The heritage of Samuel Wilson, better known as “Uncle Sam,” will be celebrated in Troy on Saturday, June 8, with a variety of events. Wilson’s legacy of Uncle Sam was not solidified until well after his death.
Though he wasn’t widely recognized until long after his death, a well-known meat packer from the City of Troy is the pride and joy of Trojans today.
Samuel Wilson made his way to the City of Troy from New Hampshire in 1789. Four years later, in March of 1783, Wilson and his brother, Ebeneezer, started a meat packing business located between what is now known as Congress Street and Jefferson Street.
That company was awarded a contract to supply the United States forces with pork and beef.
“There was a place where troops gathered called the Cantonment in Greenbush, and because a lot of troops were pulled from the area they would see barrels marked U.S. (indicating United States) and knew they were coming from Samuel Wilson’s meat packing business,” said Stacy Draper, curator at the Rensselaer County Historical Society. “They would say, ‘Oh, those are Uncle Sam’s.’”
Over time, anything marked with the initials became linked with Wilson’s name, leading to the idea that Uncle Sam symbolized the United States.
“It was at a time that our nation was young and was looking for some sort of icon to represent our nation, just like the English had John Bull as a national symbol and the French had a number of other images,” Draper said. “Countries tended to have almost political cartoon images that were used.”
Draper adds that the United States had often used the female image of Liberty, but as time evolved it was Uncle Sam that began to take over.
The most famous portrait of Uncle Sam is the “I WANT YOU” Army recruiting poster from World War I.
Wilson died in 1854, but it wasn’t until after his death that he officially became an American icon.
“In the early 20th century there was a movement to recognize Samuel Wilson as the originator of the Uncle Sam symbol,” Draper said. “It took a number of years until 1961 when in September Congress passed a resolution stating that Troy’s Samuel Wilson was the progenitor of the national symbol.”