Whigs now urged the colonies to unite not on behalf of the British Empire, but against a supposedly corrupt government in London. And new rattlesnakes were born.
In 1774, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper adopted the masthead shown above, engraved by Paul Revere. Though this snake is divided in pieces from New England to Georgia, those pieces are nearly united, and the snake’s clearly ready to fight the dragon that threatens American liberties.
I never thought of rattlesnakes as a marine animal, but American naval units were among the first to adopt the rattlesnake in their insignia. Under international law, the Continental Navy needed a flag to distinguish its ships from the Royal Navy. The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of the strange powers to be found in North America. The “Gadsden flag” and “First Navy Jack” display rattlesnakes—now firmly in one piece—and the new motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
I’m not sure whether the design for those flags that we often see reproduced today can actually be traced to 1775-76. Flag history is vexed by visual interpretations of vague verbal descriptions. But there’s definite documentary evidence of Americans adopting the rattlesnake as one of their national symbols early in the Revolutionary War.
[ADDENDUM: The rattlesnake resurfaces in 1775.]