Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

New Light on "Uncle Sam"

Last December I commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of what was then the first-known appearance of "Uncle Sam" as a personification of the United States, which turned up in a Bennington, Vermont newspaper. Now, just in time for the Fourth of July, comes new evidence that "Uncle Sam" was in use as early as 1810, more than two years before the phrase's popularization in the War of 1812.

As I describe in my December column, Troy, New York has long claimed "Uncle Sam" as its own. In 1813, a Troy meatpacker named Samuel Wilson was contracted by the U.S. Army to supply meat to the troops. According to local lore, the "U.S." abbreviation that was stamped on Wilson's barrels of meat was jokingly expanded to "Uncle Sam" in his honor.

But word sleuth Barry Popik shot down the Wilson story by finding an example of "Uncle Sam" in the December 23, 1812 issue of the Bennington (Vermont) News-Letter, appearing well before Wilson was awarded the meat contract. Despite that seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Troy partisans have held on to the Wilson tale, as described in a recent article in the Albany Times Union on Popik's discovery.

Those clinging to the idea of Samuel Wilson as the original "Uncle Sam" will now have to grapple with an even earlier attestation. According to Log Lines, the blog of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Mass., "Uncle Sam" as a stand-in for the U.S. government is cited in a March 24, 1810 journal entry by Isaac Mayo, then a Navy midshipman. Here is the museum's transcript:

weighed anchor stood down the harbour, passed Sandy Hook, where there are two light-houses, and put to sea, first and second day out most deadly seasick, oh could I have got on shore in the hight [sic] of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.

The journal entry is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, it's a big jump back in time, more than two and half years before the Bennington example and the various other War of 1812-era citations documented on Popik's website. Second, it's a geographical outlier as well, occurring beyond the Albany/Troy/Bennington region where the expression had been presumed to originate. (In an email discussion, Popik also wondered whether Sandy Hook, N.J. really had two lighthouses in 1810.)

Since Mayo's journal isn't available online in its entirety, we don't yet have any further context for this example. We do know, however, that in 1810 Mayo was 16 or 17 years old, having recently enlisted in the Navy. At the time, he was serving on the USS Wasp, and when the War of 1812 broke out he served on the USS Hornet, receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor. He eventually achieved the rank of commodore, serving in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican War. Later he was assigned to the USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," tracking slave ships off the coast of Africa.

Mayo, who hailed from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, died at his family plantation there in 1861 under mysterious circumstances. He had written a strongly worded letter of resignation to President Lincoln, siding with the Confederacy in the Civil War, which led to his dismissal from the Navy. By the time the dismissal arrived, however, Mayo was dead, evidently from a gunshot wound. According to a 2011 article in the Baltimore Sun on the 150th anniversary of Mayo's death, historians are still uncertain about how he met his demise.

Mayo is a fascinating figure in American history, and it would be somehow fitting if the first known use of "Uncle Sam" should come from his pen when he was a teenager embarking on a long naval career. His complex life tells us much about the conflicts that tore at the nation's fabric in the nineteenth century. So on this Fourth of July, spare a thought for that seasick young sailor trying out the new expression of "Uncle Sam" more than two centuries ago.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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