Don’t Tread On Me: A Modern-Day Survivalist Motto & Its History. 

 November 10, 2020

By  Mike Millerson

Don’t tread on me or how a rattlesnake became the symbol of liberty and survival skills. The ideology of fierce independence without tyranny goes back to the old days of Gadsden Flag, which held the inscription. The philosophy is inspired by riots and desire for freedom, which brought the patriots of the United States to victory over corrupt governments. Dive deep with us and take the inspiration of the past to increase your morale today and win the battle over nowadays hazards.

“Don’t tread on me” is not just a title of Metallica’s 1991 hit. This is the phrase that depicts the very gist of the American way of life, and it is no surprise that you can see it on one of the most famous United States traditional flags – the Gadsden flag.

This article will shed some light on the history of the Gadsden flag, the concept behind its visuals and its famous slogan, and how it relates to the modern-day survivalist philosophy.


What is the American spirit? Is there really such a thing? And if there is, how can we describe it?

Answering these questions will take us looking back at the United States’ history and how this nation made itself. Centuries ago, the driving force of the soon-to-be Americans was self-support. Pioneers had to work their own way to inhabit the land, build households, hunt, work their fields and get by. So historically, this state of autonomy and self-reliance has been intertwined with how generations of Americans saw the world. The knowledge that there might be no help coming from anywhere has shaped this nation.

So it will not be much of a stretch to say that if there IS some particular thing that we can use to call it the American spirit, the thing must be “survival.” The state of awareness and preparedness for the worst-case scenarios that may occur is what defines the Americans historically.

The world is a scary and dangerous place. And who could know this better than early America’s frontiers? And later on, their descendants – the people who built the United States.

The idea that what you work on should belong to you and in no way can be subject to outside interference, and that, if needed, you will fight for your right to live and work the way you feel is right has been best represented in one of the oldest symbols of America – the Gadsden flag.

In this article, you will learn more about the “rattlesnake flag,” its historical background and symbolism, the place it occupies in modern-day America, and how it affected today’s survivalists’ philosophy.


The Rattlesnake: One of the Oldest Symbols in the United States

Pretty much of what is to be said in this article has already been covered in the video below. We encourage you to watch it. But if YouTube educational videos are not your style, feel free to proceed with our article.

So rattlesnakes, right? What is the connection between rattlesnakes and American history? You may get surprised, but many people don’t really know where the coiled rattlesnake symbol comes from and what it actually means.

Well, for the very least, rattlesnakes were common reptile species in the terrains of the 13 initial North American colonies. But there is a lot more to this topic. Let’s refresh our memory and look back at young America.

The year is 1754. A politician you might have heard of – Benjamin Franklin – creates the first-ever political sketch to be printed in the American press. The said sketch contained an image of a rattlesnake severed into eight sections. Each of the sections depicted the first eight colonies. At the head of the serpent was New England, and at the tail – the state of South Carolina. The slogan under the image read: “Join or Die.”


Franklin’s sketch served as a call to join together to survive. And it appeared years before the American Revolution took place. Later, the severed snake symbol was utilized again as a statement again the tyranny of Britain.

Then, Franklin’s sketch was chosen by Paul Rever for the logo of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper that he owned. It took place in 1774 – the American Revolution was just a year away.

The concept behind the image of a dead and severed snake is easy to read into: it means the loss of unity, the state of alienation, and the weakness it brings before the future hardships, enemies ready to tear the separated colonies to shreds.

Whereas, the opposite image – a rattlesnake aggressively showing its poisonous fangs as a threat to whoever dared to tread on it – would shortly become the new colonial symbol.

But still, the question remains:

  • Why Franklin chose the rattle-snake? What was so special in that animal that made him put its image onto the political poster?

Well, Benjamin Franklin himself commented on the matter in 1775, right after the Revolutionary War began. In his anonymous letter signed as “An American Guesser,” the future president of the United States made his point on why he thought that the rattle-snake was the proper symbol of America.

Franklin wrote that rattle-snakes are only found within the North American continent. And in this matter, these animals seemed purely American to him, thus becoming the obvious choice to portray the young country in its strife for sovereignty from the tyrant government overseas.

Another point that Franklin made in his letter to the Pennsylvania Journal is that rattlesnakes differed not only from other animals but were unique within their own class of serpents. He praised rattlesnakes for their natural features, such as extremely bright eyes with no eyelids. Rattlesnakes, as Franklin pointed out, never tend to strike first. But should they encounter an aggressor, they will attack in a blink of an eye and will never surrender.

Rattle-snake bite is deadly, Franklin wrote, and that is why rattlesnakes don’t bite unless they are left with no other choice. But they always warn their opponent to step away by rattling with their tail. Seemingly defenseless, rattle-snake is the very death in disguise.

That was how Benjamin Franklin viewed America – while the young country could look defenseless, it concealed the great power within itself, the power to retaliate against hostility and kill the enemy with its deadly poison. Just like the rattle-snake, when trodden on, the country turned into an unstoppable force. This image was just what America needed in the days of the Revolutionary war.

The History of the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden flag is the most famous example of where that aggressive symbol was applied. The banner composed by Christopher Gadsden portrays an angered rattle-snake against the yellow backdrop and the phrase “Don’t tread on me” below it. That is why the Gadsden flag is sometimes referred to as a “rattle-snake flag” or a “don’t-tread-on-me flag.”

But what is the story behind the Gadsden flag?

This story takes us back to 1775. Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina-born colonel of the continental army, resides in the Marine Committee, where he represents his home state. In that very year, the Second Continental Congress decides to send five troops of Marines to fight the Brits. The drums those marines used were painted in yellow and had a drawing of a rattle-snake accompanied by the words “Don’t tread on me.”

The Continental army Colonel Gadsden himself, as a member of the Marine Committee, was about to depart for the said mission. On the day of the departure, Colonel Gadsden gave his rattle-snake flag to the commander-in-chief Esek Hopkins. Later, Gadsden introduced his flag in the Congress of South Carolina as a possible standard banner for the Navy.

However, the Gadsden flag had more than one variation. For instance, the Culpeper Minutemen picked the rattle-snake image but placed it against the white background with the words “Liberty or Death” just above the “Don’t tread on me” motto. This flag modification was used by the Virginia militia crews of the Culpeper region.

Another example of the rattle-snake visual use is the Seal of War Office. In 1778 this image became an element of the official US army emblem. There, a rattle-snake is seen holding a banner with the slogan “This we’ll defend.” For almost two and a half centuries now, that rattle-snake has been the symbol of the US military forces.

The Rattle-snake Flag Today

So what does this flag stand for today?

Over the years, the rattle-snake flag has gotten new interpretations and now is used to manifest a whole bunch of ideas, beliefs, and doctrines. But before we dive into all that, let’s focus on something very obvious.

The rattle-snake banner stands for patriotism, national integrity, and independence. This meaning is easy to read into thanks to history. Having emerged in the days of the struggle against oppression and foreign tyranny, the Gadsden banner bears this concept of national pride and aptness to fight back.

Just like the Confederate Battle flag serves to symbolize southern pride, the Gadsden flag symbolizes the integrity of the whole nation.

However, there is more to this flag.

Another reading of this emblem is rebellion. Quite often, this means resistance against the oppression of your own government. No wonder why of all the flags in the culture of the US, it is the Gadsden flag that is used by the likes of libertarian political groups or activists of the Tea Party movement. In such a context, the Gadsden flag portrays how an individual or a group of individuals strives for freedom against the will of a government.

For instance, many people in the US are concerned about how often the government is interfering with the life of the nation and sometimes attempting to question its traditioты, such as the gun rights guaranteed by the second amendment. The Tea Party patriotic movement, in particular, is striving to protect this constitutional right at all costs possible.

And here we get to the point of our story where the Gadsden flag becomes subject to controversies.

The Gadsden Flag Controversies

You see, back in the day, the US was built by rich white people who were, for the lack of a better word, slave owners. So it is no surprise that Gadsden himself was a slave owner and a slave trader. In the modern-day United States, this historical fact has led to a number of cases that put the famous rattle-snake banner into a very unpleasant context – racial discrimination.

In 2016, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got to contemplate a racial harassment complaint from an anonymous employee. A complainant claimed that one of their co-workers once came to work sporting a hat with a Gadsden emblem on it. Assumingly, the complainant was African-American and remembering the background of the flag and its creator. They saw the situation as a case of public display of racial hatred. And so the complaint was filed.

The EEOC reasoned that while the Gadsden banner itself is not racially discriminative, still, it can be used as such dependent on the context. And although there are law scholars, like Eugene Volokh, who believe that such a conclusion may threaten the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment, however, more disputes about the yellow rattle-snake banner and the message it can convey are yet to come.

For instance, there was the case in New Haven, Connecticut, where a vice-president of the International Association of the Black Firefighters, responding to a racial discrimination complaint, removed the Gadsden banner from the fire department flagpole stating that it was just as racist as the Confederate Battle Flag that is often used by white supremacy groups in the US.

However weird and historically unfair it may seem, there is a certain amount of truth to that. It is enough to remember the tragic shootings that took place in Las Vegas in 2014. Having fatally shot two police officers, the perpetrators placed a swastika onto one of them and hung a rattle-snake banner on the crime scene. It is not completely clear whether the murderers identified themselves with the far-right extremists or viewed the policemen as such. But their actions put the Gadsden banner into a controversial context.


It’s been ages since the US was only a bunch of separated colonies resembling the severed serpent – weak and defenseless. Today, this nation is still bearing a resemblance to a rattle-snake – calm but ready to attack and protect whatever it holds dear.

This is why – despite the aforementioned controversies – the Gadsden banner means so much to a lot of Americans. Apart from misguiding accusations and false insinuations, this banner stands for what originally made America what it is now: liberty, independence, self-support, and resolution to accept challenges and fight. Whether against the hardships of everyday life, foreign aggressors, or, if there’s a need, against domestic tyrants.

It is not at all a flag of hostility but a flag showing Americans for what they historically are – the survivalist nation.


What is the Origin of Don’t Tread On Me?

The Don’t-tread-on-me banner was created by the Continental Congress member colonel Gadsden in 1775. South Carolina representative introduced his banner to be accepted as the military standard during the Revolution.

What Branch of the Military is Don’t Tread On Me?

Since 1778, the rattle-snake image has been used as the element of the Seal of the United States military forces. But originally, the don’t-tread-on-me banner was used by the US Marine corps during the fight against British oppression.

Where Can I Buy a Don’t-Tread-On-Me Flag Near me?

You can buy the rattle-snake banner almost everywhere these days: from hypermarkets like Walmart to online shops like Amazon. You can also look for these flags in military stores.

What Does “No Step on SNEK” Mean?

“No step on sneak” is a sort of oversimplified and distorted manner of saying, “Don’t step on the snake.” This is a bad-English parody take on the famous slogan “Don’t tread on me” written on the Gadsden banner depicting an uptight rattle-snake with its mouth open, ready to bite.

Mike Millerson

A former USA Army sergeant and a highly educated survivalist and prepper with a degree and interest in Engineering and Electronics, Mike Millerson applies his extensive expertise in survivalism, homesteading, backpacking, hiking and hunting, spreading his deep knowledge about handling emergencies and prepping for them reasonably and effectively. In the core of his principal mission is a desire to be a helpful guide into the world of survival for all those who seek practical advice in the rapidly changing world.

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