The image of Uncle Sam as a personification of our nation and government is widespread and instantly recognizable. But did you ever wonder about where he came from? Was he purely imaginary, or based on a real historical figure?
The character Uncle Sam has a long history. The use of allegorical figures to represent a place dates back to the classical Roman era, and the Renaissance re-established them in Western art and culture by the 17th century. In the early days of the United States, a female figure named Columbia (the name is derived from Christopher Columbus) stood for the nation; she kept her place as an often-used symbol of our country through the early 20th century.
Uncle Sam has been around for almost as long, sometimes appearing with Columbia as well. There are several theories about where he comes from, but the most cited origin story traces Uncle Sam back to a man in Troy, New York. Sam Wilson delivered meat packed in barrels to soldiers during the War of 1812. Wilson was a well-liked and trustworthy man in Troy, and local residents called him "Uncle Sam." When people around town saw those supply barrels marked "U.S." they assumed the letters meant Uncle Sam, and the soldiers adopted the same thinking. In reality, Wilson had labeled the barrels "U.S." for "United States," and so the two ideas merged—Uncle Sam became a symbol for the United States of America. (This story is also the official one—Congress passed a resolution in 1961 adopting this account as the official history.)
Uncle Sam started appearing in images and literature soon after the War of 1812. He was popularized in the late 19th century in political cartoons by one of the country's most well-known cartoonists, Thomas Nast. However, the 1917 recruiting poster of Uncle Sam asking YOU to join the army is perhaps the most enduring rendition of the national character.