The United States Navy was preceded by the Continental Navy, and this flag is recorded as presented to its first Commander-in-Chief, Commodore Esek Hopkins, as his personal standard. In 1775 Christopher Gadsden was a member of the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress. This committee was responsible for outfitting the ships of the forming Continental Navy. This included originating a flag for the navy’s commander-in-chief, to fly as his standard from the mainmast of his flagship. It was this committee that decided Hopkins’ would fly a yellow flag with a snake and “don’t tread on me” on it. The following is from the 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!”
Because of this entry the flag has come to be called the Gadsden Flag.
It appears that this flag was flown aboard one of the first ships in the United States Navy, the Alfred, on January 4th, 1776 making it one of the oldest recorded flags of the United States, well before the Stars and Stripes were adopted (June of 1777). It is worth noting that the famed American naval officer John Paul Jones served as First Lieutenant on the Alfred directly under Commodore Hopkins (J.P. Jones later commanded the Alfred as its captain).
Gadsden was a key leader of the South Carolina patriots of the American Revolution, helping in 1765 to found and lead the Sons of Liberty in his state. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army during America’s battle for independence. No armchair patriot, he spent nearly a year in solitary confinement in the dungeon of the old Spanish fort of San Marcos in St. Augustine, sent by British General Cornwallis. Released after the defeat of Cornwallis, Gadsden returned to his duties.
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