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Outsize Personality: The "Real" Uncle Sam

“I Want You.” You’ve seen the recruitment posters: an older white-haired gentleman draped in red, white and blue formal wear, a tuft of a beard hanging off his chin and a top hat perched on his head. He looks stone cold serious and his pointer finger singles you out. Much like a movie that’s based on a real story, the iconic character of Uncle Sam is said to be inspired by a 19th century Troy businessman named Samuel Wilson. The legend begins in October 1812 when Wilson, a 46-year-old meatpacker and brickmaker, answered an advertisement in a newspaper soliciting bids for providing meat to the United States war effort. He answered the ad and began producing barrels of beef and pork for the Greenbush Cantonment, an official Army base just a few miles south of Troy. The barrels were stamped with the letters “US-EA” for United States and Elbert Anderson, who contracted Wilson for the job. Kathy Sheehan, Rensselaer County Historical Society’s historian, said that Wilson’s nephews, who always referred to him as “Uncle Sam,” delivered and unloaded the barrels. The troops picked up on the name and began calling him that as well, and spread legends that the “U.S.” imprinted on the barrels actually stood for “Uncle Sam.” These stories continued and were shared with famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created “portraits” of Uncle Sam that were popular at the time. References to Uncle Sam eventually rose to prominence during the Civil War; then, in 1917, artist James Montgomery Flagg created the most famous Uncle Sam image: the ubiquitous “I want you” recruitment poster used in military recruitment campaigns in both World Wars.

Uncle Sam Monument
" Massachusetts State Route 60" by  Doug Kerr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“[Samuel Wilson] died in 1854 never knowing he was going to be famous,” Ms. Sheehan said. Like any tale, some liberties have probably been taken with the story of Uncle Sam. According to Ms. Sheehan, he was a tall man, but the goatee and patriotic colors are more of a caricature. She says he was very involved in the community. As a brickmaker, he built many buildings in the downtown area. He was a trustee at the Baptist church and he became an inspector for the Army in the War of 1812. Since that time, Uncle Sam's character has assumed the role of army recruiter and is, in general, synonymous with the U.S. government. In Troy, the legacies of Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam have melded together and are omnipresent. A life-sized statue of Uncle Sam stand on River Street, bearing the iconic costume of the fictional Uncle Sam, but erected in honor of the town’s very real native son. A permanent exhibit at the Rensselaer County Historical Society museum contains artifacts including a chamber pot from his home, a brick that he produced, and a multitude of memorabilia. Most notable is the declaration signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 stating that the City of Troy is the official home of Uncle Sam.

Samuel Wilson died of old age in 1854. He is interred at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy with his wife and three children. “Thousands of people visit [the grave] each year from near and far,” said Bernie Vogel, administrator of the cemetery.

Uncle Sam has become a source of pride for many residents and a tourist attraction for the city. Even the local bowling alley is named after him. Most recently, Uncle Sam has been featured in a public art project. Troy’s Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) received a $35,000 grant from the Louis and Hortense Rubin Community Fellows Program to pay for 30 fiberglass statues of Troy’s poster child, Uncle Sam. The BID reached out to 25 local artists and five school groups to paint each of the statues, which were then placed around the downtown streets and in front of local businesses.

“You can’t miss these Uncle Sams, so when you walk down the street they definitely pull you in. So I’m hoping that we enlighten some people to the wonderful history that’s right on every sidewalk here in Troy,” said Elizabeth Young, executive director of the Downtown BID.

Sixteen of the 30 statues are being auctioned off as part of a fundraiser for the BID and some proceeds will go to the five participating schools. The auction will culminate with the BID’s second annual fundraising dinner, Dec. 4 at Franklin Plaza. The remaining statues will remain in downtown Troy, at the behest of dedicated corporate sponsors. “I think this project was another step in bringing to life that Uncle Sam is a part of Troy’s history and we should recognize that,” Ms. Young said.

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