Written by: Danielle Da Silva
Community journalist — The Sou’wester
It’s an iconic American image of patriotism and victory and has been reproduced in ways too many to count.
Archibald Willard’s painting Spirit of ’76 is celebrated by our neighbors to the south but it also has a close connection to Winnipeg.
Gail Carruthers, 97, is the great-granddaughter of the fifer on the far right of the painting: Hugh Mosher. According to Carruthers, whose family originally came from Perry, Ohio, and later Brighton, Ohio, the painting is a great likeness to her great-granddad.
“He was a farmer with a big family but he played the fife and he was in the war and he looked the right part to be in the picture, that’s what we were told.”
“He wasn’t a well-known man or anything,” Carruthers explained, surrounded by photos in her Fort Rouge period home. “He was a farmer with a big family but he played the fife and he was in the war and he looked the right part to be in the picture, that’s what we were told.”
Archibald Willard was close friends with Hugh Mosher. The two both served in the Civil War and at the conflict’s close returned to Wellington, Ohio. It was during this period, around 1876, that Willard was inspired to sketch a scene from a commemorative parade titled Yankee Doodle, which closely resembled the current Spirit of ’76. That sketch was the starting point for over a dozen variations on the painting.
“There are at least 14 versions that Willard himself did,” said history curator Emily Lang of the Ohio History Connection.
“He’s a really interesting figure especially in Ohio art. Basically his whole career, with the exception of a short stint in Chicago and his service in the Civil War, was spent in Ohio.”
While the painting at the time of its creation was considered crude by some, over the years it has become a true icon of American culture.
“It’s probably one of the most important pieces of the late 19th century,” Lang said. “Really, the reason why it is so famous is because it has been reproduced in so many different ways.”
The Spirit of ’76 has appeared in popular culture in many forms: on shopping bags, on the cover of Disney Magazine, on fabric, and as part of sales promotions, to name a few.
The print that hangs in Carruthers’s home was actually part of a mail-in promotion sponsored by Carnation Evaporated Milk. It was the 1970s, Carruthers recalled, and if you sent in a wrapper from the can of milk with 50 cents to the company, they would send you a print of one of four famous paintings.
“I sent it in to Chicago and I said I hoped I could get this because the fifer was my great-grandfather,” Carruthers recalled. “All my relatives who had sent one of these had theirs sent folded. Mine came rolled up, with no creases.”
Carruthers had the print framed and gave it to her mother as a gift. The print has remained with Carruthers since.
Despite the recognition the painting has in America, Carruthers says she doesn’t know much about her great-grandfather and her family rarely spoke about him.
“Someone said that Hugh, my great-grandfather, visited Washington once and was recognized by people, so they’d speak to him, they recognized him from the painting. I never heard anything else about him, really,” she said.
At 97, Carruthers is preparing to move from her home and has gathered the artifacts she has connected to Mosher including notes, photos, and furniture. Some of the items will be donated to museums in Brighton, Ohio where Mosher is buried and other items have been passed onto her nephew to keep the history in the family.
Carruthers says that while having a relative depicted in American iconography isn’t of much importance to her, her family history through the ages is.
“I am proud to be a Canadian but I am also proud of my American heritage,” Carruthers said. “I am ninth from the Hugh Mosher that came to the United States in 1632. So yes I am proud of them, so I like to see that picture.”