September 7th is often credited with being the date, in 1813, that the United States received its moniker Uncle Sam. It’s said that upstate New York butcher Samuel Wilson was the real-life inspiration behind the unofficial “human face” of the U.S. Government. The Troy, NY butcher supposedly stamped cuts of meat he delivered to American troops during the War of 1812 with the initials “U.S.” But the NY Times tells us that a Nebraska professor who has been tracing the origin of the top-hatted elder statesman has turned up an earlier reference. History professor and War of 1812 expert Donald R. Hickey from Wayne State College brings the origin of Uncle Sam back to New York City–the nation’s first capital–and a young midshipman’s use of the Navy slang of the day.
According to Hickey, via The New England Quarterly, the term was first used by one Isaac Mayo, a 16-year-old sailor on the U.S.S. Wasp. Midshipman Mayo reported for duty at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in March of 1810 and spent three weeks helping to get the sloop of war, armed with 18 guns, ready for coastal patrol guarding against British seizure of American cargo and impressment of American seamen.
Mayo’s first night on watch duty happened to be during one of those infamous March snowstorms, and by the young sailor’s written account, his first shift was something less than fun, and involved some serious overtime: “The first night on board was put in for rather more than four hours of the mid watch, through a snowstorm, those 24 hours seemed longer to me that all my previous life,”
The Wasp sailed on March 24, and Mayo was seasick for at least two days, writing that “could I have got on shore in the h[e]ight of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.”
Professor Hickey points to the account as an indication that the term was in use for at least two years before the War of 1812–though he concedes that Sam Wilson may have “had something to do with spreading the moniker’s use.”
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