Uncle Sam, the iconic figure dressed in red, white and blue from his top hat to his striped slacks, has long been a symbol representing the United States.
But there was a real “Uncle Sam” who played a significant part in the development of the figure of Uncle Sam.
On a recent visit to the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy, about a 4½-hour drive from Buffalo (and 10 minutes north of Albany) my family and I learned about the history of the man behind the legend.
The historical society’s permanent exhibit, “Uncle Sam: the Man in Life and Legend,” chronicles the life of Samuel Wilson (1766-1854), Troy’s most famous son. We started our visit by viewing the short film about Wilson, which is narrated by the late actor E.G. Marshall. We learned that Samuel Wilson was born in Massachusetts and as a young adult he decided to head west with his brother Ebenezer to find work. The pair ended up in Troy as the city was attracting many New Englanders.
The Wilson brothers first found success in brick making. In 1793, they decided to start a meat packing business and it was through this business that Sam Wilson became known as Uncle Sam. Wilson was jolly and generous and everyone who knew him, including his 200 employees, called him “Uncle Sam.”
During the War of 1812, Sam and Ebenezer became the supplier of meat to soldiers in the United States Army; they provided meat in barrels marked “US” for United States. However, it became a joke among his workers that the US stamp meant “Uncle Sam.”
As you walk through the exhibit you’ll see a number of items on display, such as costumes, wooden figures, toys, sheet music, photos and more, including a copy of the World War I era I Want You for the US Army poster designed by James Montgomery Flagg. Displayed in the foyer of the museum is a 1937 mural depicting Uncle Sam. This mural was originally installed behind the bar of the Hendrick Hudson Hotel which was located in downtown Troy.
As early as the 1830s, Wilson was considered the real person behind the national symbol of Uncle Sam, which evolved in appearance over the years. Wilson, who was active and highly respected in the community, possessed qualities that Americans wanted to have represented in their national symbol. It wasn’t until 1961, however, that Wilson was officially recognized by an Act of Congress to be the Uncle Sam that stands for the United States.
Another exhibit at the Rensselaer County Historical Society is Visions of Troy 200 Years a City 1816-2016, which focuses on the city’s bicentennial. This exhibit runs through Dec. 17. The museum also holds history walks every at 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning in May, June, September, and October.
As you stroll through Troy’s downtown area you’ll see many Uncle Sam images, symbols and names of businesses that have Uncle Sam as part of its name, like Uncle Sam bus stops, Uncle Sam plaques and even an Uncle Sam parking garage. You’ll see Uncle Sam images on everything from police cars to recycling bins.
Just a short walk from the Rensselaer County Historical Society, at the junction of Third, Fulton and River streets by Riverfront Park, is a large metal statue of Uncle Sam. The statue was dedicated in 1980 and is a local landmark. Be sure to take a walk through Riverfront Park, which is located along the Hudson River. On Saturday mornings a farmers market takes place in the park.
If you have the time, you can take a walking tour through Troy by following the Uncle Sam Trail; there are a number of markers in various spots throughout the city which mark the sites of where Wilson’s homes and businesses stood.
After visiting the historical society and the monument, we decided to pay our respects to Wilson and headed to Oakwood Cemetery, just north of the city, where Samuel Wilson is buried. Once inside the gates we followed the signs provided by the local DAR Chapter, to Wilson’s grave, which is marked with a flagpole. The grave marker reads:
“In Loving Memory of Uncle Sam/the name originating with Samuel Wilson 1766-1854 during the War of 1812 and since adopted by the United States.”
If you go
• Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 Second St., Troy; (518) 272-7232; rchsonline.org. Open noon to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, February-December.
• Troy Waterfront Farmers Market, Riverfront Park, Troy; troymarket.org; from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
• Oakwood Cemetery, 50 101st St., Troy (for GPS, use 186 Oakwood Ave., Troy); (518) 272-7520; oakwoodcemetery.org. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Directions: From Buffalo take the New York State Thruway (I-90) east to I-87 north to exit 7 toward Troy.