Was there something fishy about Illinois’ nickname?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Once upon a time, back in the Age of the Mississippi River Steamboat, there was a packet steamer that was named after the state of Illinois.

The boat, a side-wheeler, was designed and built in Pittsburgh, Pa., by Capt. Richard C. Grey, superintendent of construction of the Northern Line. She was a 523.77 ton vessel, 230 feet long, 36 foot beam, with a 5 foot 5 inch hold. Designed for speed, her cylinders were 22 inches in diameter and she had a 7-foot stroke, which is what made it possible for her to set a record in 1867 for the 700-mile run from St. Louis, Mo., to St. Paul, Minn., making it in just 69 hours and 48 minutes. Along with a sister steamer named after the state of Iowa, she was launched in 1860 and plied the waters of the Upper Mississippi for 12 years.

Since her sister ship was named after the state of Iowa, her sister was christened the Hawkeye State. And since she herself was named after the state of Illinois, she was given the name Sucker State.

No, really, that was her name.

“Sucker State.”

Because, though the nickname is rarely heard anymore, in 1860 it was Illinois’ best known nickname – even more popular than “the Prairie State,” which was the name of two other Mississippi River steamboats named after the state of Illinois back then, the first built in 1847 and the second in 1850. (These and other steamboat facts may be found in William J. Petersen’s paper, “Floating Namesakes of the Sucker State: Some Upper Mississippi Steamboats,” published 1940 by the Illinois State Historical Society in “Papers in Illinois History and Transactions for the Year 1939.”)

The Northern Line packet steamer Sucker State, which was christened with an old nickname of the state of Illinois, plied the waters of the Mississippi River from 1860 to 1872.

I know what you’re going to ask next. No doubt you’re wondering why our neighbors acquired nifty nicknames like the Hawkeye State, the Show-Me State, the Bluegrass State, the Hoosier State, and the Badger State, while good ole Illinois got stuck with “the Sucker State.”

One may be forgiven for supposing it has something to do with Illinois’ tradition of corrupt politics and government (a long history that our Illinois Bicentennial Series has shown to have begun in the days of the Illinois and Indiana territories). But no, that’s not the reason.

The probably unsatisfying answer to the question, “Why ‘Sucker State’?” is, “We really don’t know for sure.”

But historians have made a few pretty interesting guesses, and one of their guesses seems to be most likely to be the right one.

First let’s address what looks like the least probable guess. According to the website NetState.com, this guess is found in Malcolm Townsend’s 1890 “U.S.: An Index to the United States of America.” Townsend says that some people in his days sought the explanation of “Sucker State” in common lore about the old pioneers of the Illinois prairie. “Evidently, the prairies were filled, in many places by crawfish holes. Travelers were able to suck cool pure water from these holes using long, hollow reeds. According to Malcolm Townsend, whenever a traveler would happen upon one of these holes, he would cry out ‘A sucker, a sucker!’

This guess has little to go for it, being unsupported by earlier historical witnesses. There’s no good reason to believe the nickname derives from the literal act of sucking water (something that is hardly unique or distinctive about Illinois’ pioneers).

The most common explanation for the nickname was that which is given by Charles C. Chapman in his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 78:

“The low cognomen of ‘Sucker,’ as applied to Illinoisans, is said to have had its origin at the Galena lead mines. In an early day, when these extensive mines were being worked, men would run up the Mississippi river in steamboats in the spring, work the lead mines, and in the fall return, thus establishing, as was supposed, a similitude between their migratory habits and those of the fishy tribe called ‘Suckers.’ For this reason the Illinoisans have ever since been distinguished by the epithet ‘Suckers.’ Those who stayed at the mines over winter were mostly from Wisconsin, and were called ‘Badgers.’ One spring the Missourians poured into the mines in such numbers that the State was said to have taken a puke, and the offensive appellation of ‘Pukes’ was afterward applied to all Missourians.”

Townsend in his 1890 book mentions the same explanation: “An old miner said to them ‘Ye put me in mind of suckers, they do go up the river in the spring spawn, and all return down ag’in in the fall.’

In this guess, then, it’s not Illinoisans sucking water, but Illinois miners being compared to migratory sucker fish.

This guess is both earlier and more plausible than the above mentioned one. Even so, it may strike one as a bit too creative or strained – as if someone was trying a bit too hard to explain not only why Illinoisans were known as “Suckers,” but also why Illinoisans used the derogatory term “Pukes” for their neighbors in Missouri.

In questions like these, the earliest known explanation is not always the correct one, but it usually is. For this particular question, the earliest explanation is that given by Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford in his 1854 “A History of Illinois.” Ford said the first settlers of southern Illinois came to be called “Suckers” as an analogy to the “suckers” (young sprouts and shoots) of the tobacco plant.

“These poor emigrants from the slave States were jeeringly and derisively called ‘suckers,’ because they were asserted to be a burthen upon the people of wealth; and when they removed to Illinois they were supposed to have stripped themselves off from the parent stem and gone away to perish like the ‘sucker’ of the tobacco plant. This name was given to the Illinoisans at the Galena mines by the Missourians.”

It is probably no accident that both Ford and Chapman mention the mines at Galena – it seems that really is where the nickname “Sucker” was first given to Illinoisans. Ford’s explanation appears earlier than Chapman’s explanation, which makes Ford’s explanation more likely – but it cannot be held to be certainly true.

As it happens, it was also by analogy that plant sprouts first came to be called “suckers.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says “sucker” is a Middle English word from the late 1300s meaning a young child who has not yet been weaned. By the 1570s the word had begun to be applied to plant shoots, since the shoots were like little “children” of the plant. Sucker fish aren’t mentioned in literature until 1753, and it wasn’t until 1836 that the American slang term “sucker,” meaning a fool, someone with childlike naïveté who is easily tricked, first appeared (and no, it was not in reference to Illinoisans).

Whether the nickname derives from reed straws, fish, tobacco sprouts, or fools, the Illinois General Assembly in 1955 decided the state should instead be known as the “Land of Illinois,” voting to adopt that as our state’s official nickname. Today “Prairie State” is still sometimes heard, but “Sucker State” is rare, heard very little outside the circles of Illinois historical study.

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Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in March 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month Pekin and nearby communities commemorated the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic events seared into Pekin’s collective memory: the Columbia riverboat disaster. On July 5, 1918, the steamboat Columbia sank on the Illinois River four miles north of Pekin when it struck a submerged tree stump, ripping a gaping hole in the hull. Out of 496 passengers, 87 died, including 57 Pekin residents.

It was the last large scale river disaster in our area – but steamboats had been plying the waters of the Illinois River since about 1829, when the steamer Liberty visited Peoria, so it should be no surprise that the wreck of the Columbia wasn’t Pekin’s first steamboat disaster. On July 12, 1892, the excursion steamer Frankie Folsom capsized during a storm on Peoria Lake while bringing passengers back to Pekin from Peoria. Most passengers escaped, but 11 died.

Pekin’s first steamboat disaster was on April 25, 1852, when the boilers of the Prairie State exploded, reportedly killing more than 100 passengers.

Pekin’s first riverboat disaster, and apparently Tazewell County’s first major calamity resulting in massive loss of life, was the 1852 explosion of the steamboat Prairie State, which reportedly killed at least 110 people. This photograph was reproduced in “Pekin: A Pictorial History.”

The story of this tragedy is told and retold in several of the standard works on Pekin’s history, but, surprisingly, none of those works gives the correct date of the disaster. Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 History of Tazewell County, the 1949 Pekin Centenary, and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial each claim that the Prairie State exploded on Sunday morning, April 16, 1852. The problem with that date is that April 16 was a Friday that year.

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (2004) gets closer to the truth, placing the tragedy on Sunday morning, April 24, 1852. However, that day was a Saturday. The correct date is found in “Lloyd’s Steamboat Disasters” (1856), page 293, which says, “The steamer Prairie State collapsed her flues on the Illinois River, April 25th, 1852, killing and wounding twenty persons.” That date was, as Pekin’s history book states, a Sunday.

The number of dead reportedly was far more than 20. “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” page 176, tells the story in these words:

“. . . [T]the packet steamers, Prairie State and Avalanche, southward bound, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin Wharf and collided. Both were carrying a high head of steam. As a result the boilers on the Prairie State exploded with terrific force. ‘It was the church going hour, but the worship of the Deity was changed to the duties of the Good Samaritan,’ according to Cole’s Guide. The 110 bodies that were recovered were placed side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank and every home in the vicinity became a temporary hospital. One rescued passenger, en route to Texas, reported that many of the victims he had seen on board were not recovered. A final count of those who drowned was never ascertained.”

That account repeats most of details and uses much of the same language of Allensworth’s 1905 recollection:

“The two steamers, the ‘Prairie State’ and the ‘Avalanche’ coming from the north, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin wharf. They were evidently racing as both were carrying a high pressure of steam. The ‘Prairie State’ pulled out of the landing ahead of her competitor, and when nearly opposite our gas works, her boilers exploded with terrific force. This happened on Sunday about the time for the beginning of church services. The people went to the rescue of the injured, and the wreck of the ‘Prairie State’ was towed back to the wharf by the ‘Avalanche.’ Many bodies were recovered and laid side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank of the river. The citizens turned their houses into temporary hospitals in which the injured were cared for.

“Mr. James Sallee was a passenger going to Texas, and is authority for the statement that the boat was crowded with passengers, many of whose bodies were never recovered.”

The 1974 Sesquicentennial also more specifically locates the Prairie State’s explosion at “a point nearly opposite ‘gas house hill’ (in the area of 100 Fayette Street).”

The 1949 Centenary and the Sesquicentennial also repeat Allensworth’s account and recycle some of his words. The Centenary added the darkly humorous observation that, “Pekin’s population increased by a somewhat unusual method, when a large number of people literally ‘blew into town,’” explaining that many of the survivors decided to stay on in Pekin after their recovery.

One of the survivors, according to the Centenary, was “the grandfather of Paul Sallee, the present Pekin trouper,” who is called “a well-known area entertainer” in the Sesquicentennial. Paul Sallee’s grandfather, of course, was the James Sallee of Allensworth’s account.

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