Bob wants you to know about Uncle Sam

Bob wants you to know about Uncle Sam By Bob Karolevitz It's time for another history lesson, and the subject this week is Uncle Sam.

We have all grown up with the lanky patriotic character with red, white and blue garb, the chin whiskers and top hat, but we mostly don't know where he came from or how he eventually evolved to be a symbol of our country.

I'll try to correct that for you.

The most accepted version of how Uncle Sam came about dates back to the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and a real person was involved. He was Samuel Wilson, a government meat inspector, whose job it was to okay barrels of beef and pork being shipped to Army troops of Gen. Henry Dearborn.

Wilson had been born in Menotomy, MA, on Sept. 13, 1766, exactly 255 years ago this month. He was the eighth in a family of 13 children, and when he was 23, he and his older brother, Ebenezer, migrated to Troy, NY, then called Vanderheyden. There they established a slaughtering and meat-packing business.

Both young men were said to be personable and well-liked, and they became known as Uncle Ez and Uncle Sam. Apparently they tried their hand at other things, too, like farming, liquor distilling and brick-making.

When the War of 1812 erupted, Sam � who by then was 46 � was appointed to inspect the meat sold to the government by Elbert Anderson Jr., a contract supplier. The tightly packed barrels of white oak given Wilson's okay were stamped on top and bottom with "E.A.-U.S."

The initials, of course, stood for Anderson and the ultimate purchaser, but then one of those strange historical aberrations took place. Supposedly a young acquaintance of Sam Wilson (or was it one of the soldiers?) said the U.S. stood for Uncle Sam, the inspector.

Soon troopers were calling their rations "Uncle Sam's meat," and the label � though erroneous � caught on. Political cartoonists in New York and Washington came up with varying caricatures of what was to become a national symbol.

Sam Wilson himself probably never wore a beard or dressed in long striped trousers, a frock coat and star-spangled top hat. That was the gradual creation of various cartoonists, vaudeville actors and even the famous printmakers, Currier and Ives, who saw him as sort of a Benjamin Franklin character. Historians, however, credit the popular British magazine Punch with being responsible for the modern concept.

In 1869 the German-born cartoonist, Thomas Nast (who also is said to have created the Republican elephant and Democrat donkey), drew his version of Uncle Sam which was the standard depiction for half a century, the Punch drawing not withstanding.

Finally in 1918 artist James Montgomery Flagg painted the historical "I Want You" recruitment poster of World War I, and thereafter Uncle Sam became the stern, bewhiskered figure which most everyone knows more than eight decades later.

In 1950 the U.S. State Department commissioned Herbert Noxon to paint an official portrait of a friendlier, seemingly shorter personification of the Sam Wilson legend. By then he (Wilson) was almost forgotten, but in 1961 a Congressional resolution at long last recognized him as the true originator of America's lovable character.

Unfortunately, the Encyclopedia Britannica says the origin of Uncle Sam is unknown and calls the 1812 version of the story "not very credible." Be that as it may, the Sam Wilson legend lives on, and Congress � in its wisdom � has apparently settled the matter.

Now, as Paul Harvey says, you know the rest of the story.

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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