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This Week In Illinois History: The Sucker State (May 17, 1955)

Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03942)

On May 17, 1955, the Illinois General Assembly approved the official state slogan: Land of Lincoln. Before that, Illinois was known as the Prairie State. But Illinois had an older, unofficial slogan that dates back to the state’s earliest days: the Sucker State.

During the 1800s, Illinoisans were known far and wide as “suckers.” But this term predates the derogatory usage of “sucker” as someone who is easily deceived.

The term originated around Galena in Illinois’ northwest mining region. Every spring, men from St. Louis and southern Illinois swarmed up the Mississippi River to work the lucrative mines. Every fall, they went home.

Galena’s permanent residents began calling them “suckers” because their travels resembled the migration of sucker fish, a Mississippi River bottom feeder that swam upstream each spring to spawn.

The name stuck. Illinoisans became known as “suckers,” named after a local type of wildlife, just as people from Wisconsin were known as “badgers” and people from Michigan were known as “wolverines.”

By 1850, newspapers nationwide used “sucker” interchangeably with Illinois. The term confuses many historians studying Lincoln’s rise to national prominence, as newspapers sometimes called him a “tall Sucker,” a “genuine Sucker” or a “distinguished Sucker.”

The term made its way into several songs, including the following verse in the popular Lincoln campaign song, Lincoln and Liberty Too:

We'll go for the son of Kentucky— The hero of Hoosierdom through; The pride of the Suckers so lucky— For Lincoln and Liberty too!

The term is commonly misinterpreted in a story Lincoln told a reporter in 1858. Lincoln was sharing his wife’s ambition for him to become president. “Just think,” he exclaimed, “of such a sucker as me as President!” Historians have often cited his use of “sucker” as an example of Lincoln’s characteristic wit and humility, when in fact he was only referring to himself as an Illinoisan.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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