Uncle Sam: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

By: Stell Simonton  | 
Uncle Sam, history
The image of Uncle Sam has evolved throughout the years, but this is the guy we all know and love. Wikimedia Commons

Key Takeaways

  • Uncle Sam, a symbol of authority and power, originated from a 1917 propaganda poster by artist James Montgomery Flagg during WWI.
  • The popular belief that Uncle Sam's name came from meatpacker Sam Wilson during the War of 1812 is disputed by historians like Don Hickey.
  • Uncle Sam's appearance has evolved over time, inspired by earlier characters like Brother Jonathan, and has been used in various contexts beyond wartime propaganda.

When white-haired Uncle Sam leans forwards, fixes a penetrating gaze upon you and points, there's nowhere to hide. He's a man with authority. Dressed in red, white and blue, he's got the full weight and power of the United States of America behind him.

And he wants YOU!


So, just who is this guy Uncle Sam? Where did he come from?

Well, the most famous image of Uncle Sam, created in 1917, is the work of artist James Montgomery Flagg, a painter and illustrator who was asked to create propaganda posters during WW I. Flagg was inspired by a poster of British Minister of War, Lord Kitchener. Flagg, however, used his own face as a model, adding wrinkles and a beard. The poster was printed more than 4 million times in the last year of the war, but Uncle Sam had a life long before that.

"The term 'Uncle Sam' was believed to have come into use during the War of 1812," says Don Hickey, history professor at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska. It was long thought to derive from one "Uncle Sam" Wilson, a Troy, New York, meatpacker who supplied barrels of beef to the army during the War of 1812. The barrels were stamped "U.S." indicating they were government property, and soldiers called them Uncle Sams.

The New York Gazette popularized this story in a 1930 article. The explanation had such credence that Congress passed a resolution in 1961 recognizing Sam Wilson as being the origin of the name.

But historian Hickey finds this tale to be flawed, as detailed in his paper on the subject in the December 4, 2015 issue of The New England Quarterly.

And in 2013, the USS Constitution Museum uncovered an 1810 diary entry from a slightly disgruntled 16-year-old sailor serving on the USS Wasp. The sailor wrote that he'd been so seasick he would have gone ashore if he could. He wrote:

"I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor." This reference shows that Uncle Sam "was clearly part of Navy lingo as early as 1810," Hickey says.

Several other references that show early uses of the term also tend to discredit the Sam Wilson story.

"The whole origin story was wrong," says Christopher Philippo, author and trustee of the Lansingburgh (New York) Historical Society. However, Philippo did uncover a letter written by the minister at Sam Wilson's funeral. In the letter the minister wrote that he'd often talked with Wilson "about the circumstances which led to the singular transfer of his popular name to the United States."

"The Sam Wilson story may have helped popularize the nickname," Philippo says.


Uncle Sam's Changing Appearance

Uncle Sam's flashy appearance has evolved over time, as cartoonists have envisioned and re-envisioned him.

Sam's antecedent was probably Brother Jonathan, a character who appeared in plays, stories and verse, personifying the United States in the late 1700s, in contrast with the character John Bull, who personified Great Britain. Around 1812, Brother Jonathan began appearing in cartoons. He was dressed as an American revolutionary with a long military jacket and tricornered hat.


Uncle Sam first appeared in a cartoon in the 1830s, Hickey says. He and Brother Jonathan were used from the 1830s until the start of the Civil War to represent the United States. They usually wore striped pants, top hats and whiskers. They also appeared in the British magazine Punch, illustrated by cartoonists Sir John Tenniel and John Leech. Brother Jonathan disappeared by the 1860s, but Uncle Sam was taken up by cartoonist Thomas Nast, who often drew him wearing boots and flyaway hair. "Nast fixes the modern image," Hickey says.

Then came WWI and Flagg's well-known posters. He created 44 in all, many featuring Uncle Sam. One of Flagg's kindlier images shows Uncle Sam holding a child in his arms: "BOYS and GIRLS! You can Help your Uncle Sam win the War. Save your Quarters. BUY WAR SAVINGS STAMPS."

The U.S. government used Uncle Sam's image during both world wars. Since then, Sam has been used for other purposes. He's been appropriated for various advocacy messages, Hickey says. For example, a conservative cartoon shows him reduced to a beggar, a message that the U.S. government is spending too much. An anti-war cartoon shows him as a bloodthirsty warmonger. Another shows him as a pothead.

Still, Uncle Sam remains a vivid presence, if a less venerable one. After all, who can forget that he still wants YOU!


Was Uncle Sam always depicted as an older man with a beard?

No, Uncle Sam's appearance has evolved over time as cartoonists reenvisioned him.

What other purposes has Uncle Sam been used for besides government propaganda?

Uncle Sam has been appropriated for various advocacy messages, including conservative, anti-war and cannabis-related cartoons.