Historical armorial of U.S. states from 1876

Title page of State arms of the union with the Great Seal of the United States illustrated
State Arms of the Union (title page, illustrated, 1876)

Historical coats of arms of the U.S. states date back to the admission of the first states to the Union. Despite the widely accepted practice of determining early statehood from the date of ratification of the United States Constitution, many of the original colonies referred to themselves as states shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776. Committees of political leaders and intellectuals were established by state legislatures to research and propose a seal and coat of arms. Many of these members were signers of the Articles of Confederation, Declaration of Independence, and United States Constitution. Several of the earliest adopted state coats of arms and seals were similar or identical to their colonial counterparts.

State Arms of the Union, illustrated by Henry Mitchell and published by Louis Prang (known as the father of the lithographic industry), offers historically accurate renderings of the state's coats of arms as they existed in 1876. An accomplished engraver with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for 40 years, Mitchell was responsible for engraving several coats of arms for official state use as well as arms for well-known educational and philanthropic organizations. The illustrations are presented alongside proof impressions from the engraved dies used to print the state arms on the first issue of United States National Bank Notes.

Coat of arms

Heraldic arms were worn (embroidered) on a coat which knights wore over their armor, hence coat of arms,[1] a term which dates back roughly 1,000 years[2] to jousting tournaments.[3]

Arms versus seal

A state coat of arms may exist independently of the seal, but the reverse is not generally the case.[4] A seal contains a coat of arms or other devices[5][6] whereas a state coat of arms constitutes the bulk of a seal,[6][7] except for the wording identifying it as the "Great Seal of the State of..."[8] A "seal" has been described as the design impressed on public or legislative official documents,[9] whereas a coat of arms generally appears for illustrative purposes. Examples include flags and banners,[10] and state militia uniform caps[11] and buttons,[12] as well as specifically-designed regimental coats of arms for U.S. Infantry Regiments, and National Guard units.[13]

A coat of arms of a nation or state is usually the design or device of the obverse of its seal. It is an official emblem, mark of identification, and symbol of the authority of the government of a nation or state. A nation or state's coat of arms is oftentimes referred to as the national or state arms.[14]


The design of a state coat of arms or seal has generally been authorized by a provision in the state constitution or a legislative act. In most instances a committee (more often than not consisting of three members)[15][16][17][18] was appointed to study the issue, seek advice from qualified artists, historians, legal scholars, etc., and report back to the authorizing legislative body with a design for their approval. Historically, this committee has consisted of notable members of society and elected officials.

The first committee to design the Great Seal of the United States was appointed on 4 July 1776 by the Second Continental Congress and consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.[19] Their design was rejected on 20 August 1776. The second committee (James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston) design met with the same fate.[15] It was the third committee (Arthur Middleton, Elias Boudinot, John Rutledge, who consulted with William Barton) that submitted a design which was approved on 20 July 1782.[15]

Individual states approached their coats of arms and seals in a similar manner (i.e., seeking direction from the statesmen and scholars of their community). A few of those involved in the design of state arms and seals include (but is not limited to): John Jay and Gouverneur Morris (New York);[16] Francis Hopkinson (New Jersey);[20] David Rittenhouse and George Clymer (Pennsylvania);[18] and George Mason, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin West, and Thomas Jefferson (Virginia).[21]


An impression of the Great Seal of a state (or its coat of arms) has long been required on official documents ranging from deeds to legislative acts. It was the emblem that certified the authenticity of a given document[14][22] or that the authority of the state was invested in said document.[22] Judicial decisions upheld the need for a valid seal and/or coat of arms on notarized documents.[nb 1]

One of the more compelling legislative actions recognizing the legal importance/authority of the state seal and arms occurred in February 1873 when a joint session of the United States Congress refused to recognize Arkansas's electoral votes in the November 1872 presidential election.[23] The official tally of the state's electoral votes was submitted with an invalid seal (bearing the coat of arms of the office of the Secretary of the State of Arkansas versus the seal of the state of Arkansas bearing the state arms).[23][24][25]


Courts and state legislatures also opined on the inappropriate uses of state seals and arms. Most states barred their use for any kind of advertising.[nb 2] Reproduction for corporate use was similarly prohibited[26] and such infractions were classified as offenses against public property.[27] The 2003 Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives prohibits the use of state seals or coats of arms in product branding so as not to mislead the public into thinking that a commercial product has been endorsed by a government organization.[28]

Instances of design inaccuracies

View of Mount Logan as depicted on the Ohio state coat of arms
Ohio's seal depicts Mount Logan (elevation 1,243 ft (379 m)[29]) and nearby summits in Chillicothe.[30]

A state coat of arms provided an opportunity to convey the natural and industrial resources available to its residents.[31] Common themes depicted in state arms include farming, industry, transportation (e.g., boats, trains, and wagons), and nature (e.g., sunsets and mountains). The Ohio and Indiana state arms depict fairly substantial mountains in the distance. In reality, the highest points in Ohio and Indiana are Campbell Hill (1,550 feet (470 m))[32] and Hoosier Hill (1,257 feet (383 m))[33] respectively.

The Florida state arms also depicts mountains in the distance but the highest point in the state is 345 feet (105 m) feet high.[34] In addition to the distortion of local geography,[35] the image also contains historically inaccurate information. The period depicted in the state arms (c. 1830) was a time when the local Seminole Native Americans were hostile toward white settlers; the warm greeting (e.g., flower petals strewn on the ground) offered by the Seminole to the arriving steam ship would have been highly improbable.[35] Furthermore, the Seminole woman depicted would not have worn any headdress, particularly one of northern and western Seminole tribes.[35]

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