Hawkeyes – Badgers – Gophers – What’s In A Name?

Iowa – The Hawkeye State

Wisconsin – The Badger State

Minnesota – The Gopher State

Michigan – The Wolverine State

Did you ever wonder how each state, and then its state university, got its cognomen or nickname? In another post, we discuss in great detail how Iowa came to be called The Hawkeye State and how the State University of Iowa became The Hawkeyes. Read more here. But, did you realize that the nicknames (cognomens) of other states around us actually played a huge factor in how we, as Iowans, got our Hawkeye name? More on that a bit later, but let’s start with this…

This colorful promotional map/poster (below) was published in 1884 by H.W. Hill & Co. of Decatur, Illinois, and it offered an entertaining look at the nicknames of the 38 U.S. States & 9 Territories via the graphics of one pig per state or territory.

H.W. Hill was a manufacturer of Hill’s Triangular Hog Rings – ringers that are placed in pigs’ snouts! Thus, if you look closely, each state’s nickname – when given one – has been assigned to a pig – each with a trademarked H.W. Hill triangle through its nose!
This advertising poster was quite popular back in the day. For 5-cents, you could order one of these H.W. Hill posters and you’d be the proud owner of America’s Nicknames Of The States poster! For us today, the map holds one extra appeal. As you can see, over the last century – since the poster’s publication – the nickname landscape has shifted. A few, of course, have remained the same (Iowa Hawkeye, Minnesota Gopher, Wisconsin Badger, etc.), but many have fallen into disuse. Curiously, some of the names are insults, some are merely descriptive, while some states and territories don’t even get a nickname. As the states and territories are not all rendered anatomically correctly, and in compensation for low legibility, we include a list of the 38 states’ and 9 territories’ proper names as well as their nicknames in 1884:

Alabama: Lizard, Arizona Territory: —, Arkansas: Tooth Pick, California: Gold Hunter, Colorado: Rover, Connecticut: Wooden Nutmegs, Dakota Territory (North/South): —, Delaware: Muskrat, Florida: Fly Up The Creek, Georgia: Cracker, Idaho Territory: Chaw Bacon, Illinois: Sucker, Indian Territory (Oklahoma): —, Iowa: Hawkeye, Indiana: Hoosier, Kansas: Jayhawker, Kentucky: Corn Cracker, Louisiana: Creole, Maine: Foxes, Maryland: Craw Thumper, Massachusetts: Bay State, Michigan: Wolverine, Minnesota: Gopher, Mississippi: Tadpole, Missouri: Puke, Montana Territory: Excelsior, Nebraska: Bug Eater, Nevada: Sage Hen, New Hampshire: Granite State Boys, New Jersey: Clam Catchers, New Mexico Territory: Greaser, New York: Knickerbockers, North Carolina: Tar Heel, Ohio: Buckeye, Oregon: Web Feet, Pennsylvania: Pennite, Rhode Island: Gun Flints, South Carolina: Weasel, Tennessee: Whelp, Texas: Beef Head, Utah Territory: —, Vermont: Green Mountain Boys, Virginia: Beadle, Washington Territory: Washingtonians, West Virginia: Panhandle, Wisconsin: Badger, Wyoming Territory: —.
Notice the Illinois Sucker, the Missouri Puke, and the Nebraska Bug Eater.

As you can see on this closeup view of Hill’s poster (above), some of Iowa’s neighboring states had some pretty interesting nicknames back in 1884. So, what’s that all about?

It’s important to insert here, that many times, cognomens (nicknames) are not given to us as a compliment, but as a slam. The Ioway Tribe, for example, long before the white man arrived, became known as such because their biggest enemy – the Sioux Nation – called them ‘Ioway’ – which translates, in Sioux, as “sleepy ones.” Back in Europe, in religious circles, Methodists, for example, were called such by other denominations because they were looked down upon as Christians who relied too heavily on “methods.” Here in America, Quakers in Pennsylvania were made fun of because, when experiencing God’s presence, Quakers quaked!

So, with that in mind, let’s start now with Illinois – The Sucker State, and then move on to Missouri – The Puke State, because, in fact, the two nicknames, while derogatory in nature, are actually interrelated in their origins.

In a book from 1854 – History of Illinois From Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847 – written by Illinois’ former governor (1842-1846) – Thomas Ford – we get the story of how all this name-calling came about. The story starts in the large mining community of Galena, Illinois in 1827 – six years before the Black Hawk Purchase opened Iowa to new settlers…

Meet an Illinois Sucker (above). You see, when pioneers in Galena, coming from older states like Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Missouri (1821), decided to chide the migrant workers of Illinois who tended to move up and down the Mississippi River as weather dictated, they chose the name of a fish found in the Father of Waters. Governor Ford tells us more…

Sadly, there’s another story associated with this nickname for the good people from Illinois. As Ford explains (below), the same social & racial prejudice that was at the center of the Civil War, was alive and well in 1827 Galena – particularly when it involved the wealthy slave-holders from Missouri who had sent many of their laborers up north to work the lead mines…

There’s a very important story in Iowa history which involved our state’s impactful legal decision on July 4, 1839 – freeing a Missouri slave named Ralph as he was working in the lead mines around Dubuque. Ralph had come from the farm of a Missouri slave-owner – Jordan J. Montgomery a typical racist who would be the type of southerner who would call a man from Illinois – a sucker. Read more here.

It appears that the good folks of Illinois – the Suckers – had taken enough trash talk, so, in 1827, the miners in Galena decided to push back a bit – creating a rather nasty name for those who hailed from Missouri. Read on and try not to get sick…

Historical records from the late 1830’s indicate that the name – the Pukes from Missouri – had grown popular around the Midwest, and was being used by many Iowans – in 1839 – when the two states almost entered into a civil war – The Honey War – as it was called. Read more here.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons Iowans decided to take the elegant nickname of Hawkeye in 1839, was because our self-preserving instincts told us if we didn’t claim a nickname for ourselves, others would choose a derogatory name for us, just as they had done to Illinois and Missouri. You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that Burlington Hawk-Eye editor James Edwards laid the argument out clearly in his editorial of September 5, 1839…

If a division of the territory is effected, we propose that the Iowans take the cognomen of Hawk-eyes. Our etymology can then be more definitely traced than can that of the Wolverines, Suckers, Gophers, etc., and we shall rescue from oblivion a memento, at least, of the name of the old chief. Who seconds the motion?
Click here to read the full story of how Iowans came be known as Hawkeyes.

As most people know, the Nebraska nickname and the University of Nebraska mascot has long been the Cornhuskers, but as you can see from the 1884 Nicknames map (above), the name used for much of the 19th century for those from Nebraska was the Bug Eaters!

Founded as a state on March 1, 1869, the Territory of Nebraska was open, thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed by Congress, as early as 1854. With this, Omaha, Lincoln, and Nebraska City served as gateway cities to the West and managed to gather a large population, especially as the railroad companies began construction across Nebraska for the Transcontinental Railroad. So, when pioneers began arriving in the 1850’s, they soon realized that Nebraska was nothing like the states to the East. While Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota were wonderful for farming, Nebraska was much more barren, and in all honesty, not an easy place to settle. At first, the name Bug Eaters began as a little poke from Easterners – directed to the new settlers of Nebraska – because the land was still a frontier, and most people thought the good folks of Nebraska were so brave (and stupid?) in working the land, they would have to eat bugs to survive!

Well, like the Illinois Suckers and the Missouri Pukes, the name Nebraska Bug Eaters stuck throughout the second half of the 19th century – so much so, the University of Nebraska football team adopted the name for nearly a decade – from the early 1890’s until the turn of the century, when Cornhuskers was adopted as their new name.

Read more about Iowa’s Mascot – Herky the Hawk and others you probably didn’t know about!

So, there you have it, my friends – a brief journey into the world of cognomens – nicknames – and how some of our Midwest neighbors coped with all of it. Makes me wonder what NCAA College Football might look like with mascots such as the Illinois Sucker, the Missouri Puke, and the Nebraska Bug Eater running up and down the sidelines! Hmm. Quite the site!

Read more about the Big Ten Conference and the early mascots here.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Map of the United States showing the state nicknames as hogs. Lithograph by Mackwitz, St. Louis, 1884, Wikipedia

1884 in the United States by state, Wikipedia

Timeline of Galena History, GalenaHistory.org

Missouri Pukes and Illinois Suckers: a ‘Pignominious’ Map of the States, Frank Jacobs, January 17, 2012, BigThink.com

Illinois Suckers and Missouri Pukes, History of Illinois From Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847, Gov. Thomas Ford, S.C. Griggs & Co., 1854, pp 67-69

The United States of Hogs, or Why Missourians Are Pukes, Aimee Levitt, January 10, 2012, RiverFrontTimes.com

The Hawk-Eye, James G. Edwards, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, September 5, 1839, p 2

The Bugeaters: The Footprint for College Football for Nebraska, Jackson Armstrong, Fall 2019, unlhistory.unl.edu

How Every State Got Its Nickname, Lauren Cahn, December 9, 2022, Reader’s Digest

Cognomen, Wikipedia

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