Ebeneezer and Sam Wilson were some of the first settlers of what became Troy, New York, in the early days of the United States. Back then, Western New York was the frontier, and the Wilson brothers, sensing a burgeoning market for building materials, used the local clay from the Hudson River to begin making and firing bricks. Up to this point, most bricks that came into New York were imported. But the Wilson brothers made a small fortune with their brick making business. Sam was quite a local celebrity of a sorts.
At the age of 14, Sam had enlisted in the Continental Army. He spent most of the Revolutionary War in the quartermaster department. There, he made a good reputation for fairness and the ability to manage his contractors with efficiency and expediency. After the success of the brickmaking business, Sam convinced Ebeneezer to begin a grocery business. They built a wharf along the Hudson which, by this time, linked both New York City and the Great Lakes and the rapidly expanding western frontier.
By the time the War of 1812 rolled around, the Wilsons boasted one of the largest grocery outfits in the western part of the state. A New York grocer named Elbert Anderson, Jr., had secured a large contract to supply American forces in the war with preserved and barreled meats, and Anderson sub-contracted with the Wilsons to help him fulfill the contract. The Wilsons’ part of the deal promised cash on delivery of 5,000 barrels of preserved pork and beef. Employing 200 men in Troy, the company proudly provided quality meat for the US Army as they fought to keep the invading British Army at bay. The Wilsons insisted that the army receive only the best product available. “We are representing the government, here,” Sam reminded his employees. “That is a sacred trust.” Because of his experience and also because of the success of the fulfillment of the contract, Sam Wilson was appointed as a meat inspector for the army.
Wilson was responsible for stamping each barrel of meat that passed his inspection as being fit for the U.S. Army’s consumption. So, each barrel that he approved received a brand of “U.S.” on it. Word of his appointment to inspector spread throughout New York among the army volunteers as they received the approved meat. Because of his reputation for only allowing the best meat to be given to them, the appreciative soldiers began associating his brand of approval with the man himself. They also associated the man Wilson with the government he represented, almost an embodiment of the institution of government.
The soldiers saw his stamp and knew that the meat came from the one entity who was watching out for them—their good ol’ Uncle Sam.