The majority of rattlesnake species are native to the southwest region of the United States, with several species populating the eastern part of the country. Although there are many rattlesnakes in Mexico and a few in South America, they primarily reside in the U.S., making them, perhaps, a logical choice for a symbol of the country. Indeed, the rattlesnake has been used as a national symbol throughout the history of the country.
"Join, or Die": The First Rattlesnakes
The rattlesnake has been an important symbol in American culture at least since the time of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin once jokingly suggested that colonists send rattlesnakes to their British overseers in order to thank them for sending convicted criminals to live in the colonies. Although this was the first mention of the rattlesnake in connection with the colonies, it is not the most famous. Several years later, in 1754, Benjamin Franklin created a woodcut of a rattlesnake divided into sections representing the colonies, with New England grouped into one for a total of eight sections.
This woodcut, with the caption "Join, or Die," was published as a political message to gain support for the French and Indian War. This woodcut is still well-known today, and may have been instrumental in ensuring the rattlesnake's place as an important early American symbol.
"Don't Tread On Me": The Gadsden Flag
In later years, Franklin and some of his contemporaries continued to suggest that the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American colonies, but perhaps the most famous example of the rattlesnake symbol is the Gadsden flag. This flag depicts a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background with the caption, "Don't Tread On Me." According to the popular account, the flag derived from the symbol used by the first company of United States Marines, ordered during the Second Continental Congress in 1775.
The rattlesnake on the original flag had thirteen rattles, representing the thirteen colonies. With one rattle, the flag became known as the Gadsden flag because Christopher Gadsden, a colonel present at the Second Continental Congress, suggested that the commander-in-chief of the navy use it as the flag of his personal ship.
What Does the Gadsden Flag Symbolize?
Although the Gadsden flag is no longer officially used by the United States, it is still an important symbol in American culture. In general, it is thought to represent the revolutionary spirit of the U.S.A. and the ideals of the founding fathers, including a high value placed on civil liberties. As a result, the flag often symbolizes patriotic dissent and lack of support for the incumbent government. Beginning in 2009, the symbol has been used by supporters of the Tea Party movement.
The First Navy Jack
In addition to its prominence on the Gadsden flag and the growing popularity of that flag as a symbol, the rattlesnake appears as a patriotic symbol in a number of other areas. Interestingly, the jack, or naval flag, of the United States consists of a rattlesnake and the same "Don't Tread On Me" motto that appears on the Gadsden flag. The Navy Jack rattlesnake, however, is not coiled, and it sits against a field of red and white stripes, rather than on a field of yellow. The original flag may not have included the rattlesnake, but since 2002 the stripes and rattlesnake motif has replaced the previous Navy Jack, which consisted of white stars on a blue background.
As the examples of Benjamin Franklin's woodcut, the Gadsden flag, and the Navy Jack show, the rattlesnake is an important part of American culture. Rattlesnakes themselves are dangerous when threatened, and perhaps this is the message rattlesnake flags intend to convey. The spirit of the United States has often been one of defending natural rights, and that spirit seems to fit nicely with the rattlesnake motif. Whether the action and ideas of the government or its critics live up to the ideal represented by the rattlesnake is, however, a question that must be left to historians.