood for "Uncle Sam" Wilson. The suggestion that the meat shipments came from "Uncle Sam" led to the idea that Uncle Sam symbolized the federal government.

Samuel Wilson died in 1854. His grave is in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.

Uncle Sam's traditional appearance, with a white goatee and a star-spangled suit, is a later invention of artists and political cartoonists; Samuel Wilson did not look like the modern image of Uncle Sam. For example, Wilson was clean-shaven, while Uncle Sam is usually portrayed with a goatee. Thomas Nast, a prominent 19th-century political cartoonist, produced many of the earliest cartoons of Uncle Sam. However, historians and collectors take note: Many of Nast's cartoons may appear to depict Uncle Sam, while in fact they depict Yankee Doodle or "Brother Jonathan." It is easy to mistake a Brother Jonathan cartoon for one of Uncle Sam, since both figures wear star-spangled suits of red, white and blue. As a rule, Brother Jonathan was drawn with a feather in his cap, while Uncle Sam was not; and Uncle Sam is nearly always drawn with a beard, while Brother Jonathan was clean-shaven. Some have suggested that Dan Rice, a 19th-century clown, inspired Thomas Nast's Uncle Sam cartoons. Rice's clown costume consisted of a hat and a star-spangled suit, much like the costume worn by Uncle Sam. However, Rice was born in 1823 and did not begin clowning until 1844; and Uncle Sam cartoons appeared as early as 1838. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Rice could have been the inspiration for Nast's cartoons.

The single most famous portrait of Uncle Sam is the "I WANT YOU" Army recruiting poster from World War I. The poster was painted by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916-1917.

Many early examples of Uncle Sam cartoons can be found in The Foremost Guide to Uncle Sam Collectibles by Gerald E. Czulewicz (Collector Books, 1995).

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Debby Masterson

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