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date: 06 August 2020

Wilson, Samuelfree

(13 September 1766–31 July 1854)
  • Emil Pocock

Wilson, Samuel (13 September 1766–31 July 1854), meat packer and inspiration for Uncle Sam, was born in Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts, the seventh of thirteen children of Edward Wilson and Lucy Francis Wilson, farmers. Wilson grew up in Menotomy and on a farm near Mason, New Hampshire, where the family moved when he was fourteen years old. In February 1789 the twenty-two-year old Samuel Wilson and his older brother Ebenezer Wilson left home to seek their fortunes in Troy, New York, seven miles north of Albany. Within a year they were operating a successful brickyard, and four years later the brothers established a meatpacking operation as E. and S. Wilson, which became their primary business. In January 1797 Samuel Wilson married Betsey Mann, whom he had known for nearly a decade. They had four children, but only two survived.

During the following decade several members of the extended Wilson and Mann families moved to Troy and found employment with the Wilson brothers' enterprises, which expanded to include their own dock, sloops for shipping produce down the Hudson River, and a farm to pasture animals awaiting slaughter. For brief periods the Wilsons were also involved in a distilling business, and they operated a grocery and dry goods store as Wilson and Mann. The affable Samuel Wilson was fond of being called "Uncle Sam" by his numerous nieces and nephews, and the practice probably extended to his employees and the townspeople.

During the War of 1812 Elbert Anderson Jr. of New York City, contracted with the secretary of war to supply rations for troops in New York and New Jersey. In turn Anderson advertised for five thousand barrels of pork and beef to be delivered during the first four months of 1813, for which E. and S. Wilson became subcontractors. The barrels were duly stamped "E.A.--U.S.," a shorthand for Elbert Anderson, supplier to the United States, but this was not widely understood. When some workmen asked what the initials meant, according to an eyewitness account published in the New York Gazette on 12 May 1830, one jokester (sometimes identified as Jonas W. Gleason, a Wilson employee) replied that he did not know, unless it meant that the barrels belonged to Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam. Lucius E. Wilson, one of Samuel Wilson's great-nephews, recalled in 1917 a slightly different version told to him by his father. Visitors to Troy asked about barrels awaiting shipment on the docks, and an Irishman provided the answer. When asked who was Uncle Sam, the man replied: "Why Uncle Sam Wilson. It is he who is feeding the army" (quoted in Ketchum, p. 23). The joke was repeated often enough in Troy, probably in various versions, that soon all provisions destined for government use were being called Uncle Sam's.

Not long after this joke was told, the first references to Uncle Sam as a nickname for the United States appeared in print, providing circumstantial evidence of a connection between the two crucial incidents. Alton Ketchum identified a broadside in the Library of Congress, probably published during March 1813 in either Troy or Albany, New York, that included two mentions of Uncle Sam as standing for the United States. An article in the Troy Post on 7 September 1813 used Uncle Sam in a similar context and explained that the letters "U.S." on government wagons and property supposedly inspired that usage. The earliest images of Uncle Sam began appearing in newspapers during the 1830s, but the iconography varied with the artists. During the Civil War, Uncle Sam commonly took on many of the features of Abraham Lincoln, including his tall, lean figure and beard, but it was not until the 1870s that Thomas Nast's drawings of a bearded Uncle Sam with a top hat, stripped pants, and stars on his coat or shirt became standard. Perhaps the most famous Uncle Sam appeared in the James Montgomery FlaggI Want You for the U.S. Army recruiting poster of 1917.

Wilson enjoyed a prosperous life after the War of 1812. The Wilson brickyard and meatpacking enterprises, including a second slaughterhouse at Catskill, New York, employed as many as two hundred workers. Wilson was also a popular Troy citizen, whose services with clubs, civic organizations, and public meetings were in constant demand. During the 1830s he became an ardent Democrat and outspoken supporter of Andrew Jackson. Wilson's health deteriorated during the 1840s, and he died at his home in Troy during a cholera epidemic. Wilson was buried in Mount Ida Cemetery and later was reinterred at Troy's Oakwood Cemetery, where there is a commemorative brass plaque.

Wilson's enduring legacy rests on his tenuous connection with the genesis of Uncle Sam rather than any specific accomplishment of his own. Even so the U.S. Congress felt obliged to make the association official when Uncle Sam came under attack during the Cold War. In the Joint Resolution of 15 September 1961, Congress recognized "'Uncle Sam' Wilson, of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America's national symbol of 'Uncle Sam.'" On 9 September 1989 the city of Troy erected a monument in the likeness to Uncle Sam at the entrance to Riverfront Park.

Bibliography

An authoritative biography of Wilson is Alton Ketchum, Uncle Sam: The Man and the Legend (1959). Most subsequent popular articles and references, including those on numerous Web sites, appear to be derived primarily from Ketchum's work. Ketchum's "Search for Uncle Sam," History Today, Apr. 1990, pp. 20-26, provides a succinct updated account of Wilson's life and the derivation of Uncle Sam. See also "Troy, New York--Home of Uncle Sam" at home.nycap.rr.com/content/us_troy.html. An obituary in the Albany Evening Journal, 1 Aug. 1854, was excerpted in the New York Evening Post, 1 Aug. 1854, and the New York Daily Tribune, 4 Aug. 1854.