History and Symbolism of the Gadsden (Don’t Tread On Me) Flag

The Gadsden flag was a conception of an American General and Politician Christopher Gadsden. He designed the flag in 1775 during the American Revolution. The use of a Rattlesnake on the flag did not happen by chance. In fact, the timber and diamond black species of rattlesnake were abundant within the original colonies.

Gadsden ‘Don’t tread on me’ flag shows a yellow field with a rattlesnake coiled at the center ready to strike. The words positioned below the rattlesnake are “Don’t Tread on Me.” During the American revolutionary period, colonies were fighting for their freedom and the Gadsden flag was an indication to the British forces that they should not take advantage of the American people and that the Americans were ready to fight back against perceived aggression.

Early Use

It used to be Great Britain’s policy to send its convicts to the Americas. Benjamin Franklin made a sarcastic remark in response to this practice by saying that Americans should return this British favor by sending rattlesnakes to England. Benjamin Franklin also used a timber rattlesnake in what is believed to be the first American political cartoon.

The picture depicted American colonies as segments of a snake and the famous line ‘join or die’ written beneath it. In 1775, George Washington in his role as the Commander in Chief of all continental forces in America established the Continental Navy to intercept British cargo supplies for troops fighting against the American colonies.

To aid the Navy during their missions, Congress authorized the formation of Marines – a special force to accompany US Navy on their missions at sea. The marines carried with them drums painted in yellow with a rattlesnake and a motto that said ‘don’t tread on me’ this is considered to be the first known use of Gadsden flag symbolism in United States history.

Before departing on their first mission, US Navy commander in chief Commodore Esek Hopkins received the famous Gadsden flag from General Gadsden himself, which then appeared on the ship’s main mast during its first mission in December 1775.

Gadsden Symbolism on the First Navy Jack

The current Navy jack which is the national maritime flag and also an official symbol of the United States government uses the symbols used in the original Gadsden flag. The flag consists of 13 stripes denoting the original 13 colonies that first united to form the United States of America.

Over the stripes is a rippling rattlesnake with the same motto which is ‘Don’t tread on me.’ The message for the enemy is the same that it should beware of the swift movement of the rattlesnake as it can always coil and strike when the time is right.