Yes, Virginia, There Was a REAL Uncle Sam
Oh, sure, people in the states of Delaware and Indiana still think Uncle Sam was a Sam Wilson, born in Wilmington, Delaware, and buried in Merriam, Indiana. But in the 1960s, even the United States Congress recognized the New England-born Samuel Wilson as the Uncle Sam. And, as is the case in so many so-called legends, a series of minor historical circumstances had to follow one after another. In our Uncle Sam’s case, there were 10.
1. The Wilson family, who moved in 1780 from what is now Arlington, Massachusetts, to Mason, New Hampshire, had to decide to name one of their 11 children Samuel. That was an essential first step.
2. As an adult, Sam had to somehow get to Troy, New York, or at least a place accessible to oceangoing ships. As it happened, Sam and his brother, Eben, walked from Mason to Troy in order to seek their fortunes. If they had instead walked to, say, Worcester, Massachusetts, for instance, everything would have been different.
3. Sam had to become involved in a meatpacking business in Troy and the word “uncle” had to be a common word of endearment in that area at that time. In fact, “Uncle” Sam and his brother, “Uncle” Eben, eventually employed over a hundred men and slaughtered a thousand head of cattle weekly.
4. The United States had to go to war. It did. We call it the War of 1812.
5. The government had to award the Eben & Samuel Wilson Company a contract to supply meat to the United States Army. It saw fit to do so.
6. “Uncle” Sam Wilson had to be appointed government inspector of meat. Because he was in the right place at the right time, he was appointed. (Despite what would today be considered a bit of a conflict of interest.)
7. Part of his job as government inspector had to be to brand his and Eben’s own white oak barrels containing their own meat with the initials of the United States. It was.
8. Barrels of meat so branded had to be piled up on the dock where passenger ships also landed. They were indeed placed precisely there.
9. A debarking passenger had to be curious enough one day to ask someone on the dock, preferably a Wilson employee, why the meat barrels were all labeled with the initials “U.S.” It happened, and the person asked was one of Sam and Eben’s employees.
10. The person asked had to reply, “Oh, those initials mean ‘Uncle Sam’ — he and his brother own everything around here, and they’re even feeding the whole Army!”
Well, there may have been a few more steps that had to occur, and they obviously all did. Including the fact that our country at that time seemed to need a personification of the American character.
Naturally, not everyone agrees with everything anyone says on the subject. For instance, some maintain that it was New York governor George D. Tompkins who asked about the initials, not a disembarking passenger (from, as it so happens, Robert Fulton’s Firefly). Be that as it may, we can say with assurance that long before Sam Wilson of Arlington, Massachusetts, passed away in 1854, everyone was saying “Uncle Sam” and meaning our country. A true legend was made.
So, as we celebrate our independence from Britain this July Fourth, we can all be thankful that the Wilson brother who happened to be appointed government meat inspector had not instead been “Uncle Eben.”
I guess you could call that a historical close call!