What Does a Gadsden Flag Look Like?

Yesterday we asked: Who designed the Gadsden Flag?  And just as we can’t be certain of the designer, neither do we know what the original flag actually looked like.  Nevertheless, the flag marketplace, and cyberspace, has converged on, basically, a single design.  (This suggests a common origin, but we couldn’t pin it down to an artist, enterprise, and date.)  Isn’t it interesting that for a flag whose original design is only vaguely known we’ve ended up with a fairly detailed shared conventional image?

Here is a brief survey of artistic imaginings over the last 50 years.

The earliest illustration we’ve come across is a decidedly unconventional one in Whitney Smith’s The Flag Book of the United States (1970).  Louis Loynes and Lucien Philippe did the illustrations, so one or both of them produced this version found in Plate VII:


Online, we found this GIF created 5 April 1998 by Rick Wyatt still being used in the Flags of the World database.


In the world of social media, back on 8 September 2005 Wikipedia editor Vikrum uploaded a PNG version of this same design — “Historic Gadsden flag created by me based on existing renditions of it.” — a free, shareable version:


Four years later, on 21 February 2009, Wikipedia editor Ptkfgs (now known as BurnDownBabylon) uploaded the version now found there.  They wrote “arial is wrong for the gadsden flag. it didn’t exist until two centuries later. i have re-set it in caslon: 1. it existed when the flag was created; 2. it was quite popular in the colonies; 3. the surviving period flags use a serif typeface.”  Thus, we have the de-facto Internet standard:


But it appears that recently manufactured “Gadsden” flags, on the other hand, typically use the sans-serif text we’ve seen in the Vikrum or Rick Wyatt versions.  In fact, these manufactured designs are almost certainly the source of the versions seen online.

Here’s a sans-serif example from a 2010 posting (at the height of Tea Party frenzy) by Dave the Sage’s blog The Conservative Citizen, The flags and symbols of the TEA Party:


Annin, the largest US flag maker, has been selling this version since at least 2002:



And as is the case with many other flags, the most common examples are likely manufactured in China, like this one:


Or this embroidered, two-sided one:


Interestingly, given their proliferation online, manufactured versions with serif fonts are harder to come by.  But Valley Forge sells the Whitney Smith version as the “historical Gadsden flag”:


Valley Forge also makes a sans-serif “current Gadsden Flag” featuring a snake with a red tongue:


“Wikipedia-standard” Gadsden flags can also be found, made in China:


These designs (with the exception of the Whitney Smith variant) are all very similar.  But the Gadsden Flag has been extended, satirized, and otherwise adapted in a huge variety of ways — the subject of another post.

Who Designed the Gadsden Flag?

The “Gadsden” of “Gadsden Flag” fame is Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina (and not his grandson James Gadsden of Gadsden Purchase fame). In late 1775 the colonel was a member of the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress charged with outfitting the ships of the nascent Continental Navy.

NH_85212-KN cropped
The Continental Ship Alfred being commissioned at Philadelphia, 3 December 1775. Detail from a photo by the US Naval History and Heritage Command of a 1974 painting by W. Nowland Van Powell.

Part of that activity involved coming up with a flag for the navy’s commander-in-chief to fly as his rank flag from the mainmast of his flagship, which they decided would be a yellow flag with a snake and “don’t tread on me” on it.  And indeed, Commodore Esek Hopkins used such a flag on his ship, the Alfred. No examples of this flag survived to the present day, so what we have to go on are these words in an entry for 9 February 1776 in the records of the Provincial Congress of South Carolina:

Col. Gadsden presented to the [Provincial] Congress [of SC] an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy, being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”

None of this establishes that Col. Gadsden designed Hopkins’ rank flag, though, leaving Whitney Smith (founder of the field of vexillology) decidedly unimpressed:

Because [Col. Gadsden] presented a copy of this flag to the Provincial Congress of South Carolina, it has often, falsely, been called the “Gadsden flag” or the “flag of the South Carolina navy”. [from Smith’s The Flag Book of the United States, 1970, pp. 45-46]

On the other hand, an address by Frederick Cooks Hicks (R-NY) to the US House of Representatives on Flag Day, 1917, and published the next year by the Government Printing Office as The Flag of the United States, says the flag was “designed by Col. Gadsden“.  (Was this Hicks’ inference, or did he have some other source?  If you know, please comment below!)  At any rate, this is now become a commonly held belief, repeated by the Naval History and Heritage Command and many others.

So who did design the Gadsden flag?  Like so many vexillological questions of that era, we really don’t know.

Evolution of the Canadian Shield

The US flag changed as states were added, with additional white stars appearing in the blue union to symbolize the growth of the country.  (Wikipedia has a nice table illustrating the historical progression of the 28 different designs.)

One of the designs used for the 13-star US flag.
One of the designs used for the 13-star US flag, 1777 – 1795.
One of the designs used for the 38-star US flag.
One of the designs used for the 38-star US flag, 1877 – 1890.

Meanwhile, to the north, our Canadian neighbors were changing their flag in an analogous way as their country grew by adding provinces.  Unofficial US flags were sometimes manufactured before official designs were in place, but owing to differences in how flags were made official in the US and in Canada, only unofficial Canadian flags were the norm for most the the 51 years between 1870 until 1921.  It was these unofficial flags that grew in complexity with each new province or provinces.

Analogous to the US flag’s union, showing the states as white stars in an blue field in the canton, was the Canadian Shield which until 1921 represented the provinces each with their own provincial seal in a section of the heraldic shield, which was placed as a “badge” towards the fly (right edge) of a British red ensign.

Canadian red ensign
Canadian red ensign showing the seals of four provinces, 1868 – 1870 (unofficial), 1892 – 1922 (official). Each quarter section of the shield represented a province (from top to bottom, left to right): Ontario and Quebec; Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Canadian red ensign showing the seals of nine provinces, 1907 - 1924 (unofficial).
Canadian red ensign showing the seals of nine provinces, 1907 – 1924 (unofficial). Each of nine sections across three rows of the shield represented a province (from top to bottom, left to right): Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia; New Brunswick, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island; Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba.

As you can see, each provincial seal was pretty complex, consisting of two or sometimes three different designs in different sections — certainly way more complex than a white star. By 1907 there were 19 different designs (and 21 designs total, if you count the three repetitions of the red cross of England) vying for space on the crowded shield. On November 21, 1921 a royal proclamation drastically simplified the shield by doing away with provincial representations, instead showing the Royal Arms of England, Ireland, Scotland, and France, above three maple leaves.

Canadian red ensign, 1921 - 1957.
Canadian red ensign showing the Royal Arms of four countries, 1921 – 1957 (official).  The top four sections of the shield represent a country (from top to bottom, left to right): England and Scotland; Ireland and France.

Of course, the flag would be completely redesigned and radically simplified in 1965, when the Canadian Maple Leaf flag as we know it was introduced, 50 years ago. It is with these simplifications that the analogies with US flags end:  an analogous simplification, redesign, or improvement of the US flag is basically unthinkable.

A full account of the many twists and turns of the development of the Canadian shield in the 19th and 20th centuries is a long and interesting tale.  Fortunately, Pete Loeser and Michael Halleran tell it nicely in their essay, Canadian Coat-of-Arms and Shields, on the Historical Flags website.

Mississippi’s Magnolia Flags

From Historical Flags of Our Ancestors

A possible flag for Mississippi with a design based on the military colors of a Confederate regiment knows as the Burt Rifles.
A possible future flag for Mississippi.  The design is based on the military colors of a Confederate regiment known as the Burt Rifles.

Vexillologist Clay Moss has published a new essay about once and possibly future flags of the state of Mississippi.  He writes:

As the current Mississippi flag has been burdened with controversy, particularly through the last quarter century, there has always been the idea that Mississippi’s Magnolia flag might again someday be adopted as the state’s flag. This document briefly examines the seven Magnolia flags that we are aware of today and provides a speculative look at what a possible new state flag might look like based on the original. More could possibly be rediscovered in the future, but for now, these are the ones we know about.

Read Moss’ essay here or here.

Historical Flags of Our Ancestors


Pete Loeser’s website Historical Flags of Our Ancestors has grown over time into a wonderful resource for vexillologists and flag enthusiasts.  It includes over 100 pages and over 3000 images, with a lot of original content (for example, see the “Short Papers and Vexillological Charts” section).

The main site can be found at www.loeser.us/flags.  In addition, the PFA is happy to host a copy (mirror) of the site at flags.mainzone.com.  Enjoy!