The origin of the patch which we commonly call the “Navy Jack” dates all the way back to the American Revolution.
The symbolism of the rattlesnake began in 1754 when Ben Franklin drew a political cartoon with a rattlesnake on it with the words “Join or Die.” This was in response to Britain sending all their felons to the colonies. The cartoon went viral and the message circulated from Massachusetts to South Carolina.
Colonel Gadsden and Congress chose Commodore Esek Hopkins to lead the Navy. Hopkins used the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag as his personal standard for his Navy and Marines, one of who was John Paul Jones.
By 1775, the rattlesnake symbol was soon embraced in the colonies as a symbol of unity, freedom and liberty and was appearing in newspapers, banners, flags, clothing and money. The characteristics of the rattlesnake resonated with the colonists: it will not attack unless provoked, but if provoked it will fight to the death. They were saying to King George, “Dont Tred on these American colonies!”
While it is not known exactly when or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake with the motto, “Dont Tread on Me” symbol first appeared, it is documented in 1775 Colonel Christoper Gadsden from South Carolina took this new symbol of independence and freedom and initiated it to fly over the Continental Naval ships. Because of Gadsden fervor for freedom the flag is often referred to as the “Gadsden” flag.
The exact timing of the first “Navy Jack flag design is unsure, yet it is believed it consisted of 13 horizontal alternating red and white strips, with a rattlesnake moving diagonally across them with the motto, “Dont Tread on Me.”
Though the meaning and purpose of the “Dont Tred on Me” motto has been misinterpreted and redefined by various sources there is no denying the integral part this rattlesnake symbol has played in the liberty of American history.