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A Logo's Life: History Behind "The Jolly Rover"

The Jolly Rover

There's a lot in a symbol, and ours is certainly a memorable one.

Of all the questions I get asked about the Jolly Rovers, in the top 3 is "why did you choose that logo?" Right after that is... "why did you choose that name?"

Before we cut to the chase about our skull and crossed hammers however, you should know a little history. To start with, as you may know, we didn't exactly invent the original concept.

An authentic Memento Mori.

Yes, it's true, the original skull and crossbones was invented many centuries ago. Going back to Medieval times, it went by the latin name Memento Mori as a reference to the ancient Roman maxim to "remember you are mortal." This humbling reminder of mortality was meant to inspire people to live in the present, but to do so humbly and virtuously. Later on, this wisdom would be artistically rendered in the Medieval period with the skull and crossbones on religious buildings and eventually gravestones to remind people to concentrate on cultivating what was really important in life, the soul. Needless to say, it was as memorable then as it is now.

Nevertheless, let's face it, the real reason you're familiar with the Jolly Rover logo is due to a later part of it's now mythical evolution... Pirates.

Actual pirate history is different than the current mythology that we all know and love. To be up front, they were thieves that threatened violence and at times were violent. Nevertheless, certain truths about their existence allowed a positive image to eventually flourish. Chief amongst them were the facts that these hardcore sailors acted free of the oppressive monarchies of their day and often provided a democratically run environment for their crews. This Robin Hood style of existence resonated then and still fuels the pirate myth of the free spirited adventurer to this day.

Indeed, when it comes to myths, they can often give birth to powerful symbols and when it comes to the black flag known as the "Jolly Roger", it's no different.

Chris with an original Jolly Roger flag in St. Augustine, FL.

It's here that we have a big clue as to our name and logos origin. Pirate flags weren't just called pirate flags, they were called "Jolly Rogers." This was a generic name associated with variations of the aforementioned skull and crossbones symbol on a black (or red) flag. By this point, the symbol was well known independently of pirates and when flown on a pirate mast the message was clear: Memento Mori, think about the present, you are mortal, and time may be running out. The use of the symbol was a menacing reminder, and served the purpose of getting a pirates prey to surrender without a fight, which they often did. As for the Jolly Roger name, some historians feel that it was meant to be an ironic term for the Devil (known as Old Roger) while others feel that it had to do with the term referencing a free spirited and carefree person.

Regardless, you can see that our name and logo reference the Jolly Roger which references a medieval symbol, which in turn references some ancient Roman wisdom on mortality to live in the present and make the most out of your life. Symbols run deep.

But when did the Jolly Roger become the Jolly Rovers?

Fast forward several centuries to the fall of 2010 one year before the Jolly Rovers were launched. Back then I was coordinating a small but dedicated group of trail volunteers on the Bear Mountain Trails Project. While contemplating the idea of taking these volunteers on the road to try their hand at other projects off Bear Mountain, the idea of "roving" from one project to another kept coming up. What would we call ourselves? It needed to be something memorable, something that reflected the spirit of the people that had come together.

Original 2010 advertisement and art for the Jolly Rovers

The group was a small one, about 12 volunteers from all walks of life with a variety of reasons for allowing trail work to find them. In this case, the volunteer work taking place on Bear Mountain was amongst the most technical trail stonework anywhere in the country. It was a pretty hardcore environment to cut your teeth in for any trail builder let alone volunteer who had never done it before. Most volunteers came and went onto something else, but not these 12.

Coming from all walks of life, these hardcore volunteers were independent, adventurous, skilled and up for any challenge; most importantly, they were jolly and wanted to make the most out of their lives in the present. When the Jolly Roger popped into my head, it was with a grin that the G was dropped for a V, and the bones were replaced with hammers. Thus, the Jolly Roger became the Jolly Rovers; it was a perfect fit.

After drawing up the original concept (see above) it didn't take long for it to transform into the Jolly Rover logo we see today. The name didn't take long to stick either. Within the first year of launching the crew in 2011 we were affectionately being called "The Rovers."

Since then we've flown "The Colors" on everything from flags, to mugs, to clothing to shields. Yes, shields. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

You can find out more about the Jolly Roger and those that flew it by looking into the following sources:

Colin Woodward, The Republic of Pirates, Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (New York: Harcourt, 2007)

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag, The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 2006)

Krystal D'Costa, Why did Pirates Fly the Jolly Roger? (Scientific American, 2014)

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