The Rattlesnake as a Symbol in Early America

We've all seen them - the yellow flags with "Don't Tread On Me" emblazoned under a coiled and sinister looking rattlesnake. Today, many people associate this flag with certain political groups but that is not necessarily true nor has it always been the case.
In our early history, two symbols were used to depict the British Colonies in America - the Indian maiden and the rattlesnake. A look through old literature will often show an idealized image of a young Indian woman drawn as an embellished preface to some written work on North America. The other image was the rattlesnake.
The rattlesnake is indigenous to the Americas alone and as such, tall tales of it were heard in England. Many were the British soldiers arriving in America equally concerned about encountering " buzzer snakes" as well as Indians.
In Colonial America, Britain regularly sent its undesirables to our shores. The most detested of these newcomers were the criminals and convicts. Year after year they came in such numbers that it caused resentment toward the mother country. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin published an editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette protesting the practice stating that perhaps in exchange American rattlesnakes should be "boxed and sent to London to be distributed in St. James Court and certain other gardens."
In May of 1754, a rattlesnake drawing is also printed by Franklin to become the first political cartoon published in America. It is a drawing of a snake cut into pieces with each segment representing a particular American colony. This image was used to enlist support for a formal union to thwart the French and Indians menacing the western borders at that time. In addition, an old superstition existed that a snake could be cut into pieces and yet live if the segments were rejoined before sunset. Hence the message, there's still time to "Join" together as a group - or "Die" individually at the hands of the French and their Indian allies. This symbol, first used in the Seven Years War against the French, was later resurrected and reused by the Sons of Liberty during the American Revolution.
The yellow flag that is most familiar is called the Gadsen flag. Congressman Gadsen, of South Carolina, while in Philadelphia, watched a contingent of marines parading and playing yellow drums with rattlesnake images and the words, "Don't tread on me" painted on their sides. He then designed a flag based on this observation and presented it to Ezra Hopkins, the first naval commander. This created a connection to the United States Navy that exists to this day.
The next familiar rattlesnake flag is often called the first Navy Jack. It is a flag showing an uncoiled snake against the striped flag of the Sons of Liberty (that's where stripes on the United States flag arose). If you count you will notice 13 rattles. This flag has been used periodically over the years and by decree, is now to be flown on all navy ships until the war on terrorism is complete.
If you're around a seaport - look for it.


  1. I remember you telling us all this. More than once, too. It never got boring, either. Although, you telling us this was A LOT funner then reading it!

    Margaret Hibdon

  2. A fascinating post, stumbled across accidentally while browsing Google Images for a picture to illustrate the Fleetwood Mac song 'Rattlesnake Shake'. Thanks! Harley Richardson, London, UK.