In fall 1775, the United States Navy was established to intercept incoming British ships carrying war supplies to the British troops in the colonies. To aid in this, the Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on their first mission. The first Marines that enlisted were from Philadelphia and they carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag’s symbolism.
At the Congress, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden represented his home state of South Carolina. He was one of three members of the Marine Committee who were outfitting the first naval mission. It is unclear whether Gadsden took his inspiration from the Marines’ drums, or if he inspired them himself.
Before the departure of that first mission, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, received the yellow rattlesnake flag described above from Gadsden to serve as his distinctive personal standard.
Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to the South Carolina legislature in Charleston, South Carolina. This was recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:
Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”