Uncle Sam Wilson

Uncle Sam Poster.jpgThis weekend the Collar City celebrates its most famous son -- Uncle Sam -- with its annual Uncle Sam Parade and Festival.

You can't drive through Troy without seeing all kinds of monuments to Uncle Sam: a statue, a bus depot, a bowling alley. (You'd think he was some sort of pork distributing state senator.) And, of course, there's the famous image.

But the inspiration for that image was a businessman and meat distributor who probably didn't look a thing like the famous recruitment poster.

Sam Wilson came to Troy from Massachusetts in the 1790s with his brother Ebenezer. Troy was a young city, and the Wilson brothers set out to make money in the brick business. Their bricks built Troy's second courthouse (no longer standing) and the first Presbyterian church.

Wilson owned orchards in the area that is Troy's Prospect Park today and his cattle grazed in the 8th Street area, on the land where EMPAC now sits.

So what did he have to do with the guy on the US Army recruiting posters?

The Wilson brothers went into the meat packing business and got the contract to sell meat to the Army during the war of 1812. Their salted meat was shipped to troops in the Greenbush area in barrels stamped with US. The troops connected the stamp with their supplier -- Sam Wilson -- -- and joked it stood for "Uncle Sam." When they traveled, Sam Wilson's reputation traveled with them.

OK, so that's how Sam Wilson became connected with the Army -- but what about the image?

Nobody knows for sure what Sam Wilson looked like because he died before cameras came into widespread use. There are a few portraits (like the one below) that people claim are him, but there's no proof.


The image we know as Uncle Sam evolved from a British cartoon -- that of John Bull -- which came to represent Great Britain.

The image morphed a bit over the years. The 19th century cartoonist and satirist Thomas Nast is responsible for the concept of Uncle Sam that we know today. And the most popular image, the Uncle Sam of the recruiting posters, was created by artist and illustrator James Montgomery Flagg around 1917. The finger pointing image was also taken from a British poster of the British Lord Kitchener in a similar pose.

Sam Wilson died in Troy in 1854 at the age of 87. He's buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

The Rensselaer County Historical Society is currently running an Uncle Sam exhibit with info both about the actual Sam Wilson and Uncle Sam. On Saturday, they're offering a walking tour focused on Wilson.

Incidentally, a while back we told you about Troy's second most famous figure. There is no parade for her.

(Thanks to the RCHS)

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