The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday Uncle Sam

As we celebrate our Independence Day, it might surprise you to know that though we view Uncle Sam as a fictitious national symbol, there truly lived a man named Uncle Sam.

Samuel Wilson was born on Sept. 13, 1766, in Menotomy, Mass., which is now Arlington. He was eight years old when Paul Revere traveled past the Wilson home yelling, “The British are coming.” The next day, supply wagons, accompanied by 18 British troops, took a wrong turn in the area unfamiliar to them and arrived in the town of Menotomy and not Lexington, where they were headed. They were captured; their supply wagons taken down a ravine on the Wilson property and turned over. All of this had to have produced great excitement for Sam and his 12 siblings, giving them events they would never forget.

When Sam was 14, the family moved to New Hampshire, where they were living when they welcomed home two sons from the Revolutionary War. It was also from here where Sam, now 22, set off for the West with his brother, Ebenezer, 27. This began the journey which would give us our country’s Uncle Sam. The west to them was Troy, N.Y., on the east side of the Hudson River, a navigational destination point. The brothers set up a brick-making business and with that business flourishing, they opened a meat packing operation, building a dock on the Hudson River for easy transport of their processed beef and pork, which they also raised. These very enterprising men advertised in 1805 that they could “butcher and pack one hundred fifty head of cattle per day.” They were able to do this as they made their own barrels for their salted meat, and by also dealing in salt, they had easy access to the amount needed.

As luck would have it, their meat packing business was so successful they were able to bid on, and were awarded, a government contract when the War of 1812 broke out. The contractor for the government was Elbert Anderson, and it was then the casks of meat from the business of the two brothers, E. & S. Wilson, were stamped “E. A. – U. S.” At this time Samuel Wilson was known within the community as Uncle Sam because of his large number of nephews and nieces. It was easy for the employees of their meat packing business for the stamped “U.S.” to mean Uncle Sam rather than United States. It wasn’t long before the soldiers was referring to all government property as Uncle Sam’s. By 1814, the name “Uncle Sam” was referred to in print, and the nation was viewing the birth a new national symbol.

As truth is always stranger than fiction — through an ironic coincidence, Betsey Mann, Uncle Sam’s wife, was a cousin of John Chapman, who became an American icon known as Johnny Appleseed.

Have a Happy Independence Day!

Sue Parrish is a retired museum director and author of the book, “Days Gone By.”

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