George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

The History and Significance of the Navy Jack


By Fall 2017 M-VETS Student-Advisor Rob Popovitch

The Navy Jack has an interesting but somewhat convoluted history. Throughout many years the flag has symbolized revolution, strength, rebellion and commemoration.

The history of how the modern Navy Jack came to exist is not 100% certain.[2]  However, most believe that the flag originated when the ships of the Continental Navy flew a flag consisting of alternating white and red stripes with the image of a rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”[3]  Nevertheless, there is no explicit historical evidence that proves this.[4]

In 1775, Commodore Esek Hopkins of the Continental Navy issued a set of fleet signals to his ships instructing them to fly a striped jack and ensign.[5]  This striped jack is most likely the background of the modern Navy Jack.  A year later, the same Commodore Esek used a “personal standard designed by a Christopher Gadsen of South Carolina.”[6]  This flag is the now famous Gadsen flag which consists of a yellow background and a coiled snake with the motto “Don’t tread on me.”[7]  The Gasden flag was also mentioned in a few letters in the same time period. [8]


There are also various prints that profess to show Revolutionary era ships with flags flying. Some show a striped flag with a rattlesnake and some do not.  Similar to the other history of the Navy Jack, there are inconsistencies in the depictions.  For example, one print portrays Commodore Hopkins as a young man, but at the time he would have been almost 60 years old.[10]  There is another print where a rattlesnake flag appears, but it appears at the stern and not on the bow of a ship, where a jack would go.[11]

In 1778, Ben Franklin and John Adams described a flag in a letter to the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Sicily, ”… a South Carolina flag with a rattlesnake in the middle of thirteen stripes.[12]  In that same letter, Ben Franklin and John Adams said that “some of the States have vessels of war distinct from those of the United States. For example, the vessels of war… of South Carolina a rattlesnake, in the middle of the thirteen stripes. . . .” [13]

These artifacts evidence that the rattlesnake is significant to the Revolutionary War. The snake’s rattle in many illustrations has thirteen layers, which represents the thirteen original Colonies.[14]  The alternating white and red stripes also symbolize the first thirteen colonies.  The Gadsen Flag was also used by the Continental Marines as an early motto flag.[15]

Since the Navy Jack was such a favored symbol for the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War, the flag was chosen as an integral part of the War’s bicentennial commemoration.[16]  As part of the commemoration, the Secretary of the Navy released an instruction in 1975 that instructed the use of the Navy Jack in place of the union jack for that year.[17]  A few years later in 1980, the Secretary of the Navy issued another directive that instructed the oldest Navy ship in active duty status to display the rattlesnake jack.[18]

Since 1980, the Navy Jack has been flown on the oldest active duty ship which has included destroyer tenders, repair ships, ammunition ships, aircraft carriers and amphibious transport and command ships. [19]  Since 2014, the Navy Jack has been flying on the USS Blue Ridge, a command ship stationed in Yokosuka Japan.[20]
In 2002 and recognition of the Global War on Terrorism, the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the Navy Jack in lieu of the Union Jack for all ships.[21]  The instruction emphasized the importance and significance of the Navy Jack by declaring that “The temporary substitution of this Jack represents an historic reminder of the nation’s and Navy’s origin and will to persevere and triumph.”[22]

In September 2001, the fast attack submarine USS Key West, was redirected to the North Arabian Sea and was the first asset on station and within striking distance following the September 11 terrorist attacks. [23]  It is only fitting that the Key West was the first to raise the Navy Jack in September 2002.[24]  Along with being hoisted on Navy ships, the Navy Jack is a sign of strength and heritage that is worn by the Navy special warfare community.[25]

More recently, the Navy Jack has become known for informal memorials, signs of protest or commemoration.[26]  No matter where the Navy jack is flown, its heritage stands for a never give up attitude of resolution and purpose.


[1] Naval Jack of the United States, Wikipedia (April 6, 2013),

[2] Even Whitney Smith, the director of the Flag Research Center, agrees that the design of the First Navy Jack is not known. HISTORY OF THE FIRST U.S. NAVY JACK, THE DON’T TREAD ON ME FLAG, United States Flag Store (last visited Jan. 12, 2018).

[3] The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, Naval History and Heritage Command, (July 28 2003),

[4] Id.

[5] First Navy Jack, Wikipedia (Oct. 1, 2017),; The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3.

[6] The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] John Jay penned a letter in 1776 that remarked, “As to continental Colors, the Congress have made no order as yet respecting them, and I believe the Captains of their armed Vessels have in that particular been directed by their own fancies and Inclinations. I remember to have seen a flag designed for one of them on which was extremely well painted a Rattle Snake rearing his Crest and shaking his Rattles, with this Motto “Dont tread on me”. But whether this Device was generally adopted by the fleet, I am not able to say.” Id.

[9] Gadsden Flag Clip Art,, (last visited Jan. 14, 2018); see Christopher Gadsden & Esek Hopkins, The Gadsden Flag’s Namesake, (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[10] The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3.

[11] Id.

[12] First Navy Jack, supra note 5.

[13] The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2

Franklin and Adams to the Ambassador of Naples, American Memory, (last visited Jan. 13, 2018); see The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3.

[14] First Navy Jack, supra note 5.

[15] Gadsden flag, Wikipedia (Jan. 13, 2018),

[16] The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] First Navy Jack, supra note 5; see NH 83494-KN “Don’t Tread on Me” Jack, Naval History and Heritage Command, (last visited Jan 13, 2018).

[20] USS Blue Ridge,, (last visited Jan. 13, 2017).

[21] SECNAV Instruction 10520.6, Wikisource (February 2, 2013),; see The U.S. Navy’s First Jack, supra note 3; Susan Civitillo, All U.S. Navy Ships to Begin Flying First Navy Jack on Patriot Day, (Sept. 9, 2002),

[22] SECNAV Instruction 10520.6, supra note 21.

[23] Phil Eggman, First Navy Jack Flies Until End of War, (Sept. 13, 2002),

[24] Id.

[25] See Dan Lamothe, Navy SEALs want more ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ patches, eight months after controversy, The Washington Post (June 16, 2014),; see also Christian Lowe, Navy announces new patches and insignia for sailors and special operators, We Are the Mighty (Aug. 5 2016),

[26] Winslow Townson, Photos: Flowers, prayers near the Boston Marathon finish line, The Boston Globe, (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).

[27] NH 1142 Rattlesnake flag, Naval History and Heritage Command, (last visited Jan. 14, 2018).