Just who was Uncle Sam?

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Guest column by Carlton Jackson

Everybody’s heard of Uncle Sam, right? But who was he? And why is our government today called “Uncle Sam?”  Why do members of the Armed Forces tell you that they “belong to Uncle Sam?” And why should honors due to Uncle Sam be especially noteworthy during 2012?

During October l8l2, in Troy, N.Y., workers packed pork and beef into large white oak barrels. Their boss, Samuel Wilson, had contracted with Elbert Anderson of the government to supply the military with 3,000 barrels of prime beef and 2,000 of pork.

Each barrel of packed meat was stamped with the owners’ initials, EA-US, which stood for Elbert Anderson and presumably, Ustates. “US” at that time did not generally refer to the United States as a country. Instead, “Ustates” was the common usage.

Jonas Gleason, an Irishman who had known Wilson for more than 20 years, strolled into the yard and asked a worker, “What do the letters, ‘US’ stand for?”

The un-named worker, perhaps jokingly, replied, “Uncle Sam.”

Logically, Gleason accepted US as Uncle Sam. In Troy, Samuel Wilson was called “Uncle,” not only by townspeople, but by nieces, nephews and cousins in his own family. His wife, Aunt Betsy, was revered far and wide, for her generous nature which endeared her to the local populace. She and Sam were definitely pillars of the community.

The Army needed the EA-US provisions, for once again the Ustates were at war with England.

Congress, at President James Madison’s bidding, declared this second war on June l8, l8l2— 200 years ago in this year of 2012. It formally ended on Dec. 24, l8l4, with the Treaty of Ghent, in Belgium, frequently called “The Peace of Christmas Eve.”

Samuel Wilson was born in 1766 in Menotony, Mass. As a teenager during the American Revolution, he tended cattle for the mess kits of patriot soldiers. When Samuel was 14 his family moved to Mason, N.H., from which Sam and his brother, Ebenezer, walked to Troy, N.Y., seeking jobs.

They went into meat packing, processing many a cattle a day during the War of 1812. Samuel also became a brick maker, volunteer firefighter, periodic member of the Troy city government and a strong supporter of his church. He became well known as a kind, generous, benefactors of his adopted city.

Several workers left Anderson-Wilson employment and followed the barrels of beef and pork down the Hudson. They joined Ustates militias and volunteers, knowing that wherever the meat was, they were assured of their next meal. They called their  daily rations “Uncle Sam’s.” they proudly told anyone who asked, “We belong to Uncle Sam,” meaning now not only the man himself, but also all the products he sent to the American armies. Also mentioned were his generous lines of credit to the Ustates military forces.

Late in the 19th century, famed “Harper’s Weekly” cartoonist, Thomas Nast, drew Uncle Sam with a beard. Then in l9l7, when the US was on the verge of entering World War I (l9l7-l9l8), James Montgomery Flagg of “Leslie’s Weekly,” drew the Uncle Sam who is familiary to us today.

Flagg’s Uncle Sam wore a beard, a top hat and vest, both of which alternated with red, white and blue stripes. He pointed his finger directly at the viewer and said, “What are you Doing for Preparedness?”

Reportedly, when US troops arrived in France during WWI, many Frenchmen, with happy tears of welcome streaming down their faces, shouted out, “Vive Sammee!! Vive Sammee!!”

During World War II, the slogan was changed to I WANT YOU, which increased recruitment, raised levels of patriotism and sold U.S. war bonds to private and public investors.

Samuel Wilson of Troy, N.Y., was the original Uncle Sam. Our great national nickname was based on a real-life human, one who was not particularly a hero, but a hard-working businessman and entrepreneur. Traditionally as a nation, our citizens have honored and followed the philosophies of loyalty to country and virtues of hard work instilled by Samuel Wilson, who will forever be known as Uncle Sam.

Carlton Jackson of Morgantown is a professor of history emeritus from Western Kentucky University.