(Excerpted from United Symbolism of America by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.)
The eagle was a “national bird” in this country long before the white men arrived. Most historians show the derivation of America’s national bird from early European and Middle Eastern influences, but none of them places enough emphasis on the eagle’s high status as a symbol among the Native Americans. As evidenced in the totem poles and petroglyphs found across the continent, the First Peoples had already entrained this land to the spirit of the eagle through their centuries of sympathetic emulation, making the eagle a natural choice for the white men when it came time for them to pick their own symbols. Though it may not have been conscious, and it certainly wasn’t documented in writing, the fact that both the native peoples and the European settlers both elevated the eagle to be the “bird above all birds” was more than a coincidence.
The Native American connection to the Great Seal eagle is made through Charles Thomson, the Founding Father most responsible for the selection of the eagle for the United States’ new symbol. As a young man, Thomson had been adopted into the Delaware Indian tribe (Lenapi). In recognition of his fairness and integrity he was given an Indian name meaning “Man who tells the truth.” His upright honesty was a quality admired by his colleagues of European descent, as well, who had a saying something like “It’s as true as if Charles Thomson had said it.” Though he was never an elected delegate to the Continental Congress, he served as its Secretary for all 15 years of its existence, earning great renown for the unbiased and careful minutes that he recorded of the proceedings, debates and decisions made during these momentous years. Charles Thomson and John Hancock were the only two people to actually sign the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July 1776.
As we detail further in Founding Fathers, Secret Societies, Thomson is among many of the principle Founding Fathers who recorded in writing their admiration of the “noble savages,” as Thomas Jefferson called them. John Adams wrote his observations of the native form of government in his influential Defence of the Constitution in 1787, saying “[G]reat philosophers and politicians of the age [are attempting to] set up governments of ... modern Indians.”1 Thomas Paine said in 1797, “There is not, in that state [the Indians of North America], any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets of Europe.”2 But most importantly to this chapter, Charles Thomson, the principle designer of the obverse of the Great Seal, said in March of 1788, “The Iroquois . . . [are] like the old Romans in the time of Gaul.”3