by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 Flags are symbols that stand for a group or country. During our Revolutionary War period, we needed to “evolve” a banner to stand for our new nation. The stars and stripes became that standard. But, ships of the new U.S. Naval Fleet flew a different flag, one that was meant to produce fear in those that saw it in battle as well as to represent the Navy. This flag was the rattlesnake flag that bore the inscription: “Don’t tread on me”. This is the banner under which our Navy fought the British along with our allies, the French Navy. We can look upon this banner with pride and remember the words of Franklin (see below).  GLB


“…without a Respectable Navy, Alas America!”
— Captain John Paul Jones

“I have not yet begun to fight!”
— Captain John Paul Jones

“Don’t give up the ship!”
— Captain James Lawrence

“We have met the enemy and they are ours…”
— Oliver Hazard Perry

“Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead!”
— Admiral David Glasgow Farragut

“You may fire when you are ready Gridley.”
— Commodore George Dewey

“It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”
— President George Washington

“A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense; and it has always been of defense that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of Navy to build? We shall take leave to be strong upon the seas, in the future as in the past; and there will be no thought of offense or provocation in that. Our ships are our natural bulwarks.”
— President Woodrow Wilson

Don’t Tread on Me: The Navy Jack Flag

Gadsden_flag.svg The First Navy Jack is the current U.S. jack authorized by the United States Navy. The design is traditionally regarded as that of first U.S. naval jack flown in the earliest years of the republic, though little if any historical documentation supports this lore.


In late 1775, as the first ships of the Continental Navy readied in the Delaware River, Commodore Esek Hopkins issued, in a set of fleet signals, an instruction directing his vessels to fly a “striped” jack and ensign. The exact design of these flags is unknown. The ensign was likely to have been the Grand Union Flag, and the jack a simplified version of the ensign: a field of 13 horizontal red and white stripes. However, the jack has traditionally been depicted as consisting of thirteen red and white stripes charged with an uncoiled rattlesnake and the motto “Dont [sic] Tread on Me”; this tradition dates at least back to 1880, when this design appeared in a color plate in Admiral George Henry Preble’s influential History of the Flag of the United States. Recent scholarship, however, has demonstrated that this inferred design never actually existed but “was a 19th-century mistake based on an erroneous 1776 engraving”.

Naval_Jack_of_the_United_States.svg  Historically probable first naval jack.

In 1778, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Naples, thanking him for allowing entry of American ships into Sicilian ports. The letter describes the American flag according to the 1777 Flag Resolution, but also describes a flag of “South Carolina, a rattlesnake, in the middle of the thirteen stripes.”

The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of resistance to the British in Colonial America. The phrase “Don’t tread on me” was coined during the American Revolutionary War, a variant perhaps of the snake severed in segments labelled with the names of the colonies and the legend “Join, or Die” which had appeared first in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, as a political cartoon reflecting on the Albany Congress.

“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me,’ “ Franklin wrote. He noted that the rattlesnake’s “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 emplem of magnanimity and true courage.”

The rattlesnake (specifically, the Timber Rattlesnake) is especially significant and symbolic to the American Revolution. The rattle has thirteen layers, signifying the original Thirteen Colonies. And, the snake does not strike until provoked, a quality echoed by the phrase “Don’t tread on me.” For more on the origin of the rattlesnake emblem, see the Gadsden flag.

Modern Use

The First Navy Jack was first used in recent history during the Bicentennial year, 1976, when all commissioned naval vessels were directed to fly it for the entire year, in lieu of the standard fifty-star jack.

Rasing_the_First_Naval_Jack Raising of the “Navy Jack” for the
first time at morning colors, on
September 11, 2002, aboard the
guided missile cruiser Thomas S.
Gates in honor of those killed
in the September 11, 2001

In 1980, Edward Hidalgo, the Secretary of the Navy, directed that the ship with the longest active status shall display the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive service. Then the flag will be passed to the next ship in line. This honor was conferred on the following U.S. Navy vessels:

  • 1981–1982: Destroyer tender USS Dixie (AD-14), commissioned 1940
  • 1982–1993: Destroyer tender USS Prairie (AD-15), commissioned 1940
  • 1993–1993: Submarine tender USS Orion (AS-18), commissioned 1943
  • 1993–1995: Repair Ship USS Jason (AR-8), commissioned 1944
  • 1995–1995: Ammunition ship USS Mauna Kea (AE-22), commissioned 1957
  • 1995–1998: Aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62), commissioned 1959
  • 1998–2009: Aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), commissioned in 1961
  • 2009-present: Aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), commissioned 1961

Following a post-9/11 suggestion from retired Captain Brayton Harris (who in 1975-76 had been Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for the Bicentennial), the Secretary of the Navy issued Instruction 10520.6, dated 31 May 2002, directing all Navy ships to fly the First Naval Jack as a “temporary substitution” for the Jack of the United States “during the Global War on Terrorism”. Most vessels made the switch on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

This flag, along with the Serapis flag, is also featured on the crest of the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53).

The U.S. Navy’s First Jack

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.


hopkinsfig1tFigure 1
(courtesy United States Naval Academy) 

This is the first of two images representing 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.


hopkinsfig2t Figure 2
(courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection,
Brown University Library)

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.


Other Events on this Day
  • In 1776…
    The newly established Continental Navy was at sea on its first operation; the flagship flew a new ensign… a yellow banner emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the legend ‘Don’t Tread on Me’.

    In 1827…
    Revelers dance through the streets of New Orleans, marking the beginning of the city’s famous Mardi Gras celebrations (Mobile, Alabama, claims the first Mardi Gras celebration in 1703).

  • In 1860…
    In New York City, Abraham Lincoln gives his Cooper Union speech, which helps him gain national recognition as an opponent of the spread of slavery.
  • In 1951…
    The Twenty-second Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, is ratified.
  • In 1991…
    President George H. W. Bush announces the end of the Persian Gulf War, an overwhelming U.S. and allied victory against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Dates and events based on:

William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)

Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: First Navy Jack Flag…

Naval History & Heritage Command: Famous Navy Quotes…

Naval History & Heritage Command: The U.S. Navy’s First Jack FAQ…