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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 626

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This is the grave of Samuel Wilson.

Born in 1766 in Arlington, Massachusetts, Wilson mostly grew up in New Hampshire and then joined the Continental Army in 1781, at the tender age of 14. His role in the military was to take care of meat. This was an important role, if one that could be tended to by the young and inexperienced. Meat supplies were really important and they could also be spoiled or poisoned easily. From tending to cattle to meatpacking, this was Wilson’s experience in the Revolutionary War.

In 1789, Wilson and an older brother moved to the new town of Troy, New York. He was a fast-riser in New York society, running a serious of successful businesses and buying property that would later become very valuable. Some of his property had really fantastic clay for brickmaking and that became a major financial source for Wilson. The U.S. didn’t even have much of a brick industry before about 1790. Many of the bricks were imported from the Netherlands. Wilson helped change this. He held various positions in the Troy government as well, including Office Assessor and Path Master, which was the early 19th century version of a road commissioner.

The meatpacking that Wilson had done during the Revolution was one of his income streams. During the War of 1812, this experience became important again. First, his company received a contract to provide a lot of meat. But even more important, Wilson was named the meat inspector for the Army. When he approved the meat, it had a label: “E.A.-U.S.” The first part of that was named for Elbert Anderson, who held the prime meat contract from the Secretary of War; Wilson was more of a subcontractor in the meat providing. The U.S. meant United States. But Wilson already had a nickname in the Troy area–“Uncle Sam.” And soldiers from Troy knew he had this job and so the U.S. began referring to that among those soldiers. Since this was the same initials as United States, the impression of them on military property spread through the military as Uncle Sam. And thus, the folk figure of Uncle Sam was born. Now, there is some debate over whether this is really the whole story of the creation of Uncle Sam. It’s not particularly important really in terms of any larger issue and it’s not always that easy to nail down a specific beginning to any single folk myth or figure. But there’s probably at least something to this. I had never heard of this guy before, but my wife, who grew up in New York, was genuinely excited to see this grave (an unusual occurrence!) because it was a big part of New York mythology/history taught in schools back then. History.com, which my students seem to think is a legitimate source to cite in papers, attempts to give the use of Uncle Sam a specific date and then doesn’t back it up with any useful evidence, which helps explain my students’ use of the site…..

Wilson died in 1854, at the age of 87.

Samuel Wilson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York. He was moved there from a different Troy cemetery at some point.

This grave visit was funded on by LGM reader contributions on my upstate New York trip last month. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit more figures of American folklore, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Ludwig, better known as Molly Pitcher, is in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Betsy Ross is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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