History of the First U.S. Navy Jack, the Don't Tread on Me Flag
The Rattlesnake Symbol
The rattlesnake has long been an important American emblem. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin published an article in his Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting the colonists send rattlesnakes to Britain in return for the convicts they sent to America. Several years later during the French and Indian War, what is believed to be the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper was printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It depicted a drawing by Franklin of a snake cut into eight pieces, with each piece representing a colony. The motto below it was "Join or Die", showing the importance of unity among the colonies.
Native to America, rattlesnakes produce a loud rattling noise when threatened. Unless they are provoked or stepped on, rattlers will not attack. They do not surrender in an attack, and with teeth like hypodermic needles and debilitating, toxic venom, they are truly dangerous animals to entice. Using the rattlesnake image on a flag shows unity and power or it can be conceived as a threat. The image in essence is meant as a warning that America will attack when provoked and won't give up, just like the rattlesnake.
During the American Revolution, the rattlesnake was a symbol of rebellion against colonial British rule. The unity of the colonies made them a powerful force. One of the first snake flags in use was Christopher Gadsden’s "Don’t Tread on Me" flag. Known as the Gadsden flag, it displays a coiled rattlesnake on a bright yellow field with the motto "Don’t Tread on Me." This design and motto would inspire a number of other flags, including the First Navy Jack.
The First Navy Jack
Much debate has arisen about whether or not the First Navy Jack was flown by Commodore Esek Hopkins on the Alfred, flagship of the Continental fleet, in January, 1776. Described as a "strip’d jack" in the "Signals for the American Fleet," the flag could have been the First Navy Jack or just a plain red and white striped jack that was commonly used by American merchant ships. Conceived by Commodore Hopkins in 1775, the First Navy Jack is shown as having 13 alternating red and white stripes with an uncoiled rattlesnake and the "Don’t Tread on Me" motto. It was first used as a signal to engage the enemy.
Whitney Smith, Vexillologist and director of the Flag Research Center, confirms that the original design of the First Navy Jack is not known. Published in 1880, William Preble’s book History of the Flag of the United States, depicts a slightly different "Don’t Tread on Me" Navy ensign. Historians agree that Preble’s rare color plate probably shows the traditional design of the First Navy Jack flag, and it developed into the flag we know today.
Ships that Flew the First Navy Jack
Beginning in 1977 the ship with the longest period of active service was to display the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or inactive. The flag is then passed to the next ship with the longest period of active service.
On September 11 (Patriot Day), 2002, all Navy ships began flying the First Navy Jack and continue to do so throughout the global war on terrorism. A flag steeped in American history that has been a source of inspiration in every war serves as a reminder of our nation’s origin. The first flag was given to Commodore Clayton Saunders and flown on the USS Rushmore (LSD 47). During the ceremony Saunders said,"this flag represents a renewed commitment by the Navy to our first principles, to secure freedom both at home and abroad."
"A Brief History of the U.S. Navy Jack" Navy Office of Information.
Flag: An American Biography by Marc Leepson 2004.
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