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Illinois: The Sucker State

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 27, 2012 9:30PM

U.S. States Given Porcine Nicknames (1884). Image courtesy The Big Map Blog.

The folks over at the Big Map Blog continue to do the Lord's Work digitizing classic turn of the 19th century maps for our perusal. The one we posted above, "U.S. States Given Porcine Nicknames," led us down a wormhole to find the answer to why the mapmakers named Illinois the "Sucker State." Curiously it has nothing to do with our penchant to elect governors who find their way to prison.

There are two theories as to why Illinois was nicknamed the "Sucker State." One dates back to Galena's mining industry of the 1820s. The first successful lead mine in Galena opened in 1824.Word of the mines resulted thousands of people from central and southern Illinois and Missouri making their way north along the Mississippi river to Galena to search for work during the warm months. Those same people would head back south when it turned cold. These migrants were nicknamed "suckers" after the similar patterns of the fish species in the Mississippi, according to the Illinois History Blog.

The over commonly accepted theory came from Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford. Ford wrote in his 1854 book A History of Illinois the term became as a term of endearment for Southern Illinoisans who came to the state looking for a new start away from the plantation system of the South. these people planted tobacco and "suckers" was a reference to the sprouts off the tobacco plants' main stems and roots, which were known to take away nutrients from the main plant. According to Ford, "These poor emigrants from the slave States were jeeringly and derisively called 'suckers,' because there 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."

As for the use of pigs in the map, Frank Ford at Big Think wrote this was a classic case of 19th century viral marketing.

The map’s link to Sus domesticus [1] is via the company that produced it: H.W. Hill & Co. This Decatur, Illinois outfit were the sole manufacturers of Hill’s hog ringers, Hill’s triangular rings, calf and cow weaners, stock markers &c. On the map, we see one pig per state or territory, each with one of H.W. Hill’s trademarked triangles through its nose.


For its main attraction were not H.W. Hill’s markers, weaners and rings. It was mailed out - for five one-cent stamps - as a tableau entitled: “Nicknames of the States”. It’s always interesting, and perhaps a little titillating, to see what names you’re being called by others, and to know how to return the mockery [2]. And it helps that all involved are portrayed as that most unloved of domestic animals, the pig.