The origins of U.S. state nicknames

The Golden State. The Lone Star State. The Sunshine State. The Empire State. The Keystone State. These are the top five most populous states in our great nation, listed in order. Surely, these nicknames conjured up images in your mind of the states they represent – California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, respectively. Obviously, every state in the United States of America has a name, but what I personally find to be a very fun American tradition is the practice of giving these states a second, colorful, descriptive name that acts as that state’s branding. It’s fun looking at the creative and unique nicknames each state has come up with to represent itself on license plates and in tourism ads.

State nicknames are meant to tell people something about the state’s history, culture, and character. That’s why this year, for the 4th of July, I want to take a look at where each state nickname came from.

Alabama – So, um, it turns out the state of Alabama has no official nickname. Well, that’s an auspicious start.

Fortunately, Alabama does have a few popular, unofficial nicknames. The most widely-used is “the Yellowhammer State”. Yellowhammer is another name for the northern flicker, a species of woodpecker that often exhibits yellow feathers on the bottoms of its wings in the eastern U.S. During the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers from Alabama wore uniforms with gold trim, and were nicknamed “Yellowhammers” by the other Confederate units because of this.

AlaskaThe Last Frontier. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the American frontier had officially closed. This marked the end of one of the most consistent trends in U.S. history since the first landings at Jamestown and Plymouth. Or did it? The Census Bureau’s announcement really only applied to the contiguous part of the United States, not to Alaska, a land still known to this day for its vast wilderness and the rugged people who eke out a living there. Up north, the frontier is still very much alive and well.

ArizonaThe Grand Canyon State. This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Arizona is certainly proud of the famous natural wonder within its borders.

It’s only one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been, no big deal.

ArkansasThe Natural State. As you can see, Arkansas is another state proud of its natural wonders. It adopted this nickname in 1995 to celebrate its scenic beauty, including no fewer than eight locations that are part of the National Parks Service.

CaliforniaThe Golden State. You would be forgiven for thinking this state nickname comes from the famous gold rush of 1849 that helped make California a state. While this is partially correct, when the state legislature formally adopted this nickname in 1968, they also cited the state flower, the golden poppy, as another reason for the “golden” nickname.

ColoradoThe Centennial State. You might be surprised that this state’s nickname isn’t something like “the Rocky Mountain State” thanks to its most famous geographic feature, but no. Instead, Colorado’s nickname references the fact it joined the Union in 1876, the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

ConnecticutThe Constitution State. In the 1630’s, English and Dutch traders competed with each other over trading rights along the Connecticut River. To enforce their claim, Massachusetts sent several parties of settlers to build towns in the region. In 1639, representatives from these settlements got together and drew up a constitution for their colony, the first formal constitution in the New World.

DelawareThe First State. On December 7, 1787, Delaware was the first U.S. state to ratify our Constitution, kick-starting the process of formally adopting this foundational document. The state adopted this nickname in 2002, at the request of a first-grade elementary school class.

FloridaThe Sunshine State. Another self-explanatory nickname, Florida formally adopted it in 1970 in reference to the state having an average of 230 sunny days every year.

GeorgiaAnother state with no official nickname, though it is quite common for people to refer to it as “the Peach State” after the state’s official fruit.

HawaiiThe Aloha State. Technically, Hawaii doesn’t consider this an official nickname, but rather Hawaiian law states this is the “popular name” of the state, “so long as the legislature of the State does not otherwise provide”. Since Hawaii’s legislature has not “otherwise provided”, it continues to use this phrase to celebrate its native Hawaiian language, where “Aloha” famously means “hello”, “goodbye”, and “love”.

IdahoThe Gem State. In 1860, a man named George Willing tried to get Congress to name a new territory in the Rocky Mountains “Idaho”, telling them it was an old name the local tribes used for the land that meant “Gem of the Mountains”. Congress eventually decided to name the territory “Colorado” instead, but a few years later, they gave another new territory in the region the name of “Idaho”. The state that was created from this territory still uses the name today. However, the name is not actually of Native American origin; Willing just straight-up invented the name and gave it a fake backstory. Nevertheless, Idaho adopted the nickname “the Gem State” in reference to this fabricated origin of their state’s name.

Illinois – This state also has no official nickname, though it does have an official state slogan: “Land of Lincoln”. The state legislature adopted it in 1955 to honor the most famous and celebrated president that came from their state.

“Well, I humbly accept this honor.”

IndianaThe Hoosier State. The origin of this state nickname is a complete mystery that has stumped historians and linguists. Although we know the term “Hoosier” for someone from Indiana dates to at least the 1830’s, we just don’t know how the term came to be.

IowaThe Hawkeye State. In 1832, a brief but bloody and brutal war was fought between a band of Indian warriors and civilians led by Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe and the Illinois state militia. The end result of this war was that the land Black Hawk’s followers had occupied would be opened up to settlement by a fresh wave of pioneers, who would eventually form the state of Iowa. An early Iowan named James G. Edwars suggested the nickname “the Hawkeye State” as a tribute to Black Hawk.

Kansas – Our fourth state with no official nickname, though it has a few popular, unofficial nicknames. The most popular one is “the Sunflower State”, named after the official state flower.

KentuckyThe Bluegrass State. Just so we are clear, this popular species of grass is actually green, and for most of the year, it just looks like regular grass. Its name comes from its blue flowers that bloom in spring. Also, the state nickname comes from the grass, and the genre of music gets its name from the state. Got it? Good.

LouisianaThe Pelican State. This state has not only adopted the brown pelican as its official state bird, it also has embraced the symbolism of the pelican on its flag, seal, and even license plates. This obsession with pelicans is in reference to the state’s Catholic heritage; the bird is seen as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice due to the belief that the birds would feed their young with their own blood in times of hardship.

MaineThe Pine Tree State. The official state nickname of Maine refers to the fact that it, uh, has a lot of pine trees. That’s pretty much it.

MarylandThe Old Line State. In 1776, shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed, British forces landed on Long Island on a mission to capture New York City. It soon became clear that the Continental Army was outflanked and outmatched, and they were forced to evacuate lest they be utterly wiped out in a single battle. The Maryland Line covered the retreat, holding firm in the face of the British onslaught as they protected their comrades. After the battle, George Washington was said to call the Maryland regiments “The Old Line” as a term of endearment in gratitude for their heroism.

MassachusettsThe Bay State. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was set up under an English royal charter granted the year before. Massachusetts Bay is one of the five bays that dominate the state’s coast. Though the state dropped “Bay” from its official name in 1788, becoming the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts”, its residents were still called “Bay Staters”. Ironically, this centuries-old nickname didn’t become official until 1990.

Michigan – Yet another state with no official nickname. The two most common nicknames you might hear for it are “the Great Lakes State” and “the Wolverine State”. The former simply refers to the fact it is surrounded by the Great Lakes, but the latter is a bit more interesting. In the early 19th century, Michigan and Ohio had a territorial dispute over control of the city of Toledo, and in 1835, they went to war with each other over this dispute. Local legend holds that the Ohioans were impressed by the tenacity of the Michigan militia and compared them to wolverines. However, before the two states escalated the conflict too far, Congress intervened, granting Toledo to Ohio but offering Michigan the Upper Peninsula as compensation.

MinnesotaThe North Star State. This state nickname is derived from its motto, “L’Étoile du Nord”, French for “the star of the north”. Minnesota is the northernmost state of the lower 48.

MississippiThe Magnolia State. This state sure loves Magnolias, having made them their state flower and state tree, as well as putting a Magnolia on their state flag.

New Mississippi state flag
It’s not like they have an obsession or anything.

MissouriThe Show-Me State. This may not be an official nickname, but it might as well be, given how it is such a popular symbol of this state. It refers to a speech given in 1899 by Rep. Willard Duncan Vandiver (D-Mo.), who told the crowd: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

Montana – No official nickname, but you might hear it referred to as “the Treasure State” due to the abundance of natural resources like gold, silver, and gemstones mined in the state.

NebraskaThe Cornhusker State. Many of the early settlers in this state were corn farmers, and the local University of Nebraska honored this heritage by calling their team “the Cornhuskers”. In 1945, the state legislature officially adopted “the Cornhusker State” as the state nickname.

NevadaThe Silver State. This state was the source of one of the largest deposits of silver in 19th-century America, prompting a huge silver rush that fast-tracked the region to statehood in 1864. When I was at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City a few years ago, I remember they had a huge exhibit showcasing the state’s silver-mining heritage and showing off many artifacts made from Nevada silver.

New HampshireThe Granite State. Similarly, New Hampshire’s state nickname refers to the state’s abundance of granite quarries.

New JerseyThe Garden State. Another state nickname of mysterious origin, some sources claim it was coined by Abraham Browning in 1876, but it isn’t clear why he referred to the state by that nickname, and some historians dispute that he was the one who coined it.

New MexicoLand of Enchantment. Originally a slogan that was used to attract tourism to the state, it turned out this slogan had enough staying power to last for decades, and it was eventually adopted as the official nickname in 1999.

New YorkThe Empire State. This is another state nickname credited to George Washington. New York City was under British occupation throughout most of the American Revolutionary War, and after the British forces finally left, Washington wrote a letter to city officials where he thanked the city for persevering throughout the occupation. He wrote that with the war over, New York is “at present the seat of the Empire”.

North CarolinaThe Tar Heel State. Okay, this state nickname is very strange, and is just begging for an explanation. Unfortunately, that’s a big part of why there are multiple explanations floating around out there, with seemingly everyone telling a slightly different story. One thing most versions seem to agree on is that it stems from the fact early 19th-century North Carolina was a major producer of tar for use in naval ships. It seems many versions then go on to claim the phrase “Tar Heel” was first used to describe people from the state during the Civil War. Some say the term was meant to showcase how brave North Carolinian soldiers were, standing firm and never retreating. Others claim that it was an insult, used to make fun of the poor and working-class soldiers from North Carolina. Still others say it stems from an incident where a regiment from the state mocked a Virginia regiment for cowardice, saying “Old Jeff Davis is going to put tar on your heels so you stop running away.”

North DakotaThe Peace Garden State. No, this nickname has nothing to do with New Jersey. Instead, it was adopted in 1957 to honor the International Peace Garden, a park that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border that was created to celebrate the mutual friendship between the two countries.

OhioThe Buckeye State. The buckeye tree has been a symbol of Ohio since 1840, when William Henry Harrison ran for president and his campaign worked hard to give him an image as a rugged frontiersman, living in an Ohio log cabin made from buckeye trees. As for the tree, its name comes from the resemblance its seeds supposedly have to the eyes of a deer:

I don’t see it.

OklahomaThe Sooner State. Remember how in 1890 the frontier was declared closed? Well, there was one area that pioneers still hadn’t settled: Indian Territory. This was the place where tribes from the eastern United States who had been forced off their land were resettled by the U.S. government in the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the idea being that this land would be reserved for their use. Well, now the U.S. government decided it was high time these tribes moved over and made room for one last wave of pioneers. There was so much demand for free land, the government held literal races – first pioneer family to a plot of land got to claim it. Well, some people cheated and snuck in the night before the race, claiming their land “sooner” than everyone else. So, the people who claimed land legitimately took to calling the cheaters “Sooners”.

Oregon – No official nickname, but many people call it “the Beaver State” in honor of the fact the North American beaver is the state’s official animal and there is a beaver on the reverse of Oregon’s state flag.

PennsylvaniaThe Keystone State. This is a very appropriate nickname for a state that played a key role in the American Revolution, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, and where the Continental Congress was based.

Rhode IslandThe Ocean State. I suppose when you are the smallest state, nestled in a corner of New England with very little besides ports and harbors, it makes sense to adopt this as your official nickname.

South CarolinaThe Palmetto State. In 1776, Col. William Moultrie led a group of South Carolinian Patriots to Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, to block a British assault on the city. Building a makeshift fort from sabal palmetto logs, they managed to withstand the British attack and foil their plans. Ever since, the palmetto has been an important state symbol, appearing on every version of the state flag since 1861.

The blue background and crescent moon both come directly from Moultrie’s flag at that battle.

South DakotaThe Mount Rushmore State. Here is another state that, like Arizona, decided to get straight to the point and adopt a nickname referencing its most famous landmark.

TennesseeThe Volunteer State. Like the Show-Me State, this state nickname has never formally been adopted as the official state nickname, but it has become so famous and so closely associated with the state’s identity that it seems odd to split hairs about that. The nickname refers to the large number of soldiers from Tennessee who volunteered to take up arms to defend the United States in the War of 1812.

TexasThe Lone Star State. Believe it or not, this is technically the newest state nickname, having only been officially adopted in 2015. Of course, people have been referring to the state by this nickname for centuries. This nickname comes from Texas’s flag, that famously has a single star on it, representing the classic Texan independent spirit.

UtahThe Beehive State. In the Book of Mormon, the word “deseret” is used to mean “honeybee”. When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints settled along the Great Salt Lake, they proposed the creation of a State of Deseret, but Congress quickly quashed that idea. Instead, the area was named “Utah” for the Ute people who lived there, but Utahans never gave up their honeybee symbolism, putting a beehive on the state seal and calling themselves “the Beehive State”.

VermontThe Green Mountain State. This is probably the most boring nickname of them all, as “Vermont” literally just means “Green Mountains”.

VirginiaThe Old Dominion. This is by far the oldest state nickname, given to Virginia when it was still a colony. During the English Civil War, the colony remained loyal to King Charles I and his heir, King Charles II. In gratitude, the king gave Virginia the honorific “Old Dominion” after he was restored to the throne. Ironically, Virginia would join the American rebellion against British rule a century later, yet keep the nickname.

WashingtonThe Evergreen State. Another unofficial but widely-used nickname, coined by C.T. Conover, an early pioneer, in honor of the state’s evergreen forests.

West VirginiaThe Mountain State. No relation to Vermont, this state nickname refers to the fact the entire state is covered by the Appalachian Mountains.

WisconsinThe Badger State. This nickname dates from the early 19th century, as lead mining became a major industry in the region. It was said that the miners digging for ore would remind some local farmers of badgers, who also dig holes for a living.

WyomingThe Equality State. In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote. In honor of this decision, the state adopted the nickname “the Suffrage State”, but later, this was changed to “the Equality State” as a broader commitment to equal rights for all.

Whew! That’s quite a few nicknames to go through. Still, I hope you enjoyed this fun celebration of our nation, and I hope you all have a wonderful 4th of July!

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