Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Illinois - The Sucker State
Nature Bulletin No. 233-A   June 4, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation


In pioneer days, when rivers were the main arteries of travel, all commerce of the entire western country passed by the shores of Illinois on the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers -- to New Orleans, to St. Louis and up the Missouri River to the west and northwest, or up the Mississippi to the north country. Lake Michigan, penetrating deep into the heart of the continent, was another decisive factor. From it there was an easy portage into the Des Plaines River and thence by way of the Illinois River to the Mississippi. Today, all these rivers have been converted into great inland waterways as vital to our commerce as they were to the Mound Builder, the Indian, the explorer, the fur trader and the pioneer settler.

The principal overland routes also crossed Illinois, which is 385 miles long from north to south. The northern routes to the northwest had to pass around the southern tip of Lake Michigan. The Old National Road, through Pittsburgh to St. Louis, cut across the state. These overland trails were naturally followed by the railroads and paved highways with the result that Chicago is now the greatest transportation center in the world.

Illinois is called the Prairie State because the great central portion, flat and fertile, was tall-grass prairie except for belts of timber along the rivers and creeks -- a heritage of the glaciers that once covered nearly all of the state. Actually, it is the meeting place between what were originally unbroken forests to the east, and the vast prairie country to the west. We find here the western limit of such eastern trees as the tulip, or yellow poplar, beech, chestnut and sassafras. It is also the transition zone between the plant and animal life of the south and that of the north. In southern Illinois, cotton is grown and we find such typically southern trees as cypress, persimmon, pecan and the gums. At the upper end of the state we find plants common to the north woods, including such trees as tamarack, white pine, arbor vitae and paper birch.

The state is richly endowed. It has fertile soils, an ideal climate, and important mineral resources. Illinois stands at the top or near the top, among the states, in all of the five great occupations of mankind: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transportation and trade.

People from Illinois are still called "Suckers" in some localities of neighboring states. There are several legends about the origin of this nickname. One is that on our prairies, during hot dry summers, the early travelers obtained water by sucking it up through straws thrust down into "crawfish" holes. Another is based upon the fact that the first settlements, other than those of the early French at Cahokia and Kaskaskia, were made in the extreme southern portion and mainly by relatively poor people from tobacco-growing southern states. A tobacco plant commonly sends up sprouts around the main stem. These "suckers" are stripped off and thrown away. Hence, because these emigrants had left their home states and come to the Illinois wilderness "to perish", they were derisively called "Suckers".

The most plausible explanation dates from the opening of the first lead mine, in 1824, about a mile north of Galena. By 1827 there were 6 or 7 thousand people in that area, most of them from the settlements in southern Illinois and from the lead-mining district in southwestern Missouri. The Illinois men came up the Mississippi on steamboats in the spring and went back down to their homes each fall. The Missourians jeeringly named them "Suckers" because the sucker is one of the few common fish that migrates upstream each spring.

Take your choice, sucker!

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