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.

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.

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. 

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.


There are some heraldic authorities that will not allow multiple people to bear identical arms even if they have the right to inherit those arms from a common ancestor. Instead, these authorities will difference such arms by the application of brissures, or cadency marks, in order to distinguish between the different cadet lines of the family. Additionally, some heraldic authorities use special brissures to identify children who were adopted or born out of wedlock. 

The English system uses brissures to distinguish each son in birth order. The eldest son uses a label only during the lifetime of his father; after his father’s death, he removes the label and bears the same arms as previously borne by his father. The Irish system uses the same symbols as the English system, but applies them to both male and female children in birth order. The Canadian system uses the English symbols for male children and a completely different set of symbols for female children. The Scottish system uses bordures of different colors and patterns in addition to the English brissures, but unlike the English system, these marks are specifically assigned in each case by the Lord Lyon King of Arms and cannot be applied by the armiger on his own. Other systems require that either the tinctures be changed or that the armigers bear a different crest. 

None of this is required or even customary in American heraldry, particularly the brissures for children who were adopted or born out of wedlock. The only exception is if brissures were displayed on the arms of the first ancestor of a family to come to the United States. In this case, the brissures should be retained on the arms of his or her descendants, but further differencing is usually not practiced. If an American adopts new arms then the use of brissures is entirely at the discretion of that armiger and his or her descendants.

Women’s Arms

A woman may, like men, assume their own coat of arms; however there are a few traditions that are unique to women’s arms. Women have traditionally displayed their arms on a lozenge or oval to show their status as noncombatants, but it has become increasingly popular for women to display gender equality by the use of a shield. A woman who inherits her father’s arms is known as a heraldic heiress. 

An armigerous married woman has the option of bearing her arms undifferenced or, more traditionally, differenced with a small contrasting escutcheon or marshaled with her husband’s arms. Non-armigerous married women may bear her husband’s arms undifferenced or, according to some traditions, with a small contrasting lozenge. A woman’s arms can be inherited by her children equally in the same way as a man’s arms.

Marshalling of Arms

Marshalling is the term applied to the practice of combining multiple arms together on a single shield. There are three areas in which marshalling is normally practiced: to show marriage, to show inheritance from multiple armigerous lines, and to indicate an office held by the armiger. 

There are four traditional ways of heraldically displaying the marriage of two armigers. One is to simply show both shields of arms accolé, or side by side with the charges respecting each other. Traditionally, the husband’s arms would be displayed to the dexter and the wife’s to the sinister. A second way of displaying marital arms is to impale the two coats. Originally, impalement was accomplished by taking the dexter half of the husband’s arms and combining them with the sinister half of the wife’s arms on the same shield. This practice is known as dimidiation. A third and more modern way to heraldically memorialize a marriage is by impaling the husband’s arms, which are squeezed in their entirety onto the dexter side of the uniting shield, with the wife’s arms, which are correspondingly squeezed onto the sinister side. With both forms of heraldic impalement, it is usual that only the wife bear the impaled arms while her husband bears his arms undifferenced. The fourth way to heraldically display a marriage is with an escutcheon of pretence. This is accomplished by placing the wife’s arms, in the form of a small escutcheon, or shield, in the center of the husband’s arms. 

In some countries, impalement is also used by persons holding certain offices. In these cases, the arms of the organization or office are placed in the dexter half of the shield and the office-holders personal arms are placed to sinister. In the United States, it is rare for such official arms to be impaled other than by prelates of certain churches denoting that they are married to the church or to their position. In addition, some senior officers of some orders have the privilege of marshalling the order’s arms with their own in various ways. 

A coat of arms is, naturally, inheritable by the armiger’s children. If both parents are armigerous, their children could inherit the arms of their namesake, or quarter the arms of their parents. The father’s arms would appear in the first and fourth quarters, the mother’s arms in the second and third.

With changes in American laws and customs over the past several decades, it is appropriate for the traditional heraldic customs to be adapted accordingly. For example, if a man takes his wife’s surname, it would be acceptable to marshal the wife’s arms to dexter with the husband’s to sinister, or for an escutcheon of the husband’s arms to be shown upon his wife’s arms. Similarly, it would be more appropriate for a child with a combined surname to bear the quartered arms of his or her parents rather than their father’s un-marshaled arms.


In countries where arms are granted, the appearance of an armiger’s shield, and sometimes even the crest and supporters, may be altered, or augmented, by the addition of a charge on the shield. These augmentations may be given as rewards for distinguished service to the country or simply as a mark of the sovereign’s favor. Such augmentations are typically shown by a canton, a chief, or sometimes even an escutcheon in honor point. Such augmentations of honor are not used in the United States, although Americans might inherit previously augmented arms from an ancestor. 

Some heraldic authorities also claim that arms may be abated if the armiger has brought some kind of dishonor upon himself. This can include inverting the arms upon a shield, placing a fillet saltire overall, or another of many marks of abatement. Probably the best known abatements are the bend sinister and the baton sinister, sometimes misrepresented as a bar sinister, to denote illegitimacy. While the bend sinister and the baton sinister have historically been used to heraldically identify children born out of wedlock, they are rarely used today. It is unlikely that anyone would actually bear abated arms, and there seems to be little or no evidence that such abatements have ever actually been imposed.


Heraldry can be used for many purposes. It can be used as a focus of unity within a family or group, but it can also be used to divide those who are “entitled” to arms from those who are not. In the United States, no one is excluded from the possibility of designing and adopting arms of his own, but centuries of misunderstanding based on the belief that arms must be inherited has led many to assume they are entitled to bear the arms of another simply because they have the same last name. This fallacy has been propagated by so-called heraldry “bucket shops”. While they do offer handsome products, most owners of these bucket shops know little, if anything, about heraldry or genealogy and are only interested in making money. Most of the time the arms they sell to unsuspecting buyers have been taken from a questionable collection of arms of prominent European families, often on the basis of the flimsiest similarity of surnames usurped from their owners, and there is no genealogical evidence that they may be inherited or possessed by the buyer. Sometimes the arms that are sold are completely fictitious with no basis in history whatsoever. The problem is that those same arms are then re-sold to every client with that particular family name. It may come as some comfort to those who have been victimized by these merchants that this practice has been going on for centuries. Of course, a profession may be very old without being honorable. The best advice to persons looking to purchase their “family arms” is buyer beware! Even if one finds that an ancestor was armigerous, the arms they are entitled to may be a little different than their ancestor’s arms. Ones personal arms are exactly that—personal—and may only be used by the armiger, their spouse, and their descendants.

Heraldry began as a means of identification and continues to function indisputably in that role even today. While the science of blazoning can seem impossibly difficult to understand, the budding herald or armiger can quickly master it with the right set of tools as supplied in the preceding chapters. Although there are many aspects of heraldry that were not discussed therein, it is hoped that this primer has provided a basic understanding of the fascinating world of heraldry. For more information and a more in-depth study of the heraldic arts and sciences in America, please see the Guidelines for Heraldic Practice in the United States or our Resources.


The following resources are acknowledged as being extremely helpful to the author during the writing of this text:

American Heraldry Society.

Brooke-Little, John Philip. An Heraldic Alphabet. London: Robinson Books Ltd., 1996.

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopedia of Armory. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1986.

International Association of Amateur Heralds.

Moncreiffe, Ian and Don Pottinger. Simple Heraldry: Cheerfully Illustrated. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1981.

Neubecker, Ottfried. Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill Book Co. (UK) Limited, 1976.

Parker, James. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry.

Pastoureau, Michel. Heraldry: An Introduction to a Noble Tradition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Slater, Stephen. The Complete Book of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and its Contemporary Uses. London: Hermes House, 2003.