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9 Things You Might Not Know About Uncle Sam

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Library of Congress // Public Domain

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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Before Bigfoot and Yeti, There Was the Legendary Wampahoofus of Vermont
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Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
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Long before Bigfoot and Yeti became well-known in Western popular culture, another legendary creature was said to roam the woods of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Quite possibly a distant cousin of the rackabore, a pig-like creature, and almost certainly a near-relative of the whangdoodle, which has no defined character, the wampahoofus was a large mammal that evolved with legs longer on one side than on the other. The result was either a left-leaning or right-leaning beast that could move rapidly around mountains and hillsides—but only in one direction, clockwise or counterclockwise. (By some accounts, the males always went clockwise, and the females counter-clockwise.) If, by some chance, it reversed course and ended up on the wrong side of a hill on the short side of its body, it could tumble down the slope to its death.

Although details vary, the wampahoofus (also called the gyascutus or gouger) was said to resemble a mix between a deer and wild boar. While the Vermont varieties had fur, a version with scales is also said to have existed elsewhere. Its color varied from a dark green to an almost glowing orange. Some were three-toed, others had five. There’s even mention of a cloven-hoofed wampahoofus, and one that grew a whistle at the end of its tail.

Males and females usually ignored each other, except during courtship and mating. When that period ended, they’d wander around the mountains, grazing on the vegetation and enjoying the sights below. Yet their herbivore lifestyle was not without its threats.

Although there are few reports of them being hunted, the wampahoofus was always on guard. Their unique limb structure only enabled them to move in certain areas—they never entered the valleys or climbed beyond a certain elevation. Only the females sometimes ventured higher than they should, and then only to nurse their calves. In a piece for Nature Compass, a publication from the Green Mountain Club, writer Maeve Kim said her dad’s great-grandfather once came across five of these “ungainly cows [wampahoofuses], each caring for one nursing calf," and that it was “quite a sight.”

The origins of the wampahoofus are a source of spirited debate. References to similar creatures can be found in records dating back hundreds of years, and not just in America. Sir Thomas Browne, for example, wrote in the 17th century that British Badgers or “Brocks” had legs of varied sizes. “That a Brock or Badger hath the legs on one side shorter then [sic] of the other, though an opinion perhaps not very ancient, is yet very general; received not only by Theorists and unexperienced believers, but assented unto by most who have the opportunity to behold and hunt them daily," he recorded.

However, most agree that this particular hybrid originated in the 1800s before the Civil War, and while Vermont seems the likely “birthplace,” there’s also speculation it was first spotted in northern Maine. Experts (a term used lightly) believe the wampahoofus came to life in the lumber camps of the northern woods.

Back then, logging was the largest and most profitable industry in Vermont and much of New England. Before railways and working roads, logs traveled down lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Lumberjacks spent months deep in the woods cutting trees and sending them off for processing. At night, around the blazing campfires, these hard-working men killed time sharing far-fetched stories and crafting all sorts of mythical and legendary creatures. Their vivid imaginations may well have sparked the tales of the wampahoofus and related variations elsewhere.

In Fearsome Critters, one of many collections of lumberjack folklore, author Henry Tyron described the migration of the wampahoofus, which he referred to as gougers, from east to west. “Normal Gougers must obviously, travel around the hillside, and in making their daily rounds for food they wear the characteristic, partly gouged-out paths so familiar to woodsmen. These paths were once very common in New England, but today they are thought to be most frequently seen in the partly forested regions of the West,” he wrote. One source told him that the gouger population had grown “too thick” in New England, and “There warn’t enough food to go around and somebody just had to move out.”

Other accounts claim that a pair of entrepreneurial New Englanders brought a wampahoofus (here called a gyascutus) south on a circus-style traveling show, although all that the eager crowd ever witnessed was a set of furry feet peeking from below an elaborate curtain. The showman would poke at the drape, causing the creature to wail and scream. Amidst the chaos, an alarm went off and the creature would escape unseen. A Midwestern newspaper warned residents of this “formidable animal" on the loose, stating that “there is no knowing the amount of mischief he may occasion while roaming at large and disturbing the cogitations of those quiet people who know nothing about him.” Yet, somehow, the Yankees always recaptured the devious beast and had it ready for the next show a few towns away.

Fact or fiction, evolution didn’t work out well for the wampahoofus. Although a left-leaning wampahoofus could mate with a right-leaning one, the result was a severely deformed offspring with mismatched legs—a poor hybrid that could not move and often perished soon after birth. As time passed, both the left-leaning and right-leaning wampahoofus’s legs became shorter and shorter. Eventually, mating became impossible and the species died out.

Today, the last traces of this elusive creature can be seen along Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, where the Wampahoofus Trail intersects the journey to the summit. (The path was reportedly named by a professor who thought a nearby rock formation looked like the legendary creature.) These days, hikers may giggle at the trail's name, and some might snap a picture—but few know the woods are a place where a strange, wobbling creature once roamed.

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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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