The Snakes of the American Revolution

Betsy Ross and company, how pastoral they all look, sewing the stars and stripes….

While we enjoy watermelon and baby back ribs, fireworks and parades this 4th of July, let’s not forget the fascinating history of how the United States of America was born.

I know many of you are not American, but maybe these flags will be of interest to you.  They are very different from Betsy Ross’ stars and stripes, and a piercing reminder of the raw history of the American Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin’s famous woodcut, published in 1754.  The sections of the snake represent the 13 colonies.

Don’t Tread on Me.
Join or Die.
Unite or Die.
Liberty or Death.

Long before the bald eagle was promoted to the symbol of freedom in my country, the rattlesnake was the familiar of the Revolutionary.  When warnings aren’t heeded, and you provoke us, we will strike, and it will be with venom disproportionate to our size.

The banner of the Culpeper Minute Men, militia out of Culpeper, Virginia, formed in  1775. Read more about the Culpeper Minute Men by clicking this link.

The rattlesnake, a uniquely American reptile, was first used as a symbol by Benjamin Franklin, in 1751, in a satirical editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Franklin suggested the colonies thank Britain for sending their convicted criminals to America by sending the British rattlesnakes.

Another sectioned snake, but in this instance, the rattles represent the 12 values, and the sections of the snake represent the 9 principles, not the 13 colonies.  You can read these values and principles at

By 1775, Franklin stood behind the rattlesnake as a good symbol for the American Spirit, publishing an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal, and stating:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?” 

The sectioned snake, representing the 13 colonies, was also seen in Paul Revere’s newspaper, Massachusetts Spy, fighting an English dragon, in 1774.

The header of Revere’s newspaper, showing the snake versus the dragon.

Now, enjoy these historic flags and know that they are historic.  Many groups today, in the United States, fly these flags, and apply the original principle to their causes.  The snake flags have been used as a symbol of patriotism, to support civil rights, or to symbolize disagreement with the government.  

The most recognizable rattlesnake flag, known as the Gadsden flag, named after Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden, of the Marines.

If you’d like to read more about the Gadsden flag, here’s a concise Wikipedia article on the subject.

This is the 1st Navy Jack, still flown today.

If you’d like to learn more about the 1st Navy Jack, here’s a history on Wikipedia.

To see a wonderful display of the American Revolution flags, including the snake flags, and to learn more about the Revolutionary War, check out HBO series John Adams.


  • Fiona-Jane Brown

    July 4, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    Utterly fascinating Lauren – I remember seeing a version of the above flag in Sam's office in 'The West Wing' and always wondered what it meant. Funny that in the old cowboy films that they should use the phrase 'lower than a rattlesnake' to describe people that weren't trusted or liked!

  • Jenny

    July 5, 2011 at 4:07 AM

    Neat post, Lauren! I don't see GA on the first snake. I wonder why it's not there? I'll have to do some historical sleuthing about that 1754 woodcut and find out! 🙂 Happy 235 Birthday of America!

  • Lauren R

    July 7, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    I'm glad you all thought it interesting. I've always been fascinated with the flags, where they came from and meant.

    Jenny – not sure why GA isn't on the woodcut…hrm.. Maybe Ben Franklin was having a senior moment? lol, hardly likely, hahaha. I'm sure there's a reason.

    Henryk, Italy's history is incredible, and so different from America's. Are Italians more devoted to their cities? I mean, like being proud of being Florentine, or Venetian, or Roman, for instance? We have that here too, people being proud to be from their states, but we have the over-arching love of our collective as well.

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