An American Heraldic Primer

by Philip D. Blanton, MA


In her 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, Emily Post erroneously stated that:

As there is no such thing as heraldry in America, the use of a coat of arms is as much a foreign custom as the speaking of a foreign tongue; but in certain communities where old families have used their crests continuously since the days when they brought their device—and their right to it—from Europe, the use of it is suitable and proper.

This seems to sum up what many Americans believe about heraldry. However, Mrs. Post not only contradicted herself, but was immeasurably wrong. Heraldry has been very much alive and well in America since the first Europeans set foot on the continent. It is as much a part of our heritage as our language, laws, or any other part of the common Western culture in which Americans share. Unfortunately, thanks to Mrs. Post and others before her who failed to understand the true nature of heraldry, many Americans also misunderstand the nature of armorial bearings. 

Having read that a coat of arms or “crest” is only something for “old” families, many Americans believe that only snobs or the aristocracy have an interest in heraldry. That is not the case. Instead, American heraldry is for anyone who has a certain respect for themselves and their heritage. It can be something as personal as to be interchangeable with ones signature and at the same time as public as a company’s insignia. Despite the views of many who considered personal coats of arms an undemocratic survival of the feudal past, personal heraldry continued to be used as it always had been, by families whose arms had been brought over by their immigrant ancestors, by those who designed new arms of their own, and (unfortunately) by those who simply appropriated for themselves the arms of some unrelated family of the same name.

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Historical Background

No one can say with any certainty exactly when or where heraldry originated. Most scholars, however, agree that heraldry as we now know it—as a hereditary system of personal identity displayed primarily on the shield—began to evolve around the beginning of the 12th century in northwestern Europe. According to the most widely accepted explanation, developments in the armor that by this time covered the mounted knight from head to toe made it difficult to recognize him in the heat of battle. Thus, knights with significant followings of foot soldiers began painting designs on their shields, as well as carrying flags and wearing surcoats over their armor emblazoned with the same design that was on the shield. (The prominence of the surcoat as a canvas for displaying the knight’s personal armorial devices is believed to be the origin of the term “coat of arms.”) This colorful means of graphically representing identity soon gained in popularity, not only across much of the rest of Europe, but throughout all the ranks the hierarchical societies of the time. By 1400, coats of arms were being used not only by the knightly class but by prominent town-dwellers, churchmen, artisans, and even simple farmers. Furthermore, they were also used as signs of corporate identity by all kinds of collective bodies such as guilds, cities, monasteries, and colleges.

The term "heraldry" itself was a vocational word that encompassed all the duties of a herald. Acting as a messenger between rival nobles or hostile armies, the medieval herald held an important if ancillary place in the medieval power structure. After the advent of coat armor, the duties of a herald expanded to include the recording of the coats of arms of as many nobles, knights, and other “armigers”—persons who bore armorial devices—as possible. On the battlefield or at tournaments, the herald was expected to be able to identify from their armorial bearings the knights who were present and give an account of their battle record and reputation. In order to carry out this task more effectively, heralds created their own terminology, called "blazon," to describe the various coats of arms they encountered. It is this science of blazoning that creates so much of a sense of awe and mysticism surrounding heraldry, giving it a special appeal for many who study its traditions while at the same time creating the impression that it is inaccessible to modern Americans. The purpose of this primer is to make heraldry seem less esoteric.

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Heraldry in the US

a1Heraldic pageantry was at its height by the time European explorers began to cross the Atlantic in search of a new world, so it is not surprising that the Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Swedish settlers who came to North America in the 16th to 18th centuries brought the trappings of heraldry with them. The Spanish, who established the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in America at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, brought the royal heraldry of Spain with them. Furthermore, the Spanish royal arms can still be seen carved above the sally port at St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos, built in the 1670s (figure 1). The town of St. Augustine itself was granted its own coat of arms by King Philip V in 1715 (figure 2). 

1dThe first coat of arms to be granted in America was by the English College of Arms to the City of Raleigh, named after its founder and first governor Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1586. The Virginia Company, which settled Jamestown, adopted a coat of arms without official approval from the English heraldic establishment as early as 1619 (figure 3). These arms were used by the Colony and Dominion of Virginia until its independence in 1776. Similarly, the Plymouth Company, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with the Pilgrims, also adopted its own armorial seal, which the modern town of Plymouth, Massachusetts still uses. Rhode Island’s state arms, a golden anchor on a blue shield, are derived from the seal adopted by the founders of the colony in 1647. Some colonies, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, used the arms of their proprietors as their official symbols. The arms of the Calvert Lords Baltimore are still found to this day on the seal and flag of the State of Maryland. 

Not only was heraldry used by the colonies themselves, but cities and colleges adopted coats of arms also. In 1686 the Common Council of New York City adopted the arms that are still used by the city to this day. Harvard’s Board of Overseers adopted arms of their own design in 1643, while the College of William and Mary was granted arms by the English heralds in 1694. Early American heraldry can also be seen in the personal coat of arms of many founding fathers including George Washington (figure 4), Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and John Hancock.

Following independence from Britain, all of the former colonies adopted official seals, the majority of them of armorial design. Then, in 1782, Congress approved the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States which has on the front side the official coat of arms of the United States (figure 5). At about the same time, the Congressional finance committee adopted a coat of arms that still serves as that of the Department of the Treasury. Since then, each of the new states have adopted their own seals, many of them containing coats of arms. 

Each branch of the US armed forces has its own heraldry. It has become so prolific that the US Army has established The Institute of Heraldry to provide heraldic services to all US government agencies. Additionally, many American counties, cities, and towns, colleges and universities, churches and religious organizations, fraternal societies, and even a considerable number of businesses (figure 6) have their own coats of arms. 

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Obtaining American Arms

There are many countries that have had official authorities with the responsibilities of granting, recording, or certifying the rights of their subjects to use particular coats of arms. The exact degree of regulation varied from place to place and time to time. In most countries, even some of those that grant arms as a sign of the sovereign’s favor, common people could legally adopt and use arms of their own devising. In others countries, such as the United Kingdom, no person has the legal right to a coat of arms without the approval of the official heraldic authorities. In the United States, however, there is no such heraldic regulation, and citizens are legally free to assume whatever arms they like. 

While there are no legal restrictions on assuming arms, there are ethical and moral ones. Prior to assuming arms, the potential armiger should first find out whether or not the particular design he or she plans on assuming already belongs to someone else, either currently or in the past. A coat of arms is a graphic representation of the identity of its bearer, and to take someone else’s arms either intentionally or negligently is the moral equivalent of identity theft. While there is less danger of any legal consequences for this in the United States as there would be in some other countries, it is still morally wrong. 

It should be noted that by simply having the same last name as someone else does not necessarily entitle them to adopt and use the other person's arms. In most cases it must be proven that there is a direct line of descent from the original armiger to the potential armiger before it would be appropriate for a descendant bearing the same surname to use those same arms as his or her own. Without showing any evidence of descent from the original armiger, or obtaining their explicit permission, it would be dishonest, disrespectful, and misleading for someone to use the original person’s arms as their own. Instead, the person who wants arms of his or her own should design new arms to represent himself and his descendants. There are many organizations that Americans can use to assist them in this process.

It is advisable for an American interested in assuming arms to contact one or more of the various heraldry societies or registration organizations for assistance. Once a person has firmly decided to assume a particular coat of arms, he or she may wish to register those arms with one or more of several organizations that have been established for this purpose. By registering their newly assumed arms, the armiger then has proof that they have used those arms since the date of registration,. Of course, any American citizen has the right to also seek a grant or registration of arms from a foreign heraldic authority or organization if he or she so desires. The requirements for such grants or registrations are set by the individual foreign institutions concerned.

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