The Mysteries of the Great Seal, Lost Treasures, and Secret Messages
After declaring independence from Great Britain on July 4th, 1776, the new nation of America recognized their need for an official Seal. They immediately organized a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for the designing of the Great Seal of the United States. This initial committee was unsuccessful in their attempts for creating a seal, and so it would be six years later, on June 20th, 1782, and after two more committees were established, that the Continental Congress would finally approve a design for the seal.
History of the Bald Eagle on the Great Seal
While it may be hard to imagine the Seal without the image of the eagle, the suggestion to include the powerful bird as a prominent feature did not happen on first thought. Only a small eagle on a shield had made its appearance with the first committee’s proposal, and it wasn’t until the forming of the third committee in May 1782 that the eagle became appreciated and enlarged to be the commanding symbol of today.
The third committee submitted to Congress a design by William Barton which included an eagle holding a small flag within its talons. Still unconvinced of the full version outlined by the third committee, Congress appointed Charles Thomson hoping he could complete the challenging task. It would seem it was the eagle of Barton’s which inspired Thomson with creating the final accepted drawing.
Olive Branch and Arrows on the Great Seal
Charles Thomson sketched a design which had included the American bald eagle, and also had pulled many elements and ideas from the three previous committees together. With a few minor adjustments, it was this drawing which would capture the mind of Congress on June 20th 1782 and become the Great Seal of the United States.
Thomson’s illustration had the talons of the American bald eagle hold an olive branch on the right side and arrows on the left. These symbols represented peace and war. Through the eagle’s beak a scroll with the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) was drawn. Above the eagle was a constellation of 13 stars representing the 13 original states and supported by the eagle was the shield with 13 stripes.
The Reverse Side of the Great Seal
Charles Thomson changed the reverse side of the seal only minimally from what William Barton had previously drawn. Barton suggested an unfinished pyramid with 13 steps and the all-seeing eye overhead. He had included mottoes, but Thomson changed these mottoes to Annuit Coeptius (Providence has favored our undertakings) and Novus Ordo Seclorum (new order of ages). The roman numerals of MDCCLXXVI were placed at the base of the pyramid.
The Mysterious Direction of the Bald Eagle on the Great Seal
Once the Great Seal of the United States was accepted, the first die was cut in 1782, and was used to seal and authenticate important documents of the United States. Over time the dies can become worn and replacements are needed to be made. With these replacements, artistic changes can be made from the original design of 1782. There have been seven different die cuts over the years (1782, 1825, 1841, 1854, 1877, 1885, and 1904).
One of the most obvious changes is the depiction of the American bald eagle. The eagle was first depicted with very thin and scrawny legs. On the replacement die of 1885 the appearance of the eagle became vigorous and muscular. This change actively displayed the growing strength of the States. It should also be mentioned that the direction of the eagle’s head faces to the right over the olive branches. This position has remained constant with the Great Seal in use.
However, the Presidential Flag and Seal which are very similar to the Great Seal has had the direction of the eagle change. Woodrow Wilson in 1916 changed the direction of the bald eagle to face over the arrows because of World War I. In 1945 President Truman issued an executive order which stated the eagle should face the same direction as the Great Seal. It was decided America should always symbolize and stand for a peaceful and honorable nation.
There are examples of the eagle facing in the other direction during wartime found in items which were made before 1945. One is a map created by S.A. Mitchell in 1846 displayed at Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in Staunton, Virginia. Here the Eagle is seen facing over the arrows.
But one of the most mysterious things about the way the Eagle faces (or the placements of the arrows and olive branches) is from the discovery of 3 different Dies, very similar to the Original Seal of 1782, believed to authentic, but yet unknown for who or why they were created.
One is famously referred to as the Dorsett Seal, and is thought to have been part of George Washington’s possessions and passed down from there. On the Dorsett Seal the arrows and olive branches are reversed, having the Eagle face over the arrows.
The same difference was noted on two additional Dies found in 2007 in Rhode Island. Treasures in deed! Although a search has been done on Government papers to see if these Seal Die’s were ever used, nothing was found.
The origin and purpose for their creation remains a mystery. Without any written record, or uses of the Seal Dies known, it continues to be of a question. Are uses of these dies ‘Lost Treasures’ or don’t they exist? Again, no one knows for certain, but it’s something to keep an eye for: Just like the lost treasures of the Dunlap Broadsides being found in the last years.
Lost Treasure of the Great Seal
Another possible Lost Treasure to find is a carpet featuring the Great Seal in center which was made in 1791 for Congress Hall in Philadelphia. The carpet is 22×40 feet and although a replica was made in 1978, the original carpet’s location is lost. When the government moved to Washington D.C. in 1800 it is thought the carpet did not go with, and stayed in Philadelphia, but what eventually happened to it is unknown.
You may think it impossible to still exist somewhere, but there are many mysterious things, like the Mysterious Dies of the Great Seal or Dunlap Broadsides mentioned above, which re-surface after many years of being lost. The carpet is a beautiful piece of history and surely a treasure, if found. Can it be? Hmmm.
Secret Messages of the Great Seal
While many conspiracies proliferate about the chosen symbols on the Great Seal to reveal secret messages or share hidden meanings, there is an actual fact that the Great Seal did at one time provide secret messages. Just maybe not the kind the conspiracy theorists so often speak of.
The secret messages were the result of what was called The Thing. You gotta love it! The historical tale is in 1945 a Carved Wooden plaque depicting the Great Seal, called now The Thing, was given to the U.S. Ambassador Harriman by the Soviets as a gift of friendship. But inside this gift was hidden the Great Seal Bug- a listening device placed there by the Soviets. For seven years it hung in the Ambassador’s study, providing Secret Messages to the Soviets, until in 1952 the bug was discovered and taken away.
One ‘Thing’ I find humorous about this story is it now hangs in the NSA’S National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, and then one of our own Listening/Recording Devises used on the Soviets (Operation Ivy Bells) hangs in a Museum in Moscow.
I wonder what else we have given them, and them us. If found, the museums might start becoming full.
Great Seal Symbolism
The designers of the Great Seal wanted to loudly share the nation’s beliefs and values through the symbolism displayed within it. No secret messages here. The eagle, and all the design, by representing strength, liberty, and freedom for all, proudly reveals the thoughts of a great nation coming together for the pursuits of American Dreams.
Best of luck with all that you seek! Treasure the Adventure!