Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Who’s a Hoosier?

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – February 2016, No. 133)

Who’s a Hoosier?

How many times has some one from Indiana been asked, what is a Hoosier?  Not the nickname for a state university, but that seemingly indefinable term Indianans have been branded. One survey seeking the solution produced a list of thirty-eight possible explanations. 

A 1995, Indiana Magazine of History published by Fisk University History Professor William D. Pierson’s gave his take on the issue.  In 1848, John Bartlett suggested in the Dictionary of Americanisms that “Hoosier” was a term that started way down in New Orleans coming from a word spelled “Husher” a rough and tumble sort not to be crossed.  Since there was no evidence for “Husher” it had been dismissed.

Bartlett presents the notion that maybe it was “who’s yere” the reply a stranger heard after a knock on the door of remote settler’s cabin.  Although popular as a definition it did not line up with how some one would approach their arrival of the day.  Then came the suggestion of “hussar” since some thought it a corruption of a European term to honor the fighting spirit of river boatmen. Or, perhaps it came about because the boatmen who enjoyed leaping into the air and bellowing “huzza,” Both have not been taken too seriously by historians as the source of the term.

Historian Jacob Piatt Dunn noted a similar word, “hoozeer” for “anything unusually large,” believed that the expression “Hoosier” could be explained standing a test of three common attributes.  It must apply to a rough class of people. It came from the South. It was created to designate Indiana people.  Dunn’s third test had to be eliminated since the word existed before it was used in reference to one from Indiana, however, it was intended to denigrate as well having come up from the South.  As early as 1833 the Indianapolis Journal published John Finley’s poem titled, “The Hoosier’s Nest.”  Dunn was even able to trace the word from southern Virginia and the Carolinas then west to Tennessee as derogatory before moving north to Indiana. 

Dunn also tracked down a rumor that a contractor for the Louisville & Portland Canal on the Ohio River named Hoosier was hiring men from Indiana who became “Hoosier Men”.  However, no such contractor was found so that idea was dropped.

A term from the 1899 edition of William Dickinson’s Dialect of Cumberland suggested a similar word “hoozer.” From the Anglo Saxton it came through Cumberland and as mentioned above meant something or somebody unusually large. However, “hoozer” was considered different from “hoosier” pronounced “hoo-zher.”

During the years “Hoosier” was finding its way on the then-frontier, there emerged a likely source.  Among the Methodist preachers was the African-American evangelist Harry Hoosier.  Born about 1750, he had gained his freedom and became a popular circuit rider among other white ministers. Hoosier was a gifted speaker and Benjamin Rush said that even though he was illiterate, “he was the greatest orator in America.” As such, the preacher said he knew only the sound of his name not the spelling.

History Professor Pierson wrote that some scholarly historians believe the term “Hoosier” was a reference to back country primitive followers of Harry Hoosier who fought for the anti-slavery position. Of all the speculation, Dunn’s suggestion of the “hoozeer” and the Harry Hoosier best qualify for the terms movement from the Appalachian frontier. Other theories depend on origins that cannot show the place and ways the word was used.

A condescending and disparaging word ‘Cracker” directed toward poor white folks in the South was displaced by “Hoosiers” in the upper regions of the South.  Even the rubes of North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky may have been embraced as Hoosiers, but the geographical dividing line between “Hoosier” and “Cracker” marks the southern limit of Harry Hoosier’s circuit tours.  So it remains, whose-sure with any certainty where the moniker came from is yet to be determined.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

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