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Site Summary. A national history center both for the Gaspee Affair of 1772  and also for Bucklin History 1600-1899. We emphasize the pre-Revolutionary history of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the events and people involved in the Americans' 1772 attack on the Royal Navy ship Gaspee. We maintain a 4,000 person biography and genealogy database and history for the Bucklin family.

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Copyright,1998 through 2013, Leonard Bucklin..
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Gadsden Flag, the First Naval Jack
("Don't Tread on Me").

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Franklin published his now-famous woodcut of a snake cut into eight sections. It represented the English colonies then existing, with New England joined together as the head and South Carolina as the tail, following their order along the coast. Under the snake was the message "Join, or Die". This was the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper.

As the American Revolution grew closer, the snake began to see more use as a symbol of the colonies. In 1774, Paul Revere added it to the title of his paper, The Massachusetts Spy, as a snake joined to fight a British dragon. In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym American Guesser in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American spirit:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

In the autumn of 1775, the United States Navy was established to intercept incoming British ships carrying war supplies to the British troops in the colonies. To aid in this, the Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on their first mission. The first Marines that enlisted were from Philadelphia. This first United States Marine unit carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and the motto "Don't Tread On Me."

At the Congress, Continental Army Colonel Christopher Gadsden was representing his home state of South Carolina. He was one of three members of the Marine Committee who were outfitting the first naval mission.

Before the departure of that first mission, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Navy, Gadsden and Congress chose a Rhode Island man, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief of the Navy. Colonel Gadsden  felt it was especially important for the new commander-in-chief of the Navy to have a distinctive personal standard. Therefore, Gadsden designed, had produced, and personally presented to Hopkins a flag to be used as the personal standard of the new commander-in-chief of the Navy.

Because Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to his home state legislature, a description of the flag is recorded in the South Carolina legislative journals. That description is the reason the flag illustrated at the start of this web page. Gadsden Flag, the First Naval Jack ("Don't Tread on Me"), is generally accepted to be used as the personal standard of the commander of the United States Navy..

"Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, "Don't Tread on Me!"

It is not recorded whether Gadsden took his inspiration for his yellow flag from the Marines' drums, or from a similar yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag common in the three southernmost colonies.

Hopkins apparently used the flag presented to him as his personal standard, but he designed a different flag for use as the fleet's battle flag. It used the symbol of a snake and the slogan, which he placed on the Sons of Liberty Flag.  This battle flag was used as both an ensign (a flag flown on a ship's mast) and as a jack (a flag flown on the ship's bow or bowsprit).  Hopkins ordered his ship commanders that when Hopkins raised the battleflag, all ships were to immediately attack the enemy according to a previously arranged battle formation plan. This red and white striped flag (shown above) has been in use in the United States Navy since the Revolutionary War; and it is referred to in Navy's regulations as the "First Navy Jack."

The above shown design of the "First Navy Jack" is that found in two primary sources.  The first one is Hopkins first set of fleet signals using flags between the ships. In the fall of 1775, as the first ships of the Continental Navy readied in the Delaware River, Commodore Esek Hopkins instructed that the signal for attack in battle would be flying "the striped Jack and Ensign at their proper places." The second source is a color plate in Admiral Preble's book showing essentially the same "Don't Tread Upon Me" flag used as a Navy Ensign. [Admiral George H. Preble, History of the Flag of the United States (1880).]

Since 1777, the U.S. Navy has used the Union Jack (a flag replicating the canton i.e. white stars on a blue field of the U.S. Flag). It is ordered flown by all Navy of ships, under a Naval Regulation that the "The Union Jack" is to be flown from the jackstaff by all U.S. naval vessels, from 8 a.m. to sunset while the ship is at anchor.  [* A jackstaff is a small vertical spar (pole) in the bow of a ship, on which "jacks", not the country's flag, are flown].

Naval Regulations have ordered the First Navy Jack to be used instead of the Union Jack on special occasions.  For example, the First Navy Jack was ordered to be flown instead of the Union Jack during the entire years of 1975 and 1976, as a recognition of the United States Bicentennial. As another example, in 1977 the Secretary of the Navy specified that the ship with the longest total period of active service must display the First Navy Jack, and that regulation continues in force to the present day. The latest  example of a Naval Regulation requiring the First Naval Jack is the following, still in effect. 

On May 22, 2002, the Secretary of Navy ordered all ships to display the First Navy Jack during the War on Terrorism.  Read the Order.

 

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