Hoosier

Dick-Buckley

Dick Buckley of the Indianapolis Hoosiers pictured on a trading card from Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888.

They say the memory of Indianapolis is long and photographic. People remember the high-resolution details of your extramarital affairs, bankruptcies, and public meltdowns. “If you’ve piled up enough baggage, the only solution is to move,” said one resident. Perhaps this is true, but here’s something that’s been forgotten: the origin of ‘hoosier’, the all-purpose and surprisingly durable term for a resident of Indiana.

Ask around and you’ll hear all kinds of stories. They’ll tell you about a particularly bloody bar fight somewhere back in the 1800s down in the Indiana foothills. Two men went at it hard. Knives came out. Maybe they used their teeth. When the dust settled, a severed ear lay on the dirt floor. A patron pointed to it and called out “Who’s ear?” The story travelled. People said Indiana was wild. Who’s ear? The name stuck. Or perhaps ‘hoosier’ was born from a fear of getting shot. The frontier was a scary place of isolated cabins, murderous thieves, no law, and trigger-happy settlers. You did not set foot on another man’s property without calling out a big friendly ‘Hello!’ and a voice would reply ‘Who’s ‘ere?’ Hopefully your answer would encourage the resident to lower his shotgun and open the door.

Maybe you’ll hear about Black Harry Hoosier, an itinerant African-American minister who wandered through Indiana rhapsodizing about the freedom to be found along the Appalachian frontier. “Such an etymology would offer Indiana a plausible and worthy first Hoosier,” says historian William Piersen. “He was the greatest preacher of his day, a man who rejected slavery and stood up for morality and the common man.” In 1786, the New York Packet wrote that Hoosier “delivers his discourses with great zeal and pathos. It is the wish of several of our correspondents that this same black man may be so far successful as to rouse the dormant zeal of numbers of our slothful white people, who seem very little affected about concerns of another world.”

There are stories that ‘hoosier’ is a butchered Native American word, which would be fitting for a state that named itself after the people it displaced. Or that it’s the nervous whisper of armed men responding to a rustle in the bushes, the sound of footsteps behind them. Or that it can be traced back to the English hills of Cumberland, where ‘hoosier’ referred to large hills and became synonymous with ‘rough hill people’, which might explain why ‘hoosier’ remains a slur in some quarters today, particularly St. Louis. Or that it was the surname of a contractor who insisted on hiring Indiana men to build the Louisville Canal because of their superior work ethic.

No clear origin story exists for ‘Hoosier’ and this is for the best. These scattershot theories offer a richer portrait of this region’s psyche than any single explanation: stories of violence and dark humor, of Manifest Destiny and the tensions of race and class, of an idealistic and largely forgotten preacher and an ambitious industrialist who may never have existed. This multitude of histories might explain why the name has stuck for nearly two hundred years. If ‘Hoosier’ could be neatly reduced to a severed ear or a Methodist preacher, chances are it would have been discarded as sensibilities changed.

Today there’s a trend towards whittling cities down to an elevator pitch, a strange compulsion to find a single ‘brand’ such as art, technology, families, entrepreneurship, or sports. This is number-worship. “Taken abstractly,” asks William James, “why is ‘one’ more excellent than forty-three or two million and ten?” By definition, any good town is a place where people gather to do lots of different things. Cities do not require sloganeering; they demand thousands of mythologies and personalities so that each individual can discover what suits him or her. Energy, mystery, and possibility are what draw people to cities, and they are what kept a weird term like ‘hoosier’ alive for all these years.