The Gadsden Flag
The Gadsden flag is a historical American flag with a yellow field depicting a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike. Positioned below the rattlesnake are the words “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” The flag is named after American general and politician Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805), who designed it in 1775 during the American Revolution. It was used by the Continental Marines as an early motto flag, along with the Moultrie flag.
The rattlesnake symbol was first officially adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 when it approved the design for the official Seal of the War Office (at that time and for many years thereafter, the War Office was a term associated with the Headquarters of the Army). At the top center of the Seal is a rattlesnake holding a banner which says: “This We’ll Defend”. According to the US Army’s Institute of Heraldry, “‘This We’ll Defend,’ on a scroll held by the rattlesnake is a symbol depicted on some American colonial flags and signifies the Army’s constant readiness to defend and preserve the United States.’ This design of the War Office Seal was carried forward—with some minor modifications—into the subsequent designs for the War Department’s Seal, and the Department of the Army’s Seal, Emblem and Flag. As such, the rattlesnake symbol has been in continuous official use by the US Army for over 236 years.
In fall 1775, the Continental Navy was established by General George Washington in his role as Commander in Chief of all Continental Forces, before Esek Hopkins was named Commodore of the Navy. The Navy began with seven ships, often called “Washington Cruisers”, that flew the “Liberty Tree Flag”, depicting a green pine tree with the motto “Appeal to Heaven”. This is according to the October 20, 1775 letter of Washington’s aide Colonel Joseph Reed, which is stored in the Library of Congress.
Those first ships were used to intercept incoming British ships carrying war supplies to the British troops in the colonies to both deprive the supplies to the British and to supply to the Continental Army. One ship captured by Captain John Manley had 30,000 pairs of shoes on it. However, the admiralty agent demanded his 2 1⁄2 per cent commission before he would release the cargo for Washington’s army, so many soldiers marched barefoot in the snow. To aid in this, the Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on their first mission. The first Marines enlisted in the city of Philadelphia, and they carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag’s symbolism.