• Exploring American History

Uncle Sam and the Meatpackers

As the British army readied their troops and armament along the east coast of the United States, the American soldiers prepared to defend their fledgling country. In the background, a patriotic meat packer, Samuel Wilson, went to work to make sure the army would be fed. After filling the barrels with beef and pork, Sam had his employees stamp each barrel with the letters ‘U.S.’ The letters stood for ‘United States’, but many of the soldiers felt they deserved a more personal meaning and stated the letters meant ‘Uncle Sam’ Wilson.


Wilson’s involvement with feeding the young country’s army began in 1781 when he joined the Continental Army at the age of 15. Wilson was tasked with protecting the army’s food supply from possible British sabotage. To fulfill this duty, he guarded the cattle, mended any damaged fence, as well as slaughtering and packaging the meat.


Once the war was over, Sam and his brother Ebenezer, moved to Troy, New York. One of the town’s first settlers, they established their own meat packing business named E & S Wilson. They built their facility on the banks of the Hudson River in order to simplify shipping.


A resourceful pair, the Wilson brothers noticed the clay along the Hudson was ideal for brick making. In addition to their meat packing business, the brothers also made the first native bricks in the area. Prior to this, all bricks used for construction were shipped in from the Netherlands.


When the War of 1812 began (also known as the second American revolution), the Wilson brothers’ business was quickly offered a contract with the Army. They were tasked with supplying the Army with 2,000 barrels of pork and 3,000 barrels of beef. Uncle Sam’s track record was one of reliability and patriotism. He also became a mascot of sorts. Sam Wilson portrayed the idea of the patriotic image referred to in the song “Yankee Doodle”, made famous in 1775.


Various artists soon went to work creating their idea of what America’s favorite uncle looked like. The image was used to support political causes and continually tweaked over the years. In some, he was portrayed as an old man with white hair and others used Benjamin Franklin for a model. In 1870, cartoonist Thomas Nast with Harper’s Weekly drew the patriot with whiskers on his face and wearing a top hat and red/white striped pants.


In 1916, Uncle Sam’s ‘modern’ image came to life through the efforts of artist James Montgomery Flagg. That year, as the U.S. prepared to go to war against Germany, Flagg’s illustration of Uncle Sam was seen on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly magazine dated July 6, 1916. Leaning out over the headline, Uncle Sam asked, “What are you doing for preparedness? His illustration was a hit and Flagg began using Uncle Sam images in other pictures. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) used Uncle Sam to encourage Americans to grow gardens in order to increase the nation’s food supply.


Though Sam Wilson died in 1854 at the age of 87, his memory was imbedded in history and resurrected in 1961. On September 25th, Congress adopted this 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.

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