Uncoiling the Snake Story

Don't Tread On MeThe “DON’T TREAD ON ME” flag, officially known as the Gadsden, has become a familiar flag in recent years. Although frequently associated with the TEA PARTY political group in the United States, it has always been a popular historic flag.  Dating back to the Revolutionary War era, it was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a North Carolina statesman and patriot. Why did he choose the coiled snake as a symbol for the early American colonies?

The Timber rattler and Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake were, and still are, found in the area of the thirteen colonies. Many historians attribute its popularity as an early American icon to writings of Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, he first referenced the rattlesnake in a satirical commentary in the Pennsylvania Gazette where he suggested that in return for the British policy of sending convicted criminals to the colonies, they should thank the British by sending rattlesnakes to England!

Later, in an essay published in 1775, Franklin wrote that various physical and behavioral qualities of the rattlesnake embodied the American spirit: eyes always open (no lids) represents vigilance; never begins an attack, but once engaged, does not surrender; weapons (fangs), though small and concealed, are decisive and fatal when used; uses the rattle to generously caution, even its enemies, against the dangers of stepping on it or engaging in conflict, and thus the words, “Don’t tread on me”. The rattle itself has thirteen segments, coinciding with the thirteen colonies.

The rattlesnake emblem also appears on the First Navy Jack flag, dating back to 1775, and is the current jack authorized by the U.S. Navy. It consists of an uncoiled rattlesnake against thirteen red and white stripes, and the words, “Don’t Tread On Me” printed across the bottom of the flag. Stay tuned for more about the Navy Jack!

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