Who’s sure about ‘Hoosier’?

Theories on the term’s origin

How many times has someone from Indiana been asked, “What is a Hoosier?” We’re not talking about the nickname for the students of a certain state university, but that seemingly indefinable term with which people from Indiana have been branded. One survey produced 38 possible explanations.

According to a 1995 Indiana Magazine of History article by Fisk University professor William D. Pierson, John Bartlett suggested in 1848 in the Dictionary of Americanisms that “Hoosier” started in New Orleans from the word “husher,” meaning 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?” which a stranger heard after knocking on the door of a remote settler’s cabin. Although popular as a definition, it did not line up with cultural history.

Historian Jacob Piatt Dunn noted a similar word, “hoozeer,” meant “anything unusually large.” He believed “Hoosier” could be explained by standing a test of three common attributes: it must apply to a rough class of people, it came from the South and was created to designate Indiana people. Dunn’s third test had to be eliminated since the word existed before it was used to reference someone 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, “The Hoosier’s Nest.” Dunn was even able to trace the word from southern Virginia and the Carolinas west to Tennessee as derogatory before it moved 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.” 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,” which, like “hoozeer,” meant something or somebody unusually large. However, “hoozer” was considered different from “hoosier,” pronounced “hoo-zher.”

As “Hoosier” found its way on the then-frontier, a likely source emerged. 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 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.

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 Harry Hoosier best qualify for the term’s 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 who’s sure where the moniker came from is yet to be determined.

First appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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