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Naval Jack (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-04-11 by rick wyatt
Keywords: naval jack | united states | jack | dont tread on me |
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[First Navy Jack flag]
image by Rick Wyatt, 5 April 1998
[U.S. Naval Jack]
image by Joe McMillan, 6 May 2003

See also:

Size and Usage

The jack is flown on the bow (front) of a ship and the ensign is flown on the stern (rear) of a ship when anchored or moored. Once underway, the ensign is flown from the main mast. The size of the jack should be the same as the canton of the ensign.
Rick Wyatt, 22 August 1998

[U.S. Naval Jack] [U.S. Flag]

images by Joe McMillan, 6 May 2003

During the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, U.S. Navy ships flew the "Don't Tread on Me" jack.
Richard Bouchard, 2 July 2000

Description of the flag

The Union Jack of the U.S. has the same number of stars as the ensign. Currently 50 white stars on a blue field.
William M. Grimes-Wyatt, 29 April 1996

The rattlesnake flag was revived in connection with the 1975 bicentennial of the U.S. Navy and is now flown in lieu of the regular jack by the oldest ship in regular commission (i.e., the oldest not counting USS Constitution).
Joe McMillan, 16 July 1999

"Old Ironsides" regularly flies this 15-star jack in conjunction with the 15-star, 15-stripe ensign. When I was in Boston last year for the 4th of July, she flew them while firing a 21-gun "salute to the nation." For this occasion she also flew three 50-star S&S from her topmasts.
Tom Gregg, 17 July 1999

I recently received a 3"x5" First Navy Jack from Flagline in Colorado Springs, CO. I noticed that the wording on the Jack was "Don't Tread Upon Me". I've always seen the words "Don't Tread On Me" on every First Navy Jack, the Gadsden Flag and the Culpepper Flag. Are there two versions of the First Navy Jack, or, is the one produced by Annin for Flagline in error. I understand that Valley Forge uses "On" and Annin uses "Upon" and both claim they are
Jerry Ashbury, 17 December 2001

Whatever Valley Forge and Annin may use, the Navy uses "on," and the proportions 7:10 as for the normal US union jack.
Joe McMillan, 17 December 2001

When did the flying of the Union as the jack become regulated in the US Navy?

I suspect (but can't prove) that the US jack went into use almost simultaneously with the US ensign. I've come to believe that there were certain flag-related customs that English-speaking seamen took for granted in the 18th century without having to have them spelled out in regulations. One was that an ensign had a "union" and that the "union" was the upper hoist. Another was that the union flown by itself constituted the jack. So much for informed speculation.

Somewhat firmer evidence is a report submitted by the captain of the the Massachusetts brig Tyrannicide after capturing a British merchantman on September 25, 1778: "I then hoisted an American Jack & ordered her to strike to the United States, which was complied with." There's no evidence as to what the jack hoisted by the Tyrannicide looked like. Based on my theory about the behavior of 1770s era sailors, I believe it was probably blue with white stars, but I don't know that. All we know is that the captain called it an "American jack," which continued to be the most common name for this flag (blue with white stars) well into the 19th century.

The firmest evidence I've seen is the jack's appearance in a 1785 engraving of a frigate (see note).

So definitely by 1785, probably by September 1778, and possibly by 1777.
Joe McMillan, 26 February 2007

I'm not sure that the Tyrannicide reference is as solid as it looks. Folks in the 18th century seem to have used the terms "jack," "ensign," and "colo(u)rs" somewhat indiscriminantly. For example, the very first known description of the "Continental Colors," by Richard Henry Lee, called it a "Jack," although he specified that it was to be flown at the peak. The context of the Tyrannicide quote certainly suggests that the captain was referring to a national ensign.

Also, there's another interesting reference to use of the blue-and-white jack during the Revolution: a painting of the frigate Alliance passing Boston Light, which clearly shows the starred jack on the bowsprit staff. See image at: The incident depicted in the painting occurred in 1781. The artist was one of the ship's officers at the time, so it seems likely that he knew what he was painting.
Peter Ansoff, 26 February 2007

As to the striped rattlesnake flag, the evidence for its existence as a jack (or even at all) is very sparse. The US Naval Historical Center is very skeptical as to the existence of this flag. See a very good 2003 article on this flag at In brief, Commodore Esek Hopkins' signal code for the US fleet issued in 1776 described a "strip'd jack" as the signal for the whole fleet to engage the enemy. The code makes no mention of a rattlesnake and doesn't prescribe the use of the flag in other circumstances.

The notion that Hopkins' jack had a rattlesnake across it with the motto "Don't tread on me" was an inference drawn by Rear Admiral G. H. Preble in his 19th century history of the American flag. This was based on a print of Hopkins showing a flag similar to one now called the "first Navy jack." This portrait, however, shows the rattlesnake flag flying from the stern of a ship, as an ensign, not as a jack. Moreover, it is not clear whether the artist had any first-hand knowledge of Hopkins or the flags used by his squadron, as is discussed further in the Naval Historical Center article. In any case, there's no evidence that I'm aware of for the use of a striped jack other than in connection with Preble's 1776 fleet.

An addition: looking at this new page, I see a reference to a "Continental jack" in the NHC article: "Captain Charles Alexander's Signals for the Continental Fleet in the Delaware, 25 August 1777, mentions the Continental jack several times, as in "To get under Way Continental Jack at the fore top Galant Mast Head," as well as Dutch, English, and French jacks. The signal instructions do not describe the Continental jack." Again, I would speculate that with the adoption of the S&S in June 1777, American seamen would have naturally used the union of that flag as their jack, but it's just speculation.
Joe McMillan, 26 February 2007

Note: Originally this frigate was identified as the USS Philadelphia. However, the frigate USS Philadelphia wasn't launched until 1799. There was a gundalow named Philadelphia on Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, but she certainly was not a frigate.
Peter Ansoff, 1 March 2007

First Navy Jack Revival During Fight Against Terrorism

On 31 May 2002, the Secretary of the Navy has directed all U.S. naval ships to fly the First Navy Jack for the duration of the war on terrorism, starting beginning September 11, 2002 (Patriot Day.)
Reported by numerous people including Tom Gregg, Joe McMillan, Peter Ansoff, Devereaux Cannon, David Schuetz, Miles Li, Jim Ferrigan ....

All U.S. Navy Ships to Begin Flying First Navy Jack on Patriot Day
submitted by: David Fowler, 11 September 2002