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Monday, July 27, 2015
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home : considered comment : august 2007 July 27, 2015

8/28/2007 2:15:00 PM
Considered Comment
How did we begin to be called Hoosiers, anyway?
BY JACK K. OVERMYER
President and Owner, The Sentinel

I am a fourth-generation Hoosier and proud of it. Being called a Hoosier is a distinction, not the denigration some consider it. Hoosier tells that I come from Indiana, for nowhere else in the world does one find Hoosiers, and in Indiana there is a quality of life and of human relationships that are peerless.

But how did we come by that name? It is so unique that it must have had an origin. There are at least nine answers to that question. In 20 years of research, though, I am convinced that there is only one plausible explanation. It is this:

Hoosier derives from the language used by boatmen on the Ohio River in the early 19th century when Indiana first was settled. Those boatmen had nicknames for those whom they considered to be real, or manly, men. Among these names were "ripstaver, scrouger, snorter. hoosier". By some chance, the word hoosier came to be used only for those boatmen who lived along the Indiana shoreline and then, later to those who were settling in Indiana.

This was the conclusion of the late Carlyle Buley, professor of history at Indiana University. Buley's credentials for this conclusion are impeccable. He was the nation's premier historian of the northwest pioneer period of 1815-1840; his two-volume book on that subject won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize. Buley discussed the derivation of the Hoosier word in a footnote of volume one.

Professor Buley's answer is good enough for me; it is the one which I give to those who ask me about Hoosier. You must know, though, that there are eight other explanations for the word's derivation, some just plain silly. Here they are: 

1. The rather doubtful tale of a recruiting officer in the War of 1812 who called mounted soldiers hoosiers instead of the accurate hussars.

2. In the days of the state's early settlement, a greeting to a stranger from inside the cabin was "who's here" which eventually became Hoosier.

3. An early Indiana governor, Joseph Wright, wrote that the word for corn once was hoosa and Indiana boatmen taking corn down the Ohio River became know as hoosa men.

4. Even the French got in the name game, claiming that early French settlers around Vincennes called the rough country there houshier, from the French word meaning bushy. It became Hoosier.

5. Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley imagined the silliest version. He wrote, in jest, that early Indiana settlers often bit off noses and ears in their vicious fights. Thus, someone coming into a tavern after such a fight, seeing an ear on the floor, would say: "who's ear?". Thus, Hoosier. Really, now!

6. A professor at Indiana State University maintained that scholars agree the word crossed the Atlantic with immigrants from Great Britain and meant anyone who was rough or uncouth. He offered no list of such scholars.

7. There was a man named Hoosier who operated flatboats along the Ohio River and whose employees became known by his name, the origin of which was not explained.

8. Finally, in 1995 came the most complicated explanation:

In the late 1700s circuit-riding Methodist preachers in the Indiana wilderness had a black traveling companion named Harry Hoosier. Although illiterate, this former slave became a spellbinding orator. He was called "Black Harry" and became a prominent camp-meeting preacher.

Now the conjectural connection: "Black Harry" preached against slavery which brought him the enmity of many. Not only was he a black telling whites what to think, but also he was an abolitionist Methodist, a sect then despised in southern Indiana.

So, as this theory goes, those in the south part of the state began calling Methodists and other back-country rustics "Hoosiers," a word meant to ridicule their support of the illiterate black preacher.

I think this is a bit of a stretch, and furthermore, it has one serious flaw: Whence came the word Hoosier that this illiterate slave chose for his name?

So, there you have it. The complete current answers to the Hoosier riddle. You are welcome to choose your own favorite, of course, but for me the mystery's solution lies solidly in the scholarly and reasoned research of Professor Buley.





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