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.

#capt-richard-c-grey, #galena, #gov-thomas-ford, #illinois-bicentennial, #land-of-lincoln, #prairie-state, #riverboats, #steamboats, #sucker-state

The steamboats named Lucy Bertram

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month we learned the name of the riverboat whose deckhands went on a drunken spree through the streets of Pekin on July 4, 1851 – the Lucy Bertram. This week we’ll take a closer look at the history of the Lucy Bertram, which plied the waters of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers during the heyday of the American steamboat.

As a matter of fact, there were two steamboats christened with the name “Lucy Bertram.” It was the first Lucy Bertram whose deckhands entered Pekin’s history. According to William J. Petersen’s “Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi” (1968), page 320, the Lucy Bertram was a 268-ton sidewheeler that was launched at St. Louis, Mo., in 1847.

The Lucy Bertram was one of the first three packet steamers of the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company, whose owners were apparently great fans of the famed Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. The Lucy Bertram was named for one of the characters in Scott’s novel “Guy Mannering.” (Incidentally, Scott’s novels seemed to be popular not only with steamboat sailor but with trans-Atlantic seamen also, as there was an English trans-Atlantic ship named the “S.S. Guy Mannering” that brought English immigrants to the U.S. about this same period of time.) The St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company’s first steamboat, launched in 1842, was the 211-ton Die Vernon, named for a character in Scott’s “Rob Roy.” The Lucy Bertram’s two companions were the Rob Roy, title character of Scott’s novel, and the Jeannie Deans, a character of Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian.”

Retired steamboat Capt. F. A. Whitney of Centerville, Iowa, later shared some of his memories of steamboating during these years in a series of articles in “The Saturday Evening Post.” In his first installment, Whitney wrote (emphasis added):

“During the Civil War in the sixties, there was a packet line of steamers running between St. Louis and Keokuk. These were named the Hannibal City, Warsaw, Rob Roy, Lucy Bertram, Die Vernon, Hardy Johnson, and Andy Johnson. These were all splendid side wheel steamers. The crews were noted for their skill and popularity, their stewards and chefs were the best money could hire. Many a passenger made the trip on one of these boats to enjoy the accommodation, music and meals, for traveling at that time was indeed a pleasure. These boats being larger and drawing too much water could not go above the lower rapids at Keokuk, so there was another line of boats called the Northern Packet Company which ran its boats between St. Louis and St. Paul . . . .

“As these boats carried colored deck hands, some of them were always ready to entertain the passengers when at leisure by dancing, singing, diving in a pan of water for nickels, etc., and when the boat left the wharf at St. Louis for its up river trip at 4 p. m. the deck hands would sing as they hauled in the head line, ‘I roistered on the Rob Roy, I roistered on the Lee, I roistered on the Belle La Cross, she got away with me. The Libby is a good boat, and so am the Lee, but the Old Diamond Jo, she’s too much for me. Get on board, get on board, we’s goin’ up the river, get on board . . .,’ making up the words to fit the song as they hauled in the lines. Oh, those were the happy days.”

Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling said the deckhands of the boat we now know was the Lucy Bertram who were involved in the 1851 riot in Pekin were African-American, as was common on steamboats during this era.

Although Whitney mentions the Lucy Bertram in his recollections, that wasn’t the same steamboat as was involved in the Pekin riot. That was in fact the second Lucy Bertram, which according to Petersen (page 320) was a 698-ton steamboat built in 1863 for the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company which cruised up and down the Mississippi River until 1878. It was the second Lucy Bertram who plied the Mississippi’s waters during the Civil War, and in fact Petersen on pages 188 and 320 says she even assisted with troop transport for the Union Army:

“By 1864 the movement of steamboats was again in full swing up and downstream. On April 18 th more than one hundred soldiers from the Keokuk hospitals left on the steamboat Lucy Bertram to rejoin their regiments. Nine days later the Die Vernon took the Fifteenth Iowa to the front; and a month later the Lucy Bertram took the Forty-fifth Iowa Regiment downstream. . . .”

In her book, “Seeing the Elephant: The Many Voices of the Oregon Trail” (2003), pages 198-199, Joyce Badgley Hunsaker includes passages from a diary or memoir of Fincelius Gray Burnett (Finn Burnett of Wyoming, frontiersman, 1844-1934) in which Finn Burnett says his uncle David was a captain of the second Lucy Bertram. Hunsaker reports Burnett as saying:

“Uncle David’s second clerk, Sam Clemens, used to count the sacks as the deck hands loaded them onto the boat. Then he’d count the barrels of lard as they’d come aboard. That’s right, Samuel Clemens. Mr. Mark Twain, himself. Of course, that’s before he was famous. I remember him being a rather spare-made man, quick-motioned, and spry. And in those days he was young. History made him out a river pilot, but I never knew him as such. To me, he was just Uncle David’s clerk.”

However, Hunsaker’s book includes both actual historical sources as well as fictionalized or imagined diary entries, and it’s not clear whether the Finn Burnett diary/memoir is real or imagined. In Hunsaker’s book, Burnett speculates that Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn may have been inspired by Burnett’s own childhood experiences growing up on the Mississippi River and traveling with his Uncle David on the Lucy Bertram.

Shown is the second Lucy Bertram, a 698-ton steamboat which plied the waters of the Mississippi from 1863 to 1878. The deckhands of the first Lucy Bertram, which was launched in 1847, were involved in a drunken riot in Pekin in 1851.

#finn-burnett, #lucy-bertran, #mark-twain, #pekin-history, #pekins-first-riot, #riverboats, #sir-walter-scott, #steamboats