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
ILLINOIS - THE SUCKER STATE.
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
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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Update: June 2012