Troy, NY

Uncle Sam Wants You...to Know He Was Real

Mannequin of Uncle Sam at Rensselaer County Historical Society museum in Troy, NY

America’s iconic Uncle Sam was based on a real person, Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, but this isn’t the way he dressed. The manikin is part of Troy’s celebration of Wilson, which includes a permanent exhibition in the local historical society building.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

PRETTY NEARLY everyone can describe Uncle Sam, the symbolic face of the United States. He has a top hat, a goatee, red-and-white striped pants and a blue jacket (colours borrowed from Old Glory, the U.S. national flag), right?

Wrong. “Uncle Sam was in fact clean-shaven and he dressed in traditional clothes,” says Kathryn Sheehan, county historian for the area that includes Troy.

Yes, there was a real Uncle Sam. His name was Sam Wilson (1766-1854) and he lived in Troy, 13 kilometres northeast of Albany, the New York state capital. Even the U.S. Congress agrees that he was real. It passed a resolution in 1961 saluting “Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy…as the progenitor of America’s national symbol.”

A copy of the famous Uncle Sam poster in Troy’s city hall is a reminder of how the image got a massive boost in 1917 when America entered the First World War. Millions of these posters—created by artist James Montgomery Flagg—appeared on billboards and at recruiting stations across America, showing Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer, with the words “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” in bold type beneath.

Today, Uncle Sam pops up everywhere in Troy. There’s the Uncle Sam bus stop, the Uncle Sam parking garage, Uncle Sam plaques and a statue downtown. The city logo mentions him and his image appears on all city materials, from police cars to recycling bins. The mayor’s office is full of Uncle Sam doodads, including miniatures of the icon and the door from Sam Wilson’s residence (now demolished).

A permanent exhibition, Uncle Sam: the Man in Life and Legend, occupies part of the Rensselaer County Historical Society building at 57 Second Street.

And then there’s Sam’s final resting place. As we approach Oakwood Cemetery, historian Sheehan says, “You will be surprised at his grave. People expect some sort of huge monument.” In fact, there are two simple horizontal gravestones (Sam’s and his wife’s), and a metre-high slab with a bronze plaque erected in 1931.

Sheehan fills in the story. “Sam was quite an entrepreneur,” she says. “He and his brothers were brick-makers. Then, when the War of 1812 came along, they went into the meatpacking business as well. Sam supplied meat to the army, with the letters ‘U.S.’ stamped on the barrels to distinguish them from meat supplied to the locals.

“He was known all over town as Uncle Sam, and the story goes that soldiers joked that the stamp on the barrels meant ‘Uncle Sam’ rather than ‘United States’.” And so the idea spread that Uncle Sam meant the government. Not much connection was made between the man and the symbol during Wilson’s lifetime, but when he died in 1854 the obituaries resurrected the story. It was picked up by the wire services and transmitted all over the country. Cartoonists latched on to it and Wilson emerged as the white-bearded, red, white and blue–clad symbol of America.

Says Sheehan: “Sam never knew he was going to become such an iconic figure.”



For more information visit the Rensselaer County Historical Society website at www.rchsonline.org.

For information on travel in New York state visit the New York State Tourism website at www.iloveny.com.