Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

The U.S. Navy's First Jack

Documentation of the Continental Navy Jack
State and Merchant Flags of the United States

The Rattlesnake Jack and the Modern Navy

A jack is a flag corresponding in appearance to the union or canton of the national ensign. In the United States Navy, it is a blue flag containing a star for each state. For countries whose colors have no canton, the jack is simply a small national ensign. On a sailing vessel, the jack is hoisted at the jack-staff shipped at the bowsprit cap when at anchor or in port.

The United States Navy originated as the Continental Navy, established early in the American Revolution by the Continental Congress by a resolution of 13 October 1775. There is a widespread belief that ships of the Continental Navy flew a jack consisting of alternating red and white stripes, having the image of a rattlesnake stretched out across it, with the motto "Don't Tread on Me." That belief, however, rests on no firm base of historical evidence.

It is well documented that the rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me" were used together on several flags during the War of Independence. The only question in doubt is whether the Continental Navy actually used a red and white striped flag with a rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me" as its jack. The evidence is inconclusive. There is reason to believe that the Continental Navy jack was simply a red and white striped flag with no other adornment.

The rattlesnake emerged as a symbol of the English colonies of North America about the time of the Seven Years War, when it appeared in newspaper prints with the motto "Join or Die." By the time of the War of Independence, the rattlesnake, frequently used in conjunction with the motto "Don't Tread on Me," was a common symbol for the United States, its independent spirit, and its resistance to tyranny.

Two American military units of the Revolution are known to have used the rattlesnake and the "Don't Tread on Me" motto: Proctor's Independent Battalion, of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and Sullivan's Life Guard during the Rhode Island campaign of 1777. The rattlesnake and the motto also appeared on military accoutrements, such as drums, and on state paper currency, during the Revolution.

The image of the rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me" certainly had associations with the Continental Navy.

On 27 February 1777, a group of Continental Navy officers proposed that the full dress uniform of Continental Navy captains include a gold epaulet on the right shoulder with "the figure of a Rattle Snake Embroider'd on the Strap . . . with the Motto don't tread on me."

In early 1776 Commodore Esek Hopkins, the first and only commander in chief of the Continental Navy fleet, used a personal standard designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. This flag consisted of a yellow field with a coiled snake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." There is no doubt as to the authenticity of Hopkins's personal standard, usually referred to as "the Gadsden flag."

The only written description of the Continental Navy jack contemporary with the American Revolution appears in Commodore Hopkins's "Signals for the American Fleet," January 1776, where it is described as "the strip'd jack." No document says that the jack had a rattlesnake or motto on it. Elsewhere, Hopkins mentions using a "striped flag" as a signal. Since American merchant ships often displayed a simple red and white striped flag, there is a good chance that the striped jack to which Hopkins refers was the plain, striped flag used by American merchant ships.

Figures 1 (courtesy United States Naval Academy) and 2 (courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library) are images of two versions of a print contemporary with the Revolution that shows a striped flag with a rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." The print purports to be a portrait of Esek Hopkins, but is obviously fanciful since it shows a man in the vigor of youth, when in 1776 Hopkins was fifty-eight. The first print, in English, was produced by Thomas Hart, in London, England, in August 1776. The other print is in English and French and was apparently based on the first. The French caption on the second print states that it is sold at Thomas Hart's shop in London. In the prints, behind the commodore, several warships are displayed. One, to the viewer's right, flies a white flag, with a tree, and the mottos "Liberty Tree," and "An appeal to God." Another warship, to the viewer's left, flies a striped flag, with a rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread Upon Me."

Some writers have thought that the rattlesnake flag in these prints represents the "strip'd jack" Hopkins refers to in his "Signals for the American Fleet." The appearance of a rattlesnake flag in the print by Hart, however, is not conclusive proof that the Continental Navy jack had a rattlesnake on it. First, the flags in these prints are not at the bow, where a jack would go, but at the stern, the proper place for the national ensign. Second, no one suggests that the pine tree flag was the Continental Navy jack, even though that flag appears in the same print. One could logically conclude that the engraver was illustrating various American naval flags, including one from New England and one from the South, for the pine tree flag with the motto "An Appeal to God," or, more usually, "An Appeal to Heaven," was used by Massachusetts' state navy vessels and Massachusetts privateers, as well as by the schooners sailing out of Massachusetts ports under George Washington's authority as commander in chief of the Continental Army; and the flag of the navy of the State of South Carolina consisted of horizontal stripes with a rattlesnake across them. Most secondary accounts state that the stripes of South Carolina naval flag were red and blue.

Several prints based on Hart's were produced in continental Europe during the American Revolution. One, Figure 3 (courtesy Naval Historical Center), a French print, includes the pine tree flag and the rattlesnake flag, the latter without stripes, draped over military accoutrements. Two others, a French print, Figure 4 (courtesy Naval Historical Center), and a 1778 Nürnberg engraving, Figure 5 (courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library), include a plain striped flag, without snake or motto.

The historical evidence makes it impossible to say for certain whether the Continental Navy used the striped rattlesnake flag as its jack. At the same time, the evidence does suggest strong connections between the symbol of the rattlesnake with the motto "Don't Tread on Me" and the United States' earliest naval traditions.

Documentation on the Continental Navy Jack

The Pine Tree Flag

Col. Joseph Reed to Col. John Glover and Stephen Moylan, 20 October 1775, referring to Washington's fleet of schooners: "Please to fix upon some particular Colour for a Flag--& a Signal, by which our vessels may know one another—What do you think of a Flag with a White Ground, a Tree in the Middle-the Motto (Appeal to Heaven)-This is the Flag of our floating Batteries."

Sir Hugh Palliser to Lord Sandwich, 6 January 1776, referring to the flag of the captured brig Washington, of George Washington's fleet: "Captain Medows has brought the American vessel's colours, it is a white field with a green pine tree in the middle: the motto, Appeal to Heaven."

The Massachusetts General Court established the flag of the state navy on 26 July 1776: "that the Colours be a white Flagg, with a green Pine Tree, and an Inscription, "Appeal to Heaven.'"

The Pine Tree and Rattlesnake in Combination

Journal of John Greenwood, midshipman in American privateer Cumberland, captured by HMS Pomona, 26 January 1778: The Cumberland's colors were "a very large white flag, with a green pine tree painted in the middle of it, beneath which was represented a large black snake in thirteen coils and cut into as many pieces, emblematic of the thirteen United States; under the snake, in black letters, was the motto-"Join or Die.'"

"A strange flag has lately appeared in our seas, bearing a pine tree with the portraiture of a rattlesnake coiled up at its roots, with these daring words, "Don't tread on me." We learn that the vessels bearing this flag have a sort of commission from a society of people at Philadelphia calling themselves the continental Congress.""A contemporary English writer," quoted without citation in David Eggenberger, Flags of the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1959), p. 25.

State and Merchant Flags of the United States

American Commissioners in France Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to the ambassador of Naples at the Court of France, 9 October 1778: "Some of the States have vessels of war distinct from those of the United States. For example, the vessels of war of the state of Massachusetts Bay have sometimes a pine tree; and those of the state of South Carolina a rattlesnake in the middle of thirteen stripes. Merchant ships have often only thirteen stripes, but the flag of the United States ordained by Congress is the thirteen stripes and the thirteen stars above described."

The Gadsden Flag

Journal of the South Carolina Provincial Congress, 9 February 1776: "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!"

Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, 11 May 1776: "The colours of the American Fleet to have a snake with thirteen rattles, the fourteenth budding, described in the attitude of going to strike, with this motto, "Don't Tread on Me!"

Letter from New Providence, Bahamas (after the Continental fleet's raid on New Providence), dated 13 May 1776, printed in London Ladies' Magazine, July 1776: "The colors of the American fleet were striped under the Union, with thirteen strokes called the United Colonies, and their standard, a rattlesnake; motto-'Don't Tread on Me!'"

John Jay to Alexander McDougall, 23 March 1776: "As to continental Colors, the Congress have made no order as yet respecting them, and I believe the Captains of their armed Vessels have in that particular been directed by their own fancies and Inclinations. I remember to have seen a flag designed for one of them on which was extremely well painted a Rattle Snake rearing his Crest and shaking his Rattles, with this Motto "Dont tread on me". But whether this Device was generally adopted by the fleet, I am not able to say. I rather think it was not."

The Striped Jack

Esek Hopkins, "Signals for the American Fleet," January 1776: "Signal for a General Attack-or the whole Fleet to Engage-The Standard at the Main top G. Masthead, with the strip'd Jack and Ensign at their proper places." Note: The "standard" refers to the Gadsden flag and the "ensign" to the Grand Union flag.

Notation in Esek Hopkins's handwriting on letter to Hopkins from Christopher Gadsden, 15 January 1776: "Som one of the Fleet if to gather or the Small Sloop if a Lone will higst a striped flagg half up the flying Stay."

Captain Charles Alexander's Signals for the Continental Fleet in the Delaware, 25 August 1777, mentions the Continental jack several times, as in "To get under Way Continental Jack at the fore top Galant Mast Head," as well as Dutch, English, and French jacks. The signal instructions do not describe the Continental jack.

The Rattlesnake Jack and the Modern Navy

As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, by an instruction dated 1 August 1975 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.3) the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack (blue field with white stars) during the period 13 October 1975 (the bicentennial of the legislation that created the Continental Navy, which the Navy recognizes as the Navy's birthday), and 31 December 1976.

By an instruction dated 18 August 1980 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.4), the Secretary of the Navy directed that the commissioned ship in active status having the longest total period in active status to display the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive status.

By an instruction dated 31 May 2002 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.6), the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack for the duration of the Global War on Terrorism.

28 July 2003

Published: Wed Nov 15 07:39:55 EST 2017