With his star-spangled top hat, steely-eyed gaze and finger pointed squarely at the nation’s heart, Uncle Sam is one of the most recognizable symbols of U.S. patriotism there is. But what many don’t realize is that he was an actual person.
Just ask one of his great-great-great-great-grandchildren.
The direct descendants of Samuel Wilson -- a meat packer from Troy, New York, who supplied beef rations to soldiers during the war of 1812 and is commonly recognized as inspiring the nickname and poster for “Uncle Sam” -- were recently revealed to be living in Arkansas, thanks to research scientists at genealogy site MyHeritage.
“Tracing generations of descendants step-by-step, especially when you're starting with a name like Sam Wilson, which is relatively common, means you have to be sure your research is taking you in the right directions,” Aaron Godfrey, marketing director for the site, told ABC News.
“MyHeritage provides access to billions of historical documents, including newspapers and censuses, and millions of family trees. ... The challenge is knowing where to start yet not knowing what you might discover.”
But while the greater public may have been unaware of their existence, for Helen Painter, eldest sister of seven and matriarch to Samuel Wilson’s living descendants, the revelation has been common family knowledge for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve always pretty much been aware of the connection to Samuel Wilson,” Painter told ABC News. “My grandmother was the daughter of Carlton Sheldon, who was Marion Wilson’s son, and she was the granddaughter of Samuel. Granny always kept us very informed.”
Brought up in a self-described “big, Catholic family,” Painter, along with her five siblings Bill, Jane, Charles, Richard and Thomas Hambuchen were all raised and still live in Conway, Arkansas, as does their mother, Betty Hambuchen, who is 85. Painter’s other brother, John Hambuchen, died in 2009.
Keeping meticulous birth and marriage records, photos and letters from the past, Painter said her grandmother, Lillie Parkes, was sure to educate all family members on their lineage, which occasionally made itself known to a wider audience in the form of school reports and local parades.
“I remember in the 1980s Granny contacted our local fair committee and we rode in the county fair parade as the only living descendent of Uncle Sam,” Painter said. “We rode behind Jerry Lee Lewis, as best I recall.”
But regardless of birth certificates and census records, genes can tell in other ways, too.
Painter, 60, works a tireless schedule as a registered nurse for a local health care facility in Arkansas and will be on call the entire 4th of July weekend, helping to assist those in need. Meanwhile, her eldest son, Trey Hauptmann, 40, is a 20-year veteran of the Navy, and works as a senior chief petty officer.
“We were talking the other night and he said something to the effect of ‘Uncle Sam supplied the army with the meat and pork they needed and today I provide people with the Band-Aids they need,” she recalled. “So in some ways [Samuel Wilson] has influenced his belief in assisting people and helping people.”
MyHeritage's Godfrey told ABC News that one of the most interesting parts of his research on Uncle Sam was the discovery not only that Wilson’s family was still living but that “the descendants of the man believed to be the face of one of America's most patriotic posters are themselves patriots,” he said, “serving in the armed forces or working for their state. The values of patriotism and national service run deep in this family.”
But Painter doesn’t think that leaves others off the hook.
“I think we should all be patriotic because we’re American citizens and we all hold a piece of our heritage no matter what it is,” she said.
“Whether it’s an icon or the person who did more menial jobs that never got that recognition, there are a lot of wonderful people who have done a lot of wonderful things. Hopefully, we can continue to do great things to take care of each other, whether it’s handing out meat, or Band-Aids or handing out a smile or a pat on the back.”