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9 Things You Might Not Know About Uncle Sam

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March 13 marks the anniversary of Uncle Sam’s first American depiction, but in the beginning, he didn’t look much like a Fourth of July float or that famous “I Want You!” military recruitment poster. The first illustrated American Uncle Sam isn’t even the hero of his own cartoon. Here’s a look at our national personification, his strange history, and his even stranger family tree. 

1. HE FIRST APPEARED IN AN EDITORIAL CARTOON CRITICAL OF THE UNITED STATES.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On March 13, 1852, the New York Lantern published an editorial cartoon titled “Raising the Wind; or, Both Sides of the Story,” criticizing United States policies on shipping. Cartoonist Frank Bellew depicted John Bull, the anthropomorphized representation of Great Britain, pumping a bellows to help his ships sail across a small tub. Uncle Sam, a fellow with a big hat and striped pants, stood on the side and watched. This was the first time anyone in the U.S. had drawn Uncle Sam, although by some accounts there were earlier depictions in London's Punch, and the character was by no means Bellew’s creation. 

2. THE NAME MIGHT GO BACK TO A MEAT PACKER.

According to many sources, linking the young United States to the name “Uncle Sam” dates back to the War of 1812 (though some historians differ on the details). The most widely known version goes like this: The Americans were fighting the British at the Canadian border, and a Troy, New York, man named Samuel Wilson saw an opportunity for profit. He got in with the military delivering meat to them packed in barrels, which were labeled “U.S.” to indicate the seller. Wilson was widely liked and highly regarded among both the locals and the soldiers, who began joking that obviously the initials referred to his own name, rather than the government’s. The joke stuck, as did Wilson’s fame—his birthday, September 13, has been celebrated as Uncle Sam Day since 1989.

3. HE WASN’T THE FIRST FIGURE TO REPRESENT THE NEW COUNTRY.

"Brother Jonathan" welcoming other countries to U.S. Centennial circa 1876, LOC via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The figure of Brother Jonathan predates even the Revolutionary War, with possible connections to the Puritan Roundheads of the English Civil War. Early on, he was used to describe New England, and came to mean Yankees in general. George Washington was said to refer to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull by the name, though that story may be apocryphal. Loyalists to the crown also used the term dismissively to refer to Revolution-era patriots. By some accounts, Uncle Sam evolved out of Brother Jonathan, and the two figures were used interchangeably from the 1830s-1860s.

4. AT ONE POINT, AMERICA WAS A WOMAN.

Spirit of the Frontier, John Gast, 1872, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, it was Columbia who embodied the young nation. Inspired by classical Roman imagery and derived from the sailor Christopher Columbus’s name, she appeared throughout art, architecture, and media of the 18th and 19th centuries as a warrior, a guardian, and an innocent girl. She was the American Britannia, and “Hail, Columbia!” was an unofficial national anthem. The colonial black poet Phillis Wheatley even sent George Washington an inspirational poem about the figure. Columbia gave her name to the 1893 World’s Fair, widely known as the Columbian Exposition. Yet her popularity fell as Uncle Sam’s rose, and by World War I she was eclipsed by her sister: Lady Liberty.

5.  A FAMOUS CARTOONIST GAVE HIM HIS BEARD.

When it comes to creating iconography, cartoonist Thomas Nast was a giant in the American landscape of the Civil War and the later 19th century. He created the kindly, sentimental version of Santa Claus we recognize today, and devised (or by some accounts just popularized) the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant to represent the two political parties. He was also famous for his cartoons of Abraham Lincoln, so it’s not surprising that certain elements of Lincoln made their way onto his versions of Uncle Sam, who became a little gaunter, a little older, and sprouted facial hair for the first time

6. THE MOST FAMOUS IMAGE OF UNCLE SAM WAS FOR A RECRUITMENT POSTER.

A war often means recruitment drives, and recruitment drives need art to bring in recruits. The most famous conception of Uncle Sam comes from artist James Montgomery Flagg, who created his first version of his iconic image for the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in 1916. The British had great success with a similar design using war hero Lord Kitchener to drive enlistment two years earlier, perhaps inspiring Flagg’s effort. Flagg’s painting graced 4 million posters between 1917 and 1918. He’d used himself as a visual reference for the first version, but when World War II rolled around, he enlisted an Indiana man named Walter Botts, who’d modeled for Norman Rockwell, to pose for an update.

7. THE “UNCLE SAM” NAME HAS BECOME ASSOCIATED WITH OTHER PATRIOTIC FIGURES.

Ulysses Grant circa 1855. Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Before he was the 18th president, or even a Union leader, Ulysses Grant was born with a different first name: Hiram. When he was nominated to attend West Point as a teenager, however, his sponsor somehow copied his name as “Ulysses S. Grant” instead of “Hiram Ulysses Grant.” (Some say the s was a reference to his mother's family name, Simpson.) Once he arrived at the military academy, his classmates decided the “S” must stand for Sam, as in Uncle Sam, and it became his nickname even after graduation.

8. IT’S ALSO LINKED TO SOME COMIC BOOK HEROES.

Remember Samuel Wilson, the possibly original Uncle Sam? That’s also the name of Marvel Comics’ first African-American superhero, the Falcon. However intentional or not that may have been, Marvel’s Sam Wilson is currently Captain America in print. It doesn’t get much more patriotic than that.

9. THE WILSONS ARE STILL KEEPING UP THE FAMILY NAME.

Uncle Sam Memorial Statue, Arlington, Massachusetts. Image:Daderot via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

In July 2015, the genealogy website MyHeritage confirmed that one family in Arkansas is, in fact, directly descended from the famous Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York. Helen Painter told ABC News that MyHeritage wasn’t revealing anything new to them. “My grandmother was the daughter of Carlton Sheldon, who was Marion Wilson’s son, and she was the granddaughter of Samuel,” she said. “Granny always kept us very informed.”

Painter’s eldest son has served in the Navy for more than 20 years, while she is a nurse. She made a point of linking Wilson’s spirit of service to her family’s today. “Whether it’s an icon or the person who did more menial jobs that never got that recognition, there are a lot of wonderful people who have done a lot of wonderful things,” she told ABC News. “Hopefully, we can continue to do great things to take care of each other, whether it’s handing out meat or Band-Aids or handing out a smile or a pat on the back.”

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There’s a $1 Million Bounty on Bigfoot
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If you’re a Pennsylvania resident with evidence of giant ape-men trespassing in your backyard, Tom Biscardi wants to hear from you. The self-described “Godfather of Bigfoot” and his team of trackers are offering a $1 million bounty for "information leading to the capture or delivery of a bona fide Bigfoot," the Associated Press reports.

Biscardi has been searching for Bigfoot for 50 years. He was inspired to start the lifelong quest in 1967 after watching the Patterson-Gimlin film, a 59-second clip of what appears to be a large, furry creature striding around Bluff Creek in California.

In the time since, Biscardi has produced Bigfoot documentaries, launched a Bigfoot-hunting podcast, and founded Searching for Bigfoot, Inc., an organization dedicated to locating the legendary creature. Now he’s calling on the public to share any leads they may have on the cryptid’s whereabouts.

The hefty reward means the Searching for Bigfoot team is investigating up to 30 tips a day, most of which end up going nowhere. Most recently, Biscardi and his team, which includes his son T.J. and his grandson Tommy, were lured to the woods of Crawford County, Pennsylvania in search of hard evidence. They found one eroded heel print and sticks in unnatural arrangements, but Sasquatch himself was a no-show. "I want a creature," T.J. Biscardi told AP. "I'm done with pictures, done with prints, done with hair samples, done with fecal matter."

Even if they are able to capture a specimen of an animal most scientists agree doesn’t exist, convincing the public of its authenticity will be a challenge. Tom Biscardi has been involved with a few hoaxes in his career, including the discovery of a frozen Bigfoot “body” that turned out to be a rubber suit. Then there’s the legal complications involved with hunting a Bigfoot: Shooting the hypothetical beast for sport is against the law in some states, so Pennsylvania citizens might want to check with their wildlife department before setting off to claim the $1 million trophy.

[h/t WPXI]

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Is It Legal to Shoot Bigfoot?
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As long as there have been legends of mysterious ape men roaming the woods, there have been people determined to find them. Traps, cable TV shows, and continent-wide organizations exist for the sole purpose of locating Bigfoot. But for all the time and energy spent tracking the elusive creature, the proper protocol on what to do on the off-chance it’s found remains unclear. Should Bigfoot hunters play dead? Lure it to civilization with beef jerky? Shoot it between the eyes and deliver it to their local taxidermist?

Before setting off on your next Bigfoot hunt, you might want to check with your state’s wildlife department. It’s true that Sasquatch is legendary, but the cryptid still receives hypothetical legal protection in some parts of the country.

The first place to outlaw Bigfoot slaughter explicitly was Skamania County, Washington. In 1969, two years after the release of the controversial Patterson-Gimlin film, the county found itself caught in the heat of peak Bigfoot fever. Believers flooded the Pacific Northwest with plans to track down the stealthy beast—and, as the Board of County Commissioners soon noticed, many visitors brought dangerous hunting weapons with them. Not only did this pose a risk to potential Bigfoots, but it also threatened the residents living in these supposed Sasquatch hotspots. More concerned with the safety of the latter than the former, the commissioners passed an official ordinance [PDF] stating that slaying Bigfoot was a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Still from the Patterson–Gimlin film. Image source: AHMED YOUSRY/YouTube.

By 1984 the Bigfoot craze had settled down and legislators recategorized the intentional murder of Bigfoot as a gross misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and/or a $1000 fine. The same amendment also named Bigfoot an endangered species in Skamania County and declared all land within their borders to be a “Sasquatch Refuge.”

Not all places hold such a humanitarian attitude toward the mythical monster. In Texas, for example, it is perfectly legal to hunt and kill Bigfoot. At least that’s according to L. David Sinclair, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's chief of staff, who responded to an email about the legalities of Bigfoot hunting in 2012. He wrote:

“If the Commission does not specifically list an indigenous, non-game species, then the species is considered non-protected non-game wildlife [...] A non-protected non-game animal may be hunted on private property with landowner consent by any means, at any time.”

Because Bigfoot isn’t recognized as an official species by the state of Texas, hunting one is technically allowed (with the proper license and permissions, of course). California takes the opposite approach when dealing with cryptids: The state keeps a record of non-game mammals in the California Code of Regulations. If any animal is missing from that list, as is the case with Bigfoot, that means it can’t be hunted legally.

Oregon follows a similar policy to California’s in that any animal not classified under Oregon wildlife laws is considered “prohibited.” Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, Oregon has a long history of alleged Sasquatch encounters. “[We] receive periodic reports of Bigfoot sightings,” Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, tells mental_floss. Instead of going after Bigfoot with a gun, Dennehy suggests a legal (and tongue-in-cheek) alternative for trackers planning their next expedition.

When it comes to capturing Bigfoot, a super-sized live trap is the way to go. According to Dennehy, “The cage trap should be large enough to allow Bigfoot to have sufficient space to turn, stand, and lay naturally and of sufficient strength to prevent escape.” An extra-large cage from Havahart, the brand she recommends, is only big enough to contain a bobcat, so Bigfoot hunters will likely need to have a trap custom-made. Because Bigfoot falls under “prohibited” status, transporting, selling, or exchanging the animal is against the law in Oregon. The best course of action for any Bigfoot hunters who find success on their mission would be to call the wildlife department and allow state officials to handle it from there.

There’s one more major factor that makes killing Bigfoot a bad idea no matter where in the country you find yourself: If the hirsute victim is deemed to be more human than ape, the crime could count as manslaughter. Skamania County, Washington addressed this possibility in their Bigfoot ordinance of 1984, saying: “Should the Skamania County Coroner determine any victim/creature to have been humanoid, the Prosecuting Attorney shall pursue the case under existing laws pertaining to homicide.” And if the target turns out to be just a person in a Bigfoot costume (which, let’s face it, is more likely than the alternative) the consequences wouldn’t be any less severe. Just something to keep in mind if you had your heart set on collecting a Sasquatch trophy.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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