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A Case for a Standardized "American" Eagle
by Pete Loeser

Eagles on Merchant Jacks, Ensigns and Flags

        The use of an eagle to represent national identity is hardly just an American phenomena and representations of them are as varied as the artists who create them. That said, ever since the American Bald Eagle became our recognized national bird artists have used their various versions of it to represent the United States on everything from crockery, cookware, linen, pillows, bed sheets, stamps, statuary, paintings, caricatures, and of course, flags and ensigns.

Example: Eagle Flag 1
Example: Eagle Flag 2

        The bald eagle was originally chosen as our national "bird" after the members of Congress argued for six years over what the national emblem should be. As a result of this long debate, the bald eagle was finally chosen because of its majestic beauty, great strength, long life, and because it was native to North America.

        Interestingly enough, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be adopted as our national emblem instead; he said this about the choice of the Bald Eagle in a letter to his daughter:

     "He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
     With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: the little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country....
     I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America... He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."
        Happily, the Bald Eagle was chosen, and one might reflect that it certainly looks much better as a national symbol than a Turkey would. (Just think of how this would have impacted Thanksgiving!)

        The eagle as a flag design element especially became common in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was used on countless generic merchant flags, jacks and pennants. They were, of course, nothing more than a stylized American Eagle, usually with the attributes of arrows and olive branches. That there was a wide latitude for artistic interpretation of the "American" eagle is evident in the selection of flags shown here.

Example: Eagle Flag 3
Example: Eagle Flag 4

        These stylized eagles can still be seen today on many of the vessels that ply American waters, especially in inland commerce in areas such as New York's Hudson River; the Long Island Sound; the Chesapeake, etc. They were also used on ship's name pennants, as well as US Mail ensigns.

US Mail Flag

        In 1918, the Post Office Department took over air mail service from the US Army Air Service. The civilian-operated Air Mail Service hired forty pilots in its first year of operation, and used mostly World War I military surplus de Havilland DH-4 aircraft. In 1918, the Post Office completed 1,208 airmail flights and, by 1920, the Air Mail service had delivered 49 million air mail letters. The use of the eagle on the Air Mail Service flags and banners was a natural extension and common practice.

        Although, most commonly the American eagle was shown with a US Stars and Stripes shield on its chest, some are shown without, as illustrated here.

American Eagle with Shield
(20th Maine - Civil War)
American Eagle without shield
(Example: Eagle Flag 6)

Although many of these eagle flags and ensigns are often, incorrectly, identified as Revenue Marine jacks, they are just a variety of civilian jacks. We see them portrayed quite often in 19th century paintings of ships, especially those engaged in the Hudson River trade. Sarah McFadden, New York's premier flag maker of the period, was one of the largest makers of these eagle design flags. They normally had white or blue backgrounds.

Example: Eagle Flag 7
Example: Eagle Flag 8

        The merging of images of the American Eagle and the stars and stripes design became a standard American artistic practice as shown on countless illustrations. They combination also became popular on military flags, especially during the American Civil War on Northern Regimental ensigns and colors.

The Freemont Flag c1841
(Autry National Center Collection)
Evergreen Home Guard Flag 1861
(drawing by Clay Moss)

        This first flag on the left was the regimental banner of western explorer John C. Frémont and was carried on the first of his several expeditions west between 1841 and 1846. According to most sources his wife Jessie made the flag for him by hand. On the plain white canton she drew an eagle which held a Native American "peace pipe" in its claws instead of the traditional wreath and arrows. She also outlined 26 stars in blue in two rows of 13. The Frémont flag is today still preserved in the Autry National Center in Pasadena, California.

        As stated earlier, during the Civil War the proud eagle design was fairly common on Union regimental and militia flags, as illustrated in the drawing on the right of the Evergreen Home Guard No. 2 Flag. The original flag is preserved as part of the ZFC Collection in California; quite impressive and rather large, it is approximately six and a half foot tall and eight foot, nine inches long. The flag, obviously not designed to carry into combat, but rather as a political statement for squatter's rights. In fact, the canton on the reverse side states "Settler's Rights and Union Forever." This demonstrates how the eagle had became a symbol of freedom and national unity to many Americans by this time.

Civil War Handwaver Flag
(identified by Dave Martucci)
mid-19th Century Steam Ship flag
(made by Sarah McFadden)

        Lastly, the use of eagle stars and stripes presentation flags, where an eagle design replaces the normal star patterns on the United States flag, had sometimes been used by the Indian Department as gifts to tribal chiefs. This practice began with the Lewis and Clark expedition when they presented one such flag to the chief of the Mandan Indians and another to the chief of the Teton Indians in 1804. Andrew Jackson presented another presentation flag to the Chippewa Chief Sheeboy-way in 1809. However, according to well-respected vexillologist, Dave Martucci, we do not see any evidence that this practice continued after about 1820. The two flags shown above have similar designs, but were not presentation flags. So obviously the eagle stars and striped design continued to be used on other type flags.

        In conclusion, the bald eagle, with its snowy-feathered head and white tail, has been the proud national bird symbol of the United States since 1782. The image of the bald eagle can be found in many places, such as on the Great Seal, Federal agency seals, the President's flag, and on the one-dollar bill, to name a few. Although the concept of a purely American Eagle certainly exists, the artistic standardization for one does not, nor should it. Freedom of artistic expression allows us a place to put into practice our love of Freedom, and should never be restricted. The cry of a bald eagle, and the sighting of one gracefully flying overhead, whether in real life or on a fluttering flag, is still an inspiring symbol and one today that has become an important part of America's national pride and identity.

- My thanks to James Ferrigan and Dave Martucci for their expert help and advise on this page -

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