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Origin of the name "Gopher State"

From  The History of Minnesota and Tales of the Frontier by Charles E. Flandrau

Published by E W Porter, St. Paul MN  1900 and made available on-line through Project Gutenberg

GophersMost of the states in the Union have a popular name. New York is called the "Empire State," Pennsylvania the "Keystone State," etc. As you come west they seem to have taken the names of animals. Michigan is called the "Wolverine State," Wisconsin the "Badger State," and it is not at all singular that Minnesota should have been christened the "Gopher State." These names never originate by any recognized authority. They arise from some event that suggests them, or from some important utterance that makes an impression on the public mind. In the very early days of the territory--say, as early as 1854 or 1855,--the question was discussed among the settlers as to what name should be adopted by Minnesota, and for a time it was called by some the "Beaver State." That name seemed to have the greatest number of advocates, but it was always met with the objection that the beaver, although quite numerous in some of our streams, was not sufficiently so to entitle him to characterize the territory by giving it his name. While this debate was in progress the advocates of the beaver spoke of the territory as the beaver territory, but it never reached a point of universal adoption. It was well known that the gopher abounded, and his name was introduced as a competitor with the beaver; but being a rather insignificant animal, and his nature being destructive, and in no way useful, he was objected to by many, as too useless and undignified to become an emblem of the coming great state,--for we all had, at that early day, full confidence that Minnesota was destined to be a great and prominent state. Nothing was ever settled on this subject until after the year 1857.


As I have before stated, in that year an attempt was made to amend the constitution by allowing the state to issue bonds in the sum ofClick for full-sized image in a new window $5,000,000 to aid in the construction of the railroads which the United States had subsidized with land grants, and the campaign which involved this amendment was most bitterly fought. The opponents of the measure published a cartoon to bring the subject into ridicule, which was very generally circulated throughout the state, but failed to check the enthusiasm in favor of the proposition. This cartoon represented ten men in a line, with heads bowed down with the weight of a bag of gold hung about their necks, marked "$10,000." They were supposed to represent the members of the legislature who had been bribed to pass the act, and were called "Primary Directors." On their backs was a railroad track, upon which was a train of cars drawn by nine gophers, the three gophers in the lead proclaiming, "We have no cash, but will give you our drafts." Attached to the rear of the train was a wheelbarrow, with a barrel on it, marked "Gin," followed by the devil, in great glee, with his thumb at his nose. In the train were the advocates of the bill, flying a flag bearing these words: "Gopher train; excursion train; members of extra session of legislature, free. We develop the resources of the country." Over this was a smaller flag, with the words: "The $5,000,000 Loan Bill."

In another part of the picture is a rostrum, from which a gopher is addressing the people with the legend: "I am right; Gorman is wrong." In the right hand corner of the cartoon is a round ball, with a gopher in it, coming rapidly down, with the legend: "A _Ball come_ from Winona." This was a pun on the name of Mr. St. A. D. Balcombe from Winona, who was a strong advocate of the measure. Under the whole group was a dark pit, with the words, "A mine of corruption."

The bill was passed, and the state was saddled with a debt of $5,000,000, under which it staggered for over twenty years, and we never even got a gopher train out of it.

This cartoon, coming just at the time the name of the state was under consideration, fastened upon it the nickname of "Gopher," which it has ever since retained. The name is not at all inappropriate, as the animal has always abounded in the state. In a work on the mammals of Minnesota, by C. L. Herrick, 1892, he gives the scientific name of our most common species of gopher, "_Spermophilus Tridecemlineatus_," or thirteen-striped gopher, and says: "The species ranges from the Saskatchawan to Texas, and from Ohio to Utah. Minnesota is the peculiar home of the typical form, and thus deserves the name of the 'Gopher State.'"

Although the name originated in ridicule and contempt, it has not in any way handicapped the commonwealth, partly because very few people know its origin, but for the greater reason, that it would take much more than a name to check its predestined progress.

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