Yes, Virginia, There Was a REAL “Uncle Sam”

Was New England-born Samuel Wilson the real Uncle Sam? Find out more about the man (and meat inspector) behind an American legend.

By Judson D. Hale

Apr 01 2016


Uncle Sam

Photo Credit : By James Montgomery Flagg (http://www.usscreen.com/american_spirit/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the April 2016 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, N.H.

Yes, Virginia, There Was a REAL “Uncle Sam”

The Real Uncle Sam
Was New England-born Samuel Wilson the real Uncle Sam?
Photo Credit : By James Montgomery Flagg (http://www.usscreen.com/american_spirit/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But his brother, Eben, could have changed everything…

Oh, sure, people in Delaware and Indiana still think Uncle Sam was Sam Wilson, born in Wilmington, Delaware, and buried in Merriam, Indiana. But back in the 1960’s, even the United States Congress recognized the New England-born Samuel Wilson as the Uncle Sam. And, as is the case with the formation of many so-called legends, a series of minor historical circumstances had to occur in the proper sequence. In our Uncle Sam’s case, there were ten…

  1. The Wilson family, who moved in 1780 from what is now Arlington, Massachusetts to Mason, New Hampshire, had to decide to name one of their eleven children “Samuel.” That was an essential first step.
  2. As an adult, Samuel and one of his brothers, Eben, walked from Mason to Troy, New York, a port accessible to oceangoing ships. If they had instead walked to, say, Worcester, Massachusetts, for instance, everything would have been different.
  3. Samuel had to become involved in a meat-packing business in Troy and the word “uncle” had to be a common word of endearment in that area at that time. In fact, “Uncle” Sam and his brother, “Uncle” Eben, eventually employed over a hundred men and slaughtered a thousand head of cattle weekly.
  4. The United States had to go to war. It did. We call it the War of 1812.
  5. The U.S. government had to award the Eben & Samuel Wilson Company a contract to supply meat to our army. This happened.
  6. “Uncle” Sam Wilson had to be appointed government inspector of meat. He was.
  7. Part of his job as government inspector had to be to brand his and Eben’s own white oak barrels containing their inspected meat with the initials of the United States. It was.
  8. Barrels of meat so branded had to be piled up on a dock where passenger ships also landed. They were.
  9. One day, a debarking passenger had to be curious enough to ask someone working on the docks, preferably a Wilson employee, why the meat barrels were all labeled with the initials “U.S.”
  10. The person asked had to reply, with tongue in cheek, “Oh, those initials mean ‘Uncle Sam.’ He and his brother own everything around here and they’re even feeding the army!”

Well, there may have been a few more steps that had to occur and they obviously all did. Including the fact that our country at that time seemed to need a personification of the American character.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with everything anyone says on the subject. For instance, some maintain it was New York Governor George D. Tomkins who asked a dockworker about the initials on all the meat barrels, not a disembarking passenger. (Could have been many who asked.) Be all that as it may, we can say with assurance that long before Sam Wilson of Arlington, Massachusetts, passed away in 1854, everyone was saying “Uncle Sam” and meaning our country. A legend was born.

So as we celebrate Patriots Day this month (historically on the 19th), we can all be thankful that the Wilson brother who happened to be appointed meat inspector had not instead been “Uncle Eben.”

You might call that a historical close call.