Americans are approaching an auspicious anniversary: it has been two hundred years since the first known appearance of "Uncle Sam" as an initialistic embodiment of the United States. The earliest example of "Uncle Sam" was found in the December 23, 1812 issue of the Bennington (Vermont) News-Letter. But another town not too far from Bennington — Troy, New York — has maintained that it is the true birthplace of Uncle Sam.
The Bennington example was discovered in a newspaper database several years ago by inveterate word sleuth Barry Popik. It appears in a letter to the editor from an anonymous conscript in the War of 1812, who is less than sanguine about the war effort.
Before Popik's discovery, the earliest known example came from The Troy (NY) Post the following year, on September 7, 1813, also from a critic of the government's actions in the war. The writer likens the new expression "Uncle Sam" to the established nickname for England, "John Bull": "This cant name for our government has got almost as current as 'John Bull.' The letters U. S. on the government waggons, &c., are supposed to have given rise to it."
In Troy, a more elaborate origin story for "Uncle Sam" emerged a couple of decades after the war. As first told in the New York Gazette in 1830, the story involves a meatpacker from Troy named Samuel Wilson who procured a contract to supply meat to the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the war. Because his barrels of meat were stamped with "U.S.," a joke began to circulate that this abbreviation really stood for "Uncle Sam," i.e., Sam Wilson.
Over the course of the 19th century, the lore of Samuel Wilson as the source of "Uncle Sam" became further entrenched. A writer named Albert Matthews published a monograph in 1908 that looked at all the known evidence and determined that it was highly unlikely that Wilson was the true originator of "Uncle Sam." Though "Uncle Sam" started to appear in Troy newspapers in 1813 as a playful personification of the U.S. and its government, no mention is made of Wilson until much later. The December 1812 Bennington example would seem to put the Wilson theory to rest, especially because it predates the meat contract that Wilson arranged with the Army the following year.
But Troy has firmly held on to the Samuel Wilson tale, much as another upstate New York town, Cooperstown, clings to its questionable reputation as the birthplace of baseball. The citizens of Troy even managed to get a Congressional resolution passed in 1961 saluting "Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America's National symbol of Uncle Sam."
Further digging in the databases may fill out the picture of how "Uncle Sam" first spread. Interestingly, "Uncle Sam" may have been a stock character in New England even before it came to stand for the United States. In Howe's Almanac for the Year of Our Lord, 1808 (published by John Howe in Greenwich, Mass. in 1807), the following advice is given on the calendar for the days of July 12-14: "Be diligent, and you will get done haying before Uncle Sam."
This generic "Uncle Sam" appears in Howe's Almanac in subsequent years. The 1809 almanac says, "Be at work early, and do not let Uncle Sam get done haying first." In 1810, the advice is, "Hoe your corn the third time or you will not have so much as Uncle Sam." And finally in 1811, a note for September 20-21 reads, "It is about time for Uncle Sam to finish haying." When war broke out in 1812, "Uncle Sam" took on a new meaning, originally used in a derisive manner by those opposed to the government's maneuvers. Eventually, of course, "Uncle Sam" would be embraced as a patriotic icon. Let's remember the bicentennial of his true origins, and not the mythmaking of Troy.
(For more documentary evidence on "Uncle Sam," check out Barry Popik's website.)
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer