History of Rattlesnake Imagery in America
In 1751, Benjamin Franklin published a satirical commentary in the Pennsylvania Gazette which suggested that if Great Britain would continue its policy of sending convicted criminals to the Americas, they should send rattlesnakes to the British as a gesture of thanks. During the French and Indian war, Franklin brought back his favorite symbol of the American spirit.
This time his rattlesnake was pictured cut into eight parts of a whole to represent each of the colonies with the words “Join, or Die” which appeared as the first ever political cartoon in an American newspaper. Franklin’s image became so renown that in 1774, as the American Revolution grew, Paul Revere adopted Franklin’s rattlesnake to the masthead of Isaiah Thomas’ newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, picturing it in battle with a British dragon.
Origins of Gadsden’s Flag
General George Washington established the Continental Navy in 1775 to intercept British cargo ships filled with supplies for their troops. To aid the Navy on their first mission, the Second Continental Congress authorized five companies of Marines to accompany them. Those first Marines who signed up in Philadelphia were seen beating yellow drums painted with a coiled rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Before that first Naval mission, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden presented newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, a yellow flag with a rattlesnake to fly from the mainmast of his ship. Ever since, this powerful symbol has been adopted by various government agencies and political groups.
In 1977, the U.S. Navy began a tradition of flying the First Navy Jack, a flag with a rattlesnake, 13 red and white stripes, and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” from the ship with the longest period of active service.
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