Word Origins: Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam

About the history and biography of Samuel Wilson and the origin of the words Uncle Sam.

UNCLE SAM (un-kel sam) n. The U.S. Government; or the American nation or people.

Samuel Wilson, though known as jolly, geni?l, and generous, wasn't called Uncle Sam only because he was a friendly avuncular sort of man. The man some say was the original Uncle Sam happened to be the nephew of army contractor Elbert Anderson, who owned a store or slaughterhouse on the Hudson River in Troy, N.Y., and had a contract to supply the Army with salt pork and beef during the War of 1812.

Uncle Sam, a former bricklayer, and his uncle Ebenezer worked as army inspectors and had occasion to inspect the meat Elbert Anderson packed in barrels with the initials "E.A.-U.S." stamped on them. According to a popular version of the story, one soldier asked another what the initials U.S. (United States) meant and his companion jokingly replied that they stood for Elbert Anderson's Uncle Sam. Some respected scholars dispute the story, but no better explanation has been offered for how Uncle Sam became associated with the Army and eventually replaced the earlier Brother Jonathan as a symbol of the U.S. Government. In any case, there was a real Uncle Sam.

Samuel Wilson was born in Menotomy (now Arlington), Mass., in 1766 and died at the ripe old age of 88 in Troy, where he lies buried in the Oakwood Cemetery next to his wife Betsy. The preceding account of the origin of Uncle Sam was widely accepted during Wilson's lifetime, the major objections coming from historian Albert Matthews, who claimed that the name evolved from the initials U.S. stamped on government property, the Uncle Sam possibly being the official who saw to it that these markings were made. The term's 1st recorded use was in the Troy Post of September 7, 1813, which would speak well for the Sam Wilson theory except that the story says the words derive from the initials on government wagons. Regardless of its origin, the term caught on quickly and lasted.

Uncle Sam 1st appeared in cartoons in 1830, but he was clean-shaven and wore a robe rather than trousers until Lincoln's day, when he acquired his goatee and his present attire. His costume was based on that pictured in cartoons of the comic Yankee character Maj. Jack Downing created by humorist Seba Smith, the 1st American homespun philosopher. Today Uncle Sam is best known by the ubiquitous "I Want You" posters the armed forces have used for recruiting purposes. In a recent development, Walter Botts, the model who posed for these posters, was declared ineligible for a veteran's pension--by Uncle Sam.

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