Samuel Wilson was born in 1766 in Arlington, Massachusetts, then one of the North American colonies of the British Empire. Tension between the mother country and the American colonies was a topic of discussion in the Wilson home even before Samuel was born. In 1765, the year before Samuel Wilson was born, the Parliament of Great Britain imposed a direct tax on the American colonies. The Stamp Act required almost all printed materials including legal documents, newspapers, magazines, and even playing cards, to have an embossed revenue stamp. Printed materials not containing the revenue stamp were contraband and deemed illegal. More taxes and other forms of control followed including the Townshend acts, the Tea Act, Intolerable Acts, and the Quebec Act. The situation had reached a boiling point, and in February of 1775, nine-year-old Samuel’s home state was declared to be in a state of rebellion. Two months later, large-scale fighting erupted at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Samuel wanted to do his part, but he was too young. The fighting continued for six long years when, in March of 1781, fourteen-year-old Samuel joined the Continental Army. As a young soldier, most of Samuel’s responsibilities were focused on the Army’s cattle, their main supply of fresh meat. He mended fences, made sure the cattle were healthy and properly fed, and slaughtered and packed the meat for transportation. One of his most important duties was to guard the cattle against enemy saboteurs. It was common for enemies to steal or poison an enemy’s cattle as well as their supply of meat.
The War for Independence ended in October of 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown. Following the war, Samuel and his brother moved to Troy, New York where they operated several successful businesses. In 1793, drawing on his experience in meat packing, Samuel and his brother, Ebenezer, opened what became a profitable meat packing business under the name of E & S Wilson on the Hudson River. Company profits increased when Samuel and his brother built a loading dock for ships on the river.
In June of 1812, America clashed with the British again in what is called the War of 1812. The United States Army was again in need of fresh meats. Samuel’s company received a one-year contract to supply 2,000 barrels of pork and 3,000 barrels of beef to the Army. When the contract expired, the Army appointed Samuel as meat inspector to ensure the meats were fresh and properly packed. He stamped each barrel of meat with a company insignia and the letters “U.S.” for United States.
Soldiers in New York, many of whom were from the Troy area, recognized the company’s insignia and knew the meat had been inspected by Samuel. Local soldiers proudly nicknamed the U.S.-stamped barrels of meat after Samuel. Word quickly spread throughout the ranks and the nickname evolved to include anything which displayed the U.S. stamp. Samuel Wilson, a man who ensured that American soldiers received fresh, safe meat during two wars, was the origin of the image of a man which represents the United States itself.
Because Samuel stamped each barrel of meat with “U.S.”, and because of the nickname the soldiers called him, on September 15, 1961, the United States Congress adopted the following resolution: “Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes [Samuel] Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”
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