The Origins of Our Favorite Halloween Monsters

Art photography by Jill Wellington

Fall has arrived, bringing cooler temperatures, leaves changing their color, pumpkins on porches, pumpkin spice flavors at the coffee shops, and earth tones on the home decorations sold in every store. There are also other things that are prominently displayed in every store: Halloween costumes, spooky cheap plastic decorations, and candy. Lots of candy. Halloween is one of the biggest and most prominent celebrations of the year, among the likes of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or the Fourth of July.

Six years ago, I wrote about the origins of the holiday and its most popular traditions. In that post, I talked about where our tradition of trick-or-treating came from. This year, I thought I would talk about the costumes themselves, or rather, the most popular monsters we like to disguise ourselves as on Halloween. Where did they come from? Let’s take a look at the history of:

Ghosts

Art by Ariadne A Mazed

Sometimes, when looking into the history or origins of something, you discover that the thing is basically universal across all of humanity. Such is the case with ghosts, a concept that has appeared in many forms across numerous civilizations all around the world.

We humans seem to have this innate understanding that we are more than a mere physical collection of meat and bones, but have a soul that contains our essence, and that soul will somehow live on after our bodies have stopped living. This appears to be the reason we developed the practice of holding funerals for loved ones who have departed, as a way to appease their souls and give them peace. If we don’t do this, countless myths across the world warn, their souls will haunt us and bring us suffering and misery!

In ancient Mesopotamia, it was believed that the souls of all who died would end up in Irkalla, the land of the dead, but a few souls would not be allowed entry until they had punished some living wrongdoers for their sins by bringing them illness. To the ancient Egyptians, the soul was actually made of multiple components, and if the proper burial rites had not been practiced to put the deceased at peace, the Akh would appear among the living to seek vengeance. This is very similar to the Navajo concept of the Chindi, a spirit that would form from all the negative aspects of a person who died. To avoid being cursed by a Chindi, the Navajo traditionally have strict taboos against coming into contact with the dead or the place where someone died.

On a more upbeat note, the Chinese practice of performing rituals that venerate one’s ancestors to show respect and ask their spirits to positively impact the lives of their living descendants goes back thousands of years, and both Confucianism and Taoism encourage these practices. Similarly, ancestor worship is an important part of the traditional Shinto religion of Japan as well.

On the opposite side of the continent, ancient Celtic peoples believed that the souls of the dead would join the living on the nights of October 31st and November 1st, and celebrated these nights with the festival of Samhain where they would honor their lost loved ones by preparing their favorite meals. Indeed, the very holiday of Halloween traces its roots to these Celtic festivals, as the medieval Christian church adapted the idea to celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1st, also called “All Souls’ Day” and “All Hallows’ Day”. The name “Halloween” derives from “All Hallows’ Eve”, and the traditional purpose of wearing costumes and putting up spooky decorations is to scare away demons and evil spirits to make sure All Saints’ Day is purified and sacred. In Mexico and parts of the United States, the original meaning of this holiday is preserved in the holiday of Dia de los Muertos, where people honor the memories of their lost loved ones with a big celebration of their lives on the one night of the year they are believed to come back for a visit.

Witches

Yet another seemingly universal concept is that of witchcraft: the use of magic powers to bring harm to others. Before our modern understanding of medicine, diseases were often assumed to be the work of witches preying on the innocent. Even today, there are some people in sub-Saharan Africa known as “witch-doctors” who use traditional African medicine and magic to heal those who believe themselves cursed by evil spirits. Some ancient Greek legends mention witches. In the Odyssey, a witch named Circe puts a curse on people to transform them into animals. Speaking of curses, we have evidence that ancient Greeks would practice a form of mild witchcraft by writing curses against their enemies down on tablets.

There are also plenty of legends about witches that have been passed down by the first Americans. The Zuni creation story tells how a witch brought death into the world, and according to traditional Zuni belief, witches must constantly kill others to survive. This Penobscot legend recounts how Snowy Owl tricked a witch so he could marry her daughter. The Navajo call witches “skin-walkers” due to the belief that they use animal skins to shapeshift into the animal whose skin they wear in order to avoid detection. The Wabanaki told stories about the evil Jug-Woman, who would transform into a black cat and kidnap children.

The Bible absolutely condemns witchcraft in no uncertain terms. Numerous Biblical passages make it very clear that occult practices using magic, sorcery, or divination are antithetical to belief in God. However, the Biblical understanding of witchcraft that would have been held by people in medieval and renaissance Europe or the early colonial period in the United States was that a “witch” was any person, male or female, who made a pact with Satan.

So where, exactly, did our modern pop-culture image of witches as green-skinned women dressed in black and riding a broomstick come from? That derives from the famous 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In 1900, L.Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, and it told a fantastic tale of a young girl from Kansas lost in a land of magic and mystery. In the novel, the Wicked Witch of the West is one of the main antagonists. However, the original novel’s illustrations show the witch as just being an old lady wearing a wizard’s colorful robes decorated with stars.

The movie, however, went with an altogether different look. Instead of a colorful outfit, they dressed her all in black to showcase how evil she was, and they gave her green skin to make her look more monstrous. As for her flying through the air while riding a broomstick, the idea that witches might do this dates back at least to the 15th century. All these elements came together in the spectacular performance of Margaret Hamilton, whose on-screen charisma and charm as a bad-to-the-bone villainess remains one of the most iconic film roles of all time. It is no surprise, then, that her portrayal cemented that image in people’s minds of what a “witch” is. Even today, nearly a century later, most Halloween “witch” costumes are modelled on that one character.

Vampires

Photo by George Hodan

Unlike ghosts and witches, our modern conception of vampires derives specifically from Eastern European folklore. In Albania, a creature called a shtriga was said to use its fangs to drink the blood of children, rendering them weak and feeble. To kill a shtriga, various Albanian legends say, requires the use of religious symbols like crosses and holy water. Already, I’m sure, you can see the parallels with the vampires we are familiar with.

However, there were other mythical creatures that also influenced the form modern vampires took. The Romanian strigoi would also feed off of innocent people’s blood, but would only attack at night, as they slept during the day. Strigoi are believed to be incredibly strong and gifted with magic abilities like shapeshifting. The strigoi are said to hate garlic, and can be killed with a wooden stake speared through the heart.

These legendary monsters were highly influential to Irish author Bram Stoker, who introduced vampires to the English-speaking world with his classic novel Dracula. The infamous Transylvanian count represents a fusion of various Eastern European monsters with similar characteristics, plus one critical innovation that Stoker invented for his novel – that being bitten by a vampire can turn you into one.

As with witches, we can thank Hollywood for cementing a particular image of vampires in our imaginations thanks to a movie adaptation. In 1931, Universal released a film version of Dracula, starring the iconic Bela Lugosi in the title role. As Count Dracula was supposed to be Transylvanian nobility in the novel, the filmmakers decided to dress the character in a fancy tuxedo and cape like a stereotypical aristocrat of the late Victorian age. Lugosi’s performance had such an impact, that his version of Dracula became the default image of what a “vampire” looks like in American popular culture.

The Undead

In Vodou (also spelled “Voodoo”), a religious tradition of West African origin prominent in parts of the Caribbean, Brazil, and Louisiana, there is a belief that dark magic users known as bokors can use special poisons to make people appear dead, then “resurrect” their victims as mindless, drugged-out shells of their former selves under the complete mental control of the bokor. Thus, the bokor can use their victims to do their bidding. A person in this state is called a “zombi“.

However, there is very little resemblance between these victims of drug-induced mind control and the zombies of popular culture today. If anything, our popular conception of zombies has much more in common with a different undead monster, who often appears on Halloween with his own, distinct costume:

In 1818, a 21-year-old English woman named Mary Shelley published the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a tale of gothic horror surrounding a mad scientist named Victor Frankenstein who creates life by assembling body parts from a nearby cemetery into a monstrous man and then bringing it to life. The novel presents Frankenstein’s creation as a perfectly normal, intelligent, and creative man who just happens to have a monstrous appearance and a penchant for responding to problems with violence. Once again, it was Hollywood, and specifically Universal Pictures, who established our popular image of this monster in a famous film adaptation, with Boris Karloff portraying the creature as a slow, shambling, barely animated being that can only grunt and moan.

The impact of this film would not only shape how we have imagined Frankenstein’s monster ever since, but also how we have imagined the “undead” would behave more generally. This can be seen with the movie that gave us the modern, pop-culture “zombie”: Night of the Living Dead.

In 1968, a young filmmaker who just graduated from college named George Romero directed his first movie with his friends. He initially thought about making a movie about aliens, but then decided to make a horror film about reanimated corpses that attack and eat living humans. The extremely violent and gory film depicted shambling undead corpses that grunt instead of talk, just like Karloff’s monster from decades earlier. The movie was incredibly popular upon release, but what really cemented its staying power was the fact that Romero accidentally forgot to copyright the movie. As a result, Romero’s zombies were in the public domain, meaning any filmmaker, author, comic book artist, or video game developer could use them in their own works. This proliferation of Romero-style zombies has had a huge impact on popular culture, with the idea of a “zombie apocalypse” becoming a popular cultural trope.

I have to admit, when I started researching this topic, I had no idea how much of an influence Hollywood had on shaping our mental image of various Halloween monsters. It makes sense, though; films are a visual medium, and a truly scary movie is quite memorable. Especially to a child that isn’t supposed to be watching the movie but sneaks a peek anyway.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at the origins behind five of our favorite frightening creatures to spook each other with. Here’s hoping your Halloween this year is a scary good time!

The History of the Police

Ever since the tragic death of George Floyd last year, there has been an ongoing conversation in American society about the appropriate role of our law enforcement. As often happens whenever there is a major controversy, some misinformation has unfortunately entered the conversation and has been circulating within it. Specifically, I am talking about the claim that policing is a modern invention that evolved from 18th-century patrols that hunted for escaped slaves. While such patrols absolutely did exist, to claim that ALL of our modern policing evolved from that one origin is as disingenuous as claiming that our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy while ignoring the many, many other influences that went into its formation.

Law enforcement has been around since laws existed. This should be obvious on its face, as what makes a rule into a law is the power of the government to force people to comply with it or face punishment for non-compliance. Foraging societies, making their living by hunting and gathering in nomadic bands, have no formal governments or political structures, and thus have no real laws. Disputes are resolved either with informal agreements between the individuals involved, or by some sort of contest, such as a sing-off. Those who are seen to have truly violated the tribe’s key taboos are shunned and banished, a very serious punishment in such societies as survival without the support of a social group in the wilderness is extremely difficult. Even so, life without law can be a frightening prospect from our modern viewpoint – among the Ju/’hoansi tribe in Botswana and Namibia, it is not uncommon for men to murder each other over rival claims to their women.

The oldest police force we know about existed in Ancient Egypt. Wealthy aristocrats would hire gangs to protect their property and keep important public buildings safe. Later, the government took over responsibility for law enforcement, centralizing power over the maintenance of public order with formal courts that determined the guilt or innocence of the accused. Nubian mercenaries from modern-day Sudan were hired to serve as law enforcement, and eventually Egypt would have ten times more police officers per capita than the modern United States has!

The word “police” itself comes from the Ancient Greek word “polis”, their name for their city-states. Responsibility for maintaining order in ancient Athens was held by 41 civil magistrates who collectively commanded a force of 300 slaves that did their dirty work for them. Later, the first Roman Emperor would create the Cohortes Urbanae, a subset within the Praetorian Guard who served as the police force in the city of Rome. In the Roman provinces, soldiers would be stationed in cities and towns to maintain order and capture criminals.

Law enforcement in ancient China took on many forms. Under the Tang Dynasty, the Gold Bird Guards were responsible for apprehending those accused of committing one of the Ten Abominations such as rebellion, treason, murder, assaulting a parent, or sorcery. Later, the Song Dynasty initiated a system known as “baojia” that made all the families in a village or neighborhood responsible for policing each other, with each family required to to train two sons in martial arts so they could act as the village’s police force.

In the Inca Empire, laws were enforced by local chiefs who were responsible to the emperor. Inca punishments were meant to set an example, so they were incredibly harsh – for example, adultery was punishable by being pushed off a cliff, and thieves would have a limb cut off. If a chief refused to enforce these Inca laws, he would be replaced by a new chief who would.

The earliest roots of our modern concept of policing originated, perhaps unsurprisingly, in medieval England. The Anglo-Saxons saw law enforcement as a collective responsibility of the community, with every person required to help in apprehending criminals. They grouped themselves into “shires”, and the criminal-hunting parties were organized by a figure called the “shire-reeve”. Yes, this is where we get the word “sheriff”. After the Norman Conquest, a new class of low-level nobles called “constables” were created who would act as a town guard, monitoring who entered or left the gates of a city. In 1361, King Edward III created a new, professional law enforcement officer called the “justice of the peace” who would act as his deputy in cities, towns, and villages across England.

Yet even as law enforcement in England gradually became more professionalized, the idea that it was up to ordinary citizens to stop crime remained in place as late as the 18th century. By then, London and many other English cities had established a system of paying cash rewards for the apprehension of criminals. This unintentionally led to large-scale corruption, as exemplified by the case of Jonathan Wild. Calling himself the “Thief-Taker General”, he led a team of criminal-hunters while simultaneously being one of London’s biggest criminal gang leaders. His “Thief-Takers” would arrest his competition while leaving his own underlings alone. Eventually, Wild’s double-life was found out, and he was hanged in 1725.

This sort of corruption ultimately led to large-scale reforms in the way the British handled policing. The Scottish city of Glasgow created a formal, professional police service in 1800, and in 1822 the Royal Irish Constabulary was created to maintain order on the Emerald Isle. One of the most important advocates for police reform in those days was Sir Robert Peel, a British politician who helped push through several police reform laws and created the Metropolitan Police Service of London (better known as “Scotland Yard”) in 1829. This new police force was based on a set of principles Peel created that all ultimately boil down to the idea that law enforcement doesn’t serve the government; it serves the public. Originally, British police officers wore a uniform Peel devised that included a top hat (representing authority) and a servant’s jacket (representing, well, public service).

You have to admit, they look a bit different than the modern uniforms we’re used to.

These reforms were remarkably successful, and police forces across the UK soon copied Scotland Yard’s model. Before long, cities in the United States followed suit, starting with the New York Police Department, founded in 1844.

Obviously, there was law enforcement in the United States since early colonial times. In 1636, Boston established a formal “night watch” to patrol its streets, just six years after its foundation. However, colonial-era policing was usually handled either by local volunteers or by for-profit entrepreneurs who would offer their services to the local merchants in a community for a fee. One of the main reasons why big cities adopted London-style police forces was because, frankly, it was cheaper to have a taxpayer-funded, government-run police service.

While America’s big cities copied the British when designing their police forces, that doesn’t mean Americans couldn’t innovate in this realm, too. The world’s first dedicated detective unit whose sole job was to investigate crimes after they had already been committed was established within the NYPD in 1857.

However, this professional and formal model of policing, tailored to serve the needs of big cities, didn’t translate well to the wild frontiers of the American West.

“Git yer city ways outta here!”

In a newly-established town, locals would often form vigilante groups to punish those the community saw as wrong-doers. As the town grew, formal sheriffs could be elected or hired by the local city council. In U.S. territories, the Department of Justice would send a U.S. Marshal out to patrol a particular region and arrest any bad guys in a given area. Often, these Marshals would take a cut of the fines charged to the criminal upon conviction, leading many to basically be bounty hunters in all but name. Such was the life and career of Bass Reeves, a former slave who became the most successful lawman in U.S. history, apprehending as many as 3,000 outlaws over the course of his career.

This face is crime’s worst nightmare

Eventually, as the United States became more industrialized and urbanized, concerns about police corruption grew, leading to numerous reforms. These included making the hiring of police forces more professional and less dependent on political favors, along with the creation of a new federal police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Still, there were many in the 1960’s and 1970’s who accused police departments across America of not respecting citizens’ civil rights, being racially biased, or both. These accusations have remained prominent over the decades since, in spite of numerous attempts to reform the police to assuage these concerns.

Law enforcement has taken many forms over thousands of years, and will likely take even newer forms in the generations to come. Nevertheless, as long as we live in a society that agrees some rules need to be enforced and some actions should be punished so that each and every one of us can sleep in safety at night, walk through the park safely during the day, and rest assured that we will still have our homes and our stuff when we get off of work, there will always be a need for the police.

Strange Politics: What is a Governor-General?

July 26 will be a historic moment in Canada, as their first Governor-General of Inuit ancestry takes office. Mary Simon is a former diplomat and Inuit rights activist who will take her oath of office before the Canadian Senate on Monday. Queen Elizabeth II appointed Simon for the role on July 6, and Her Majesty spoke to Simon by video chat earlier this week in preparation for her inauguration.

Hold on. The Queen? As in, the British monarch? What is she doing picking a Canadian government official? Isn’t Justin Trudeau supposed to be Canada’s leader? What, exactly, is a Governor-General, anyway? What is going on here?

Strange Politics. That’s what’s going on.

To understand what the Governor-General of Canada’s role is, you first have to know an important fact about the “True North Strong and Free”. Canada has never actually declared its independence. To this day, Canadians acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as their sovereign ruler, who is recognized as “Queen of Canada”. This is why her portrait appears on all Canadian coins and the Canadian $20 bill. Canadian passports are issued in her name. All immigrants must swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Queen upon becoming Canadian citizens, and Canadian politicians, soldiers, and police officers also swear an oath to serve Her Majesty.

I’m still your colonial master, Canada!

In Canada today, you will sometimes see the Union Jack, officially called “the Royal Union Flag” by the Canadian government, flown from important buildings. The famed Canadian “Mounties” are officially named the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, one of many government agencies in our northern neighbor that uses the term “Royal”.

Yet on world maps, Canada is shown as an independent nation. The Canadian flag is listed on diagrams of the flags of the nations of the world. Canada has its own Olympic team, its own seat at the United Nations, and its own embassies in nations around the world. The world treats Canada like an independent nation, and in most senses, it functionally has become one.

To understand what is going on here, we need to dive into a bit of Canadian history. In the mid-19th century, Canada had a growing population that was increasingly tired of being governed by officials sent from Great Britain and having no say in their own local laws. In 1837, Canadian demands for self-government led to open revolt. The rebellion was quickly crushed, but the British remembered how they lost a certain set of 13 other colonies a half-century earlier and didn’t want to make the same mistakes. Gradually, the British began allowing Canadians to elect their own local leaders and allowing those leaders to act independently, without having to get London’s approval on everything. In 1867, the modern form of Canada’s government was largely set when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act.

This new law joined several of the British colonies in the northern part of North America together as provinces within a union that would have a Parliament of its own, as well as their own provincial legislatures. From this point onwards, the British began to largely leave Canada to its own devices on matters that didn’t affect the Empire as a whole. This arrangement was fine until World War I happened.

Battle of the Somme image from the Imperial War Museum

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the entire British Empire automatically went to war along with it. This proved to be rather controversial, as the war dragged on and Canadians died in the battlefields of Europe for what many saw as Britain’s war. In the aftermath, Canadian politicians began demanding even more freedom to control ALL Canadian affairs, including foreign policy. It wasn’t just Canada, either – Australia and New Zealand wanted similar freedom. After years of negotiations, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This law defined these colonies as “Dominions” of the British Empire, and declared that the United Kingdom would give up its right to pass laws for the Dominions without their permission.

At that point, the British were basically granting these colonies their independence without having to officially admit they were doing so.

Well, mostly. See, Canada actually did ask the British to pass laws for them in 1940, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1960, 1964, 1965, 1974, 1975, 1977, and 1982. What was going on here? Well, remember the British North America Act of 1867 that created Canada? That law, along with a collection of other laws passed by the British Parliament, were functionally serving as the “constitution” of Canada, and the only way to “amend” Canada’s “constitution” was with an Act of the British Parliament. This embarrassing situation was finally resolved in 1982, with the simultaneous passage of the Canada Act in the United Kingdom and the Constitution Act 1982 in Canada. These laws finally created a system for Canada to amend its own constitution without needing to ask Westminster to do it for them.

So, now Canada is an independent nation, right? In every practical way that matters in the real world, mostly, yes. However, Canada still symbolically acts like a British colony in a few key ways. One of these ways is with the office of the Governor-General of Canada.

So, what is a Governor-General?

Officially, the Governor-General is the representative of the reigning British monarch, chosen by Her Majesty to exercise her royal powers within Canada, as she can’t be in two places at once. No Canadian law can pass unless the Governor-General gives it the royal assent on the Queen’s behalf. The Governor-General is the commander-in-chief of the Canadian military and appoints the Canadian Prime Minister, the other ministers of the Canadian government, the judges of Canada’s Supreme Court, the members of the Canadian Senate, and the governors of Canada’s provinces. The Governor-General can dismiss the Prime Minister or dissolve the Canadian Parliament and call for new elections. Only the Queen can veto a Governor-General’s decision.

On paper, this makes the Governor-General an all-powerful figure who dominates Canada’s political system. However, the reality is far more nuanced. Just as how the Queen only uses her supposedly wide-ranging powers to do what the democratically-elected representatives of the British people want, the Governor-General only ever acts “on the advice of the Prime Minister”.

Every Governor-General has always automatically chosen the leader of the political party with the most seats in the elected Canadian House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister. Officially, Mary Simon is going to be Justin Trudeau’s boss, but if she acts the same way that every other Canadian Governor-General has, she will always do what Trudeau tells her to do. Indeed, it was Trudeau who recommended Simon for the role, and throughout her reign, Elizabeth II has always selected the Governor-General that Canada’s Prime Minister has recommended.

In practice, the Governor-General has a purely ceremonial role, her job being to act as a symbolic link to Canada’s past as a British colony.

Gen. David Hurley, the current Governor-General of Australia

This isn’t actually a political arrangement that is unique to Canada. Remember how the Statute of Westminster also covered Australia and New Zealand? Well, both have Governors-General to this day. In fact, these three original Dominions have been joined by Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. As the term “Dominion” is now seen as too colonial-y and Imperial-y, these days the collective term for these 15 countries is “Commonwealth realms”. Each Commonwealth realm is basically an independent nation that shares the same monarch as the United Kingdom, making Elizabeth II technically the sovereign of 16 separate countries simultaneously.

In short, Canada and 15 other nations around the world have gradually become independent nations in practice without ever having to declare it, but as a side-effect, they continue to symbolically pretend to be British colonies. This means that each has a Governor-General chosen by the local Prime Minister as a stand-in for the Queen to act like a colonial governor while only rubber-stamping the decisions of their country’s Prime Minister and Parliament.

Looks like the sun still hasn’t quite set on the British Empire yet.

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’√Čtoile 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!

Reflections on a post-pandemic road trip

An Editorial

One thing I have learned to appreciate about the study of history is the importance of primary sources. These are some form of direct evidence that some historical thing happened a certain way or that people of the past did things a certain way. They could be the firsthand accounts of the people who lived through important events – journals, court testimonies, interviews, or autobiographies. They could be official documents, reports, or pronouncements, such as a report on tank ammunition production during World War II, or the orders issued by a medieval king to his lords. They could be news reports from the time, or new findings dug up by archaeologists who have uncovered the actual objects from the past that our ancestors used. Since we don’t have time machines, primary sources are the best thing we have to tell us what actually happened.

When I think about how people from the future will see our present day, I am rather concerned. What will our descendants use as primary sources for the year 2021? News reports from a media that has devolved into nothing but sensationalistic political propaganda and fearmongering? Social media that has become flooded with toxicity and vitriol and misinformation? Programs on TV or streaming services and marketing campaigns that seek to impose Hollywood’s idea of what America should be, rather than reflect what America actually is?

That’s why I have decided to write this editorial. In some small way, I want to tell my own firsthand account of what the United States of America is actually like in June of 2021.

I recently went on a road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. For some historical context, this was about 15 months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus was declared a pandemic and massive shutdowns and mass quarantines were imposed around the world, the public being told this was a short-term measure to slow the spread of the virus and save lives. During this past 15 months, many of the people in my personal life have been working from home, millions of workers whose jobs were deemed “non-essential” have been forcibly unemployed, and people have not been permitted to enter into any building other than their own homes unless they wear a face mask and stand at least six feet apart. Many people have been unable to attend weddings, funerals, or religious services due to restrictions on crowd size. These lockdowns and restrictions, in my personal opinion, have massively escalated tensions and contributed to a wave of outbreaks of violence and rioting across the United States (even into the Capitol building itself) and around the world.

As I write this, a series of vaccines devised to fight COVID-19 have been distributed to many countries around the world, with 2.7 billion doses having already been given to patients, a number that grows by 38 million more doses each day. As the number of doses administered continues to go up, the restrictions are slowly being lifted country-by-country and state-by-state. We now have a new president, Joe Biden, who recently met with other world leaders to set a global agenda to “Build Back Better”, the very phrase showing that all of them assume the world we lived in before the pandemic has been destroyed.

I assure you, it has not been destroyed.

As I drove from state to state, I saw people who were happy to get back to normal and move on with their lives. I saw businesses that were packed with customers, none of them wearing masks, all of them smiling and friendly. I saw people hug. I saw them laugh. I saw waitstaff in restaurants who were eager to be back to work. I saw businesses in state after state with “Now Hiring” signs.

I saw people who would strike up a conversation with almost no prompting, sharing their lives with whoever would listen. An Apache woman at the Fort Apache Historic District in Arizona started talking to me because she saw that I was taking pictures with my phone. A waiter at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo took time to chat even though the place was an absolutely crowded madhouse when I got there. I also noticed something I didn’t see. I didn’t see people glued to their phones, walking around texting or scrolling through Twitter with their heads down. I think a year of isolation has made people crave personal interactions.

At one of my hotels, a high school football team was staying as they prepared for a game at the local stadium, hoping they did well in front of the college talent scouts in the audience. When I went to the McDonald’s a few doors down, the cheer team was huddled up in front of the register, placing their order. Nobody was using the touchscreen self-serve device; everyone in that restaurant preferred to place their order with the young man behind the counter and was happy to wait.

Some people that I saw still chose to wear face masks when in public, but they were certainly the minority. In most states I visited, they were a tiny minority. What I found interesting was how masked and maskless people interacted. In almost every case, nobody seemed to care. The people wearing masks and the people not wearing them were just as friendly to each other, and neither would say anything to the other about the presence or absence of a piece of cloth on their faces. It seemed everyone was fine with each other making personal choices for themselves.

Most people I saw were also just respectful and polite to each other in general. I didn’t see any heated arguments over politics; almost everyone seemed not to want to talk about politics. I also didn’t see any of the supposed racial tensions one might have expected from getting information on the state of the country from CNN or Fox News. In every state I visited, I saw people of all races get along and treat each other like fellow human beings and not categories of skin color.

In Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas, business seemed to be booming. I saw streets lined with shops with enthusiastically opened doors staffed by people happy to be working again. Not so in Oklahoma or New Mexico, unfortunately. It seemed to me that the pandemic restrictions in those states killed off many businesses. In Oklahoma, the empty storefronts were a sad sight to see, but the locals seemed to take it in stride and were hopeful their town would recover. Tragically, my experience in Albuquerque was that it has become a truly run-down town, with litter and graffiti everywhere, and homeless people wandering around in desperation. One was so bold, he would walk right up to the drive-thru line and beg at the window as the employee handed food to the customer. It appears to me that something went horribly wrong in New Mexico this past year, and I pray for its residents.

Still, my experience on this road trip was positive overall. I had long suspected that the nightmarish dystopian vision of America we are shown on social media and in the news isn’t the reality. Now I have seen that I was right with my own two eyes. So, future historian, if you read this, please take this perspective into consideration, a perspective based on lived first-hand experience of going out and talking to people in the real world. I apologize that our media at this time can’t seem to do that.