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First U.S.
Navy Jack (traditional)

The First Navy Jack is the current U.S. jack authorized by the United States Navy. The design is traditionally regarded as that of first U.S. naval jack flown in the earliest years of the republic, though little if any historical documentation supports this lore.


Historically probable first naval jack.
In late 1775, as the first ships of the Continental Navy readied in the Delaware River, Commodore Esek Hopkins issued, in a set of fleet signals, an instruction directing his vessels to fly a "striped" jack and ensign. The exact design of these flags is unknown. The ensign was likely to have been the Grand Union Flag, and the jack a simplified version of the ensign: a field of 13 horizontal red and white stripes. However, the jack has traditionally been depicted as consisting of thirteen red and white stripes charged with an uncoiled rattlesnake and the motto "Dont [sic] Tread on Me"; this tradition dates at least back to 1880, when this design appeared in a color plate in Admiral George Henry Preble's influential History of the Flag of the United States. Recent scholarship, however, has demonstrated that this inferred design never actually existed but "was a 19th-century mistake based on an erroneous 1776 engraving".

In 1778, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Naples, thanking him for allowing entry of American ships into Sicilian ports. The letter describes the American flag according to the 1777 Flag Resolution, but also describes a flag of "South Carolina, a rattlesnake, in the middle of the thirteen stripes."

The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of resistance to the British in Colonial America. The phrase "Don't tread on me" was coined during the American Revolutionary War, a variant perhaps of the snake severed in segments labelled with the names of the colonies and the legend "Join, or Die" which had appeared first in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, as a political cartoon reflecting on the Albany Congress.

The rattlesnake (specifically, the Timber Rattlesnake) is especially significant and symbolic to the American Revolution. The rattle has thirteen layers, signifying the original Thirteen Colonies. And, the snake does not strike until provoked, a quality echoed by the phrase "Don't tread on me." For more on the origin of the rattlesnake emblem, see the Gadsden flag.

Modern use

The First Navy Jack was first used in recent history during the Bicentennial year, 1976, when all commissioned naval vessels were directed to fly it for the entire year, in lieu of the standard fifty-star jack.

In 1980, Edward Hidalgo, the Secretary of the Navy, directed that the ship with the longest active status shall display the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive service. Then the flag will be passed to the next ship in line. This honor was conferred on the following U.S. Navy vessels:
  • 1981–1982: Destroyer tender , commissioned 1940
  • 1982–1993: Destroyer tender , commissioned 1940
  • 1993–1993: Submarine tender , commissioned 1943
  • 1993–1995: Repair Ship , commissioned 1944
  • 1995–1995: Ammunition ship , commissioned 1957
  • 1995–1998: Aircraft carrier , commissioned 1959
  • 1998–2009: Aircraft carrier , commissioned in 1961
  • 2009-present: Aircraft carrier , commissioned 1961

The Secretary of the Navy issued Instruction 10520.6, dated 31 May 2002, directing all Navy ships to fly the First Naval Jack as a "temporary substitution" for the Jack of the United States "during the Global War on Terrorism". Most vessels made the switch on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

This flag, along with the Serapis flag, is also featured on the crest of the .


Like other snake flags, the Navy Jack has been used as a sign of protest. Opponents to a smoking ban in Franklin, Indianamarker fly Navy Jacks outside their homes and businesses.


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