Illinois, The Sucker State



One nickname for Illinois is The Land of Lincoln (which appears on the U.S. Mint's bicentennial commemorative quarter for Illinois).

One nickname for Illinois is The Land of Lincoln (which appears on the U.S. Mint’s bicentennial commemorative quarter for Illinois).

You probably recognize Illinois’s state nickname as, The Land of Lincoln. That’s what you read on coins and auto license plates, right? Perhaps you also recognize Illinois as The Prairie State.

What you may not know is that for much of the 19th century, Illinois had a less noble nickname: The Sucker State. Yes, I’m serious! There is no doubt that this nickname was associated with Illinois, but the origin of the moniker is subject to debate.

One explanation involves a common practice among travelers and inhabitants of the prairie. When water was needed, long, hollow reeds were thrust down into crawfish holes, and the water was literally sucked up, as through a straw. Such watering holes were called “suckers” by locals.

Another explanation derives from the earliest settlers of the state, immigrants from the tobacco states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia to central and southern areas of Illinois. Tobacco plants had sprouts from the main stem that were commonly called “suckers”, which had to be removed so as not to rob the plant of vital nutrients. Many of these early settlers were poor people who had moved to Illinois seeking a better life, but society tended to look down on poor migrants, considering them a burden. It was thought that most of such settlers would fail and perish, much as the tobacco sprouts did. Therefore, they were therefore derisively called “suckers,” and the term came to refer to the entire region, essentially most of the state’s population.

Perhaps the most popular explanation had to do with the northern part of the state instead. When the state’s first lead mine was opened in 1824 near Galena, thousands flocked to the area in search of work. Most came from Missouri and southern Illinois, traveling north on steamboats up the Mississippi River to Galena in the spring, where they would work until fall, and then return home. These travels corresponded to the migration pattern of a fish called a “sucker”, and the name was attributed to these workers by Missourians as a joke. With 6,000 to 7,000 men coming to the Galena mine each year by 1827, the mass influx and exodus generated considerable strains and rivalries. In retaliation for the derisive term “suckers”, Illinoisans started calling Missourians “pukes”, a reference to the way in which Missouri had vomited forth to Galena the worst of her residents.

Over Illinois’ nearly 200-year history, the state’s residents have been called other names, and The Land of Lincoln, as well as The Prairie State, are considerable improvements. I’m sure you’ll agree that, in view of recent events in our proud state, being called suckers presents an image problem that not even today’s best public-relations experts could handle.


 The best news I have to share this week has nothing to do with history, but everything to do with the birth of my new grand daughter yesterday, Mia Elena Dempsey! I hope to be able to include a picture for you soon.

Aside from that exciting event, everything else pales, but it has been a busy couple of weeks with Amika’s Book Signing and Reading on July 6, a delightful afternoon at Franciscan Village in Lemont on July 9, Lemont’s Heritage Fest on July 11, and the Farmer’s Market on
July 14.


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About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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2 Responses to Illinois, The Sucker State

  1. Looneytoonsindville says:

    The way I heard it from my dad, the farmers of Illinois liked to fish for “Suckers” when the fall harvest was in and before spring planting season. The fish were abundant game fish, thus the name “The Sucker State” was born!!!

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