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The great mystery between a ‘John Hancock’ and a ‘John Henry’

The Roanoke Colony.

Bigfoot.

Area 51.

These are some of the greatest mysteries in the United States. I think one more needs to be added to the list.

Why and when did it become acceptable to refer to a signature as a “John Henry” instead of a “John Hancock?”

I was alerted of this cultural mystery when someone came into my office and asked for my, “John Henry.” I thought about correcting him with, “You mean my John Hancock?” but I elected not to because I didn’t want to be a jerk.

For those that don’t know, John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. In either an act of defiance of the King or just because he was making a jerk move, Hancock signed his signature extra-large, making it more noticeable than all other signatures on the document. Throughout time, people would ask for one’s “John Hancock” instead of signature, because for a lack of a better reason, we are a society that likes to flaunt our knowledge whenever possible.

While I didn’t correct the guy in the moment, it didn’t stop me from taking to Facebook to make fun of the situation. That prompted several great comments like, “Maybe he thinks you are a folk hero and good at laying railroad tracks,” “Maybe he wanted a hammer, not your signature,” and “It’s HERBIE Hancock.”

Then my dad chimed in and said that he actually uses the term “John Henry.” When I asked him why not “John Hancock,” he said there are different variations that are correct.

My dad is a West Point graduate and knows more about American History than anyone I know. So now, I’m intrigued.

I did some research online and was surprised by the results. While a lot of sites had my thought that “John Hancock” was the only acceptable slang, dictionary.com listed “John Henry” as an alternative.

Phrases.org posted an excerpt from the “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” by William and Mary Morris. It had the best clarification of “John Hancock” vs. “John Henry.”

In the West, a half century and more later, the phrase became altered to “John Henry,” and nobody knows quite why. Suffice it that, in the words of Ramon Adams’s excellent collection of cowboy jargon, “Western Words”: “John Henry is what the cowboy calls his signature. He never signs a document, he puts his “John Henry” to it!” Incidentally, there seems to be no connection between the John Henry of cowboy slang and the fabulous John Henry of railroad lore, who was so powerful that he could outdrive a steam drill with his hammer and steel, This legend has been traced to the drilling of the Chesapeake and Ohio Big Tunnel through West Virginia in the 1870s – substantially later than the first use of John Henry by cowpokes of the Old West.

That answers the question about the general time frame “John Henry” began being used in place of “John Hancock,” but there is still no known reason why.

Are we just supposed to accept that Cowboys changed it up for some reason?

Was it because someone didn’t know the correct phrase and it just caught on?

Was there another real “John Henry” that had a notable signature?

There needs to be a research paper, a book, or some type of study on this.

Hopefully you, or some history buff you know, will have an answer to this question. Please spread this blog post out, because honestly, I’m not sure my life will be complete until I know the answer to this!

I NEED ANSWERS!

Bear Down and Keep the Faith!

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About Joshua Buckley

I used to be a Sports Editor. Now I'm the Media Relations Manager at the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “The great mystery between a ‘John Hancock’ and a ‘John Henry’

  1. Josh,

    I’m with you on the whole John Henry v. John Hancock matter. If someone had asked for my “John Henry,” I would have assumed they were ignorant of the historical reference and reason one would ask for someone’s “John Hancock” in the first place. Taking the subject even further down the tracks (I know, an unfortunate and probably confusing railroad reference), I’ve always thought that when someone signs his/(her) John/(Joan) Hancock (careful… 😉), it’s to make a statement of some type, or for a particularly significant signing occasion. Think “Now Mr. Buckley, all we need is you John Hancock on this mortgage contract and after 240 monthly payments, this home will be all yours.”

    I’m going to choose to believe, as it sounds you do as well, that somewhere in the past, someone used the alternate version and it gained traction as others perpetuated the error. Just because a word or expression is widely misused doesn’t make it right. We can thank the person who first used ‘irregardlessly’ for that.

    If one of your Texas historian friends can debunk my position on this and provide a plausible explanation, I’ll reconsider the matter. Until then, I think I’ll keep signing my John Hancock when circumstances dictate, thank you very much!

    Respectfully submitted, Uncle Daniel

    Posted by Daniel VanDrew | September 2, 2015, 9:24 pm
    • If the cowboys used the phrase John Henry for a signature I am guessing it came as a result of their knowledge of John Henry Holloday (Doc.) of Dodge City and Tombstone fame.

      Posted by Phil | March 9, 2016, 1:33 pm

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