The Curious Case of “No Step on Snek”

no step on snek culepper minuteman flag
May 10, 2024  
Categories: Learnin'

Has anyone ever told you, “No Step on Snek?” Probably not. But you may have seen it online and briefly wondered what it means. If you thought it’s a dumbed down version of the American Revolution’s Gadsden Flag, you’re right. But its origins are clouded in a political, social media, and pop culture haze, with different theories about where it came from and even what it actually means.

We did some digging, and uncovered a muddied narrative that explains at least part of this elusive phrase, its meaning, and its proper usage, which depends on your views and situation. Told you it was muddy. So, read on, and watch where you step.

Early Origins

No Step on Snek is a relatively new phenomenon, but its roots go back to before the French & Indian War, which was the North American component of the wider Seven Years War between Great Britain, France, and their respective allies. Historians date the war from 1756 to 1763, but trouble was brewing for several years before that.

Competing claims to the land west of the Allegheny Mountains caused friction between British and French colonists, the latter of whom had ascended the St. Lawrence River, into the Great Lakes region, and south to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The American colonies, though ruled by Great Britain, were split on whether to fight the French settlers over what some saw as encroachment on American claims.

join or die

Benjamin Franklin’s original Join or Die woodcut first appeared in the May 9, 1754, edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette. (Public Domain)

Responding to colonial disunity, Benjamin Franklin published the first American political cartoon on May 9, 1754. It was a woodcut of a severed rattlesnake, titled Join or Die. Each segment was labeled as a different American colony, with New England as the head. Delaware was not represented because it didn’t yet exist, and Franklin inexplicably left Georgia out altogether.

Franklin’s point was that the colonies must unite against a common enemy. Being a worldly man, Franklin understood that the looming war would be much more than a provincial border dispute. In fact, many historians see the Seven Years War as the first true World War. The North American part was a sideshow, but it was deadly serious to the participants.

Franklin and others recognized that French colonies to their west would always threaten the British colonies, especially given time to expand and increase their strength. Better to fight them when they were relatively weak, and their parent country embroiled in a much wider war.

Join or Die was the first of a long series of American symbols using the rattlesnake. Franklin himself admired the rattlesnake, which he thought a good representation of American values, writing in 1775 that, “…she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, once engaged, ever surrenders…’Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces.”

That Franklin wrote those lines in 1775, the year the American Revolution went hot, is no coincidence. Franklin, once again, was using the rattlesnake to rally American unity against Great Britain. Those words inspired a South Carolina Congressional delegate named Christopher Gadsden, bringing us closer to the modern No Step on Snek.

Christopher Gadsden

Christopher Gadsden made his first flag for Commodore Esek Hopkins, the first Commander-in Chief of the Continental Navy. Painting by Charles Fraser. (Public Domain)

Dont Tread on Me

Christopher Gadsen created the flag in 1775 for Commodore Esek Hopkins, who hoisted it on his flagship, the USS Alfred. Esek was named the Continental Navy’s first Commander-in-Chief two days later. The Continental Marines flew a similar flag early in the war.

the original gadsden flag

The original Gadsden Flag.

Gadsden, like Franklin, meant for his flag to warn Great Britain against violating the American colonists’ liberties. The flag also represented vigilance and was possibly the American Revolution’s most enduring symbol. The original flag lacked an apostrophe in the word “Dont,” though some later versions included it. Gadsden Flag variations appeared as the first American Navy Jack and on several Minutemen company flags, including Virginia’s Culpeper Minutemen, formed in 1775.

No Step on Snek

You can probably see where this is going by now. Later generations inevitably have their own take on historical objects and phrases. Social media has accelerated those trends. Urban Dictionary and Reddit are often indispensable resources when trying to navigate online slang. No Step on Snek is pretty obvious, especially when you look at the artistic renditions accompanying the phrase itself.

no step on snek flag

The military’s use of No Step on Snek is apparent. (Untied Status Marin Crops Instagram)

The simplistic language is usually paired with rudimentary drawings of a snake on a yellow field. Many examples look like they were drawn by children. But No Step on Snek is very deliberate. It’s a reductionist take on a classic symbol, often meant to be humorous, though the verbal or textual versions can be more practical. Someone up in your business? You might tell them “No Step on Snek.” Or you might not, considering it’s an uncommon saying for a niche crowd. But it does happen. More likely, you’ll use it in social media interactions when someone is ragging you. Either way, it means “back off.”

Who Started No Step on Snek?

Well, that’s difficult to pinpoint. Some say it comes from the Gadsden Flag’s emergence among right-wing political movements like the Tea Party. Left-wing opponents supposedly started saying “No Step on Snek,” accompanied by the simplistic drawings, to imply that those folks were stupid. I’ve seen it used that way, along with other symbols and sayings. Political opponents on both sides love co-opting and lampooning each other’s imagery.

no step on snek coffee mug

Of course it’s on a coffee mug. (Untied Status Marin Crops Instagram)

I also tracked No Step on Snek to a seemingly abandoned Instagram account called “Untied Status Marin Crops.” Yes, you read that correctly. The page looks like it was run by a serviceman, and it made fun of military life through wickedly sharp memes, often with deliberately misspelled verbiage. No Step on Snek flags are featured prominently. It looks like many photos were submitted by servicemen stationed all over the world, including their own versions of the flag.

Those appear to be the two most likely origin points for No Step on Snek, though I couldn’t say which came first. I think it’s unlikely, however, that they did it independently of one another. Either way, pop culture absorbed the phrase through osmosis.

I’ve also seen other adaptations, including a t-shirt I bought saying “Step on Snek and Find Out.” Curiously, the reactions I’ve gotten to the shirt bear out the two origin theories. I’ve had military guys laugh at it, clearly associating it with the Gadsden Flag’s original meaning. But my decidedly left-wing son-in-law laughed because he associated it with insulting right-wingers. He even expressed surprise that I, an avowed right-winger, would wear it. We both found it amusing.

no step on snek

Another clever variant. (Marin Crops Instagram)

Take it How You Want

No Step on Snek speaks to different people in different ways. Good symbols, or phrases, often do that. Want to tell people to back off? No Step on Snek. Looking for a modern form of a patriotic theme? No Step on Snek. Feel the need to insult right-leaning political opponents? You get the point. No Step on Snek works because it appeals to modern sensibilities that often think in “text speak” like LOL, OMG, and probably many others I have no clue about.

But the trend speaks to the original rendition’s powerful symbolism. Franklin and Gadsden understood that power and its effect on their target audience, whether public or military. No Step on Snek does the same. It’s just updated for the Social Media crowd. You may find it stupid. You may find it edgy. Or maybe just funny. But I’ll wager that you instinctively get it, no matter how it’s used. Enduring symbols are like that.

Bucky Lawson

Bucky Lawson

About the Author

William "Bucky" Lawson has had a thing for military history since the sixth grade when he picked up a book about World War I fighter aces. Since then he has studied warriors from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with a special emphasis on World War II. He's a member of the Saber & Scroll Historical Society, the Historical Studies Honor Society, the Society for Military History, and Pi Gamma Mu (that's not an Asian stripper- it's the International Honor Society in Social Sciences). He has an unabashed love of the USA, military surplus bolt action rifles, AK-47s, and Walther handguns. He despises incabination and likes hamburgers, dogs, and cigars, but really who doesn't? Sissies and vegans, that's who. Bucky contributes to Strategy & Tactics Press, has a Masters Degree in Military History, and will probably proclaim himself an academic and wear one of those jackets with the patches on the elbows soon. Could be he'll run down a PhD, maybe he'll go hunting instead - Bucky likes the charred flesh of something that once had a parent, especially if he killed it himself. He is currently trying to figure out a way to export Texas politics to his native Virginia. Breach-Bang-Clear readers who talk to Bucky will be happy to know he's only half the redneck he sounds and really isn't inbred at all. Or not too much anyway, which is why he gets along so well with our other polrumptions. You can find historical bibliognost on Linkedin here.


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