Samuel Wilson was a middle child, born the seventh of thirteen children. He came to this world near Boston, Massachusetts, on September 13th, 1766. And he was a solid American, the descendent of one of the oldest families of Boston.
But when he was a boy his family did what many American families have done. They moved, searching for greener pastures. And so they left Massachusetts and resettled in New Hampshire.
Around the same time, our nation was born, and war came to the colonies. There are many things that can kill children before they reach adulthood, and war is one of them. Samuel took the risk. He joined the Revolutionary Army at age 14. But seven months later the war ended and he returned home alive, a war veteran at age 15.
Adventure has also been known to kill people at a young age. But Samuel was willing to take that risk, also. At age 22 he caught the traveling spirit, and he and his brother, Ebeneezer, headed west on foot. They settled in the pioneer town of Troy, New York.
Samuel and Ebeneezer teamed up in Troy and started a family business. At first they invested their sweat and energy into making bricks. The hard work didn’t kill them, and after this success they moved on to the laborious trade of meatpacking.
Then the brothers made a risky business decision. They leased some land along the Hudson River and built a dock. Now they were able to ship meat to buyers downriver, and throughout the country. And the risk paid off. The two men prospered. Soon their business grew so large it employed about 200 people.
Samuel Wilson became rich.
Many men wait until they’ve proven themselves before they start a family. At age 31, Samuel’s new fortune emboldened this rich bachelor to travel back to New Hampshire and marry Betsey Mann. She was the daughter of Captain Benjamin Mann, a Revolutionary War hero who fought at Bunker Hill. Samuel brought Betsey back to Troy, and they began adding new little Wilson citizens to the town’s population.
Prosperous family members tend to attract other family members. And so it happened with the Wilsons and the Manns. Many of their numerous extended family members relocated, so that before long the town of Troy was abustle with brothers, sisters, in-laws, nephews, and nieces of Samuel and Ebeneezer. Samuel didn’t mind. In fact, he liked it when his little nephews and nieces saw him on the street and called out to their uncle. He was an affable man, and very family-oriented.
In fact, his avuncular ways were popular even with those who were not related to him. Samuel Wilson had become a beloved pillar of his community.
And then war broke out again. In 1812, the new United States declared hostilities against their old enemy, Great Britain. Britain was testing the muscles of our young stripling nation.
Our military began recruiting, and the ranks of our army and navy swelled. With all these new recruits came a new need. Food. The U.S. Government had to feed its growing military forces.
We often associate prosperity with peace. But it’s also quite available with war, at least for those who are strategically positioned. And Samuel and Ebeneezer were in just such a position. They subcontracted with a man named Elbert Anderson, from New York City, to provide meat from their meatpacking operation for troops in New York and New Jersey.
They stamped each barrel of meat with the initials “E.A.–U.S”. “E.A.” stood for “Elbert Anderson”. But what did the “U.S.” stand for? Nowadays it’s easy to assume it stood for the United States. But this was 1812. Our country was still very young, and so the initials “U.S.” were not quite so obvious to the average citizen.
One day a visitor to Troy asked a dockworker about the meaning of the “U.S.” initials. This dockworker was very familiar with the popular and avuncular Samuel Wilson, so he jokingly replied, “Why, Uncle Sam Wilson! It is he who is feeding the army.” Several bystanders overheard him, and they repeated the joke.
There was no internet in those days, but the phenomenon of things going viral is nothing new. It happened even back in 1812. And so it occured with the Uncle Sam joke. It went viral and spread all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Before long, anything owned by the government and bearing the initials “U.S.” came to be called “Uncle Sam’s”.
And that is how Uncle Sam became the symbol of the United States.
Samuel Wilson died in 1854, at age 87. But Uncle Sam as a symbol continues to live on. His life is a fitting symbol of our country, because it represents the fortune that any American can achieve, with a willingness to take some risk, hard work, and a little luck.
In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as the origin of Uncle Sam. And in 1989, Samuel Wilson’s birthday, September 13th, was designated by Congress as “Uncle Sam Day”.
Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and fought over the years for our beloved Uncle Sam!