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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: badger [origin of name]

Definition:

"The name 'Badger' state for Wisconsin had its origin in the lead mining districts of southwestern Wisconsin. Miners from the south (Illinois) in the early days were in the habit of working in the lead mines during the summer and returning south for the winter, migrating like suckers [a species of fish], hence the name 'Sucker" state. Those who came from the east, however, could not return to their homes in the winter and made for themselves 'dugouts' in the sides of the bluffs and hills, burrowing like badgers, hence 'Badgers' or permanent residents of the Wisconsin country."  From Wisconsin: comprising sketches of counties, towns, events, institutions, and persons, arranged in cyclopedic form, ed. by Ex-Gov. Geo. W. Peck (Madison, Wis., Western Historical Association, 1906).

This explanation is confirmed in a letter by Moses M. Strong (1810-1894) printed in the Wisconsin State Journal on Dec. 10, 1879. Strong came to the lead region in 1836 and had direct personal knowledge of both the speech and the habits of early lead miners and other pioneers:

"It was the custom of the earlier itinerant adventurers of the lead mines to go -- two together as 'pards' -- to 'prospect' in new and unexplored parts of the country, where neither food nor shelter could be obtained. Taking with them the few tools necessary to sink a 'prospect hole,' and the necessary supply of food; having fixed upon the site, the first effort made was to secure a shelter. Their limited means and the uncertainty of the duration of its occupancy forbade that any time or expense not absolutely indispensable should be devoted to providing their precarious abode.


"The result in general was an imitation of the habits of the badger by digging a hole into a side-hill; extemporizing for a roof rocks or sods, or both, of such dimensions as would suffice for two to sleep in, and to cook their frugal meals. If the miner did not succeed in finding good 'diggings' near the site thus selected, it was abandoned. But in many instances the 'prospect' proved to be a 'lead' and the 'Badger-hole' was occupied as a residence for a long time, and often replaced by a comfortable house, and was sometimes the nucleus of a hamlet or village.


"The term 'Badger' -- according to tradition -- was first applied to the occupants of these temporary subterranean residences, in derision; -- as the term 'Sucker' was applied to the migratory inhabitants of Southern Illinois, who, like the fish of the carp family, came to the 'mines' in the spring, and returned on the approach of winter; -- and afterward to all the inhabitants of the lead-mine regions, and by a not unnatural adaptation, has been applied to the people of the State and to the State itself."

The first recorded use of the term to designate Wisconsin apparently occurs in a letter from surveyor George W. Harrison to his colleague Lucius Lyon (Lyon Papers, Feb. 25, 1834), when he asks, "Will the 'Badger boys' have the pleasure of seeing you during the ensuing summer?" Harrison's use quotation marks may suggest that in 1834 it was still an uncommon usage. But in 1837, Milwaukee developer Byron Kilbourn (1801-1870) christened a steamboat the "Badger" and in 1840 a newspaper published in Platteville was named the Northern Badger --  indications that "badger" had quickly become a symbol for Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin in Madison began to use the badger name in the 1880s and by 1949 had adopted an upright, barrel-chested mascot named Bucky who since has become the most famous badger of all. View more information elsewhere at wisconsinhistory.org.

View pictures relating to mining at Wisconsin Historical Images.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

[Source: Icon Wisconsin, an online exhibit at www.wisconsinhistory.org/iconwisconsin/; and the works cited above.]
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