By 1775, the snake symbol wasn’t just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies: on uniform buttons, on paper money, and of course, on banners and flags.
The snake symbol morphed quite a bit during its rapid, widespread adoption. It wasn’t cut up into pieces anymore. And it was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a generic serpent.
We don’t know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning “Don’t Tread on Me.”
We do know when it first entered the history books.
In the fall of 1775, the British were occupying Boston and the young Continental Army was holed up in Cambridge, woefully short on arms and ammunition. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington’s troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered “not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
In October, a merchant ship called The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia from a voyage to England. On board were private letters to the Second Continental Congress that informed them that the British government was sending two ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.
Congress decided that General Washington needed those arms more than the British. A plan was hatched to capture the cargo ships. They authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, starting with four ships. The frigate that carried the information from England, the Black Prince, was one of the four. It was purchased, converted to a man-of-war, and renamed the Alfred.
To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. The Alfred and its sailors and marines went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution. But that’s not the story we’re interested in here.
What’s particularly interesting for us is that some of the Marines that enlisted that month in Philadelphia were carrying drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”