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Trojans Launch Campaign To Bid On Photo Of "Uncle Sam" Wilson

You might know that Uncle Sam, the personification of the United States, is based on a real person. Samuel Wilson, a meatpacker who lived in Troy, New York from the late 1700s until his death in 1854, is said to be the original Uncle — but even that is up for debate. Either way, a group of Trojans this weekend is hoping to bid on what could be the only known photograph of Wilson.

Legend goes that Samuel Wilson earned his nickname while shipping barrels of pork and beef marked E.A.-U.S. The E.A. was stamped for Elbert Anderson, the contractor tasked with providing supplies for American troops during the War of 1812. The U.S. was jokingly referred to as the mark of Uncle Sam, not the initials of the fledgling nation.

The name Uncle Sam was used as a personification of the U.S. in the 1816 book The Adventures of Uncle Sam, in Search After his Lost Honor by by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy. The image — a white-bearded man in red, white, and blue — was famously captured in an illustration for an 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nast, and the “I Want You” World War I recruiting poster, painted by James Montgomery Flagg.

Now, the tricolor suits used in those two famous depictions as well as what’s believed to be the only known photograph of Samuel Wilson are going up for auction in Ohio. The tintype portrait depicts a strong-jawed man with white hair and dark coat and tie, though no stars and stripes are visible. But it’s not the first time folks in the Capital Region have had a chance to bring home the items.

Twenty years ago, the image, along with suits, went up for sale as part of a larger collection from an owner in Minnesota. Former State Senator Joe Bruno tasked a crew to fly out to examine the items. But after a close look, and an examination of the image from the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York,  Kathy Sheehan, Rensselaer County and Troy City Historian,  passed on the items.

Sheehan says she’s not an expert in textiles and has doubts about the authenticity of the photograph, if it was indeed taken two years before Wilson’s death at the age of 87.

“His bone structure, teeth – even a lot of people have lost teeth – you’ve seen paintings and things like that. He looks like a much younger man. Could it be his son or one of his nephews? It’s entirely possible. Again, you just don’t really know for sure,” said Sheehan.

Though Troy decided against acquiring the photo, a group of city residents are hoping to secure the items for the Mount Ida Preservation Association, a museum located in Wilson’s old neighborhood.

Troy author and booster Duncan Crary is leading the effort.

“Flash forward 20 years later, these items have been sold a few more times at various auctions, and lo and behold, those three curious items, the image, the tintype image, and the two costumes are among the others that are available during this auction,” said Crary.

Working with Anasha Cummings, a well known-face (and red beard) in Troy, who serves on the Mount Ida board, the two have set up a crowdfunding effort on Patreon.com to gather funds for the auction.

Cummings says the money would be used for the initial purchase of the items and the long-term upkeep of the museum space.

“At the website we allow many people to work together to all raise the money to buy it together. We of course are in a very tight timeline because the auction is Sunday,” said Cummings.

Crary is aware there are risks associated with bidding on the items. The New York Times reported recently on an alternate Uncle Sam; not Samuel Wilson, but a 16-year-old midshipman named Isaac Mayo. The Times says Mayo reported for duty at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1810, two years before the War of 1812.

There’s also an earlier mention of an Uncle Sam in the original Yankee Doodle song written in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence.

Crary says although the auction is a gamble, acquiring the tintype could be a learning opportunity for visitors.

“We could invite scholars to come to Troy and perhaps the Mount Ida Preservation Society – where this item may live if we get it – and they can study the items and they can decide for themselves on whether or not this is legit,” said Crary.

Sheehan, who had reservations two decades ago, admits it is a unique item.

“It makes for an interesting story. This kind of just keeps coming up over and over again. So that makes it intriguing,” said Sheehan.

And, if the photo and suits are real, they could end up worth a lot more than what is paid at auction.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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