The Ohio Buckeye

Okay, I know I usually find a folk tale for this section. However, you may have wondered why Ohio is called the Buckeye State. If not, you can stop reading here. But, if it does capture your interest, here is some background information. And, it isn't just about a tree.


I said it isn't just about a tree. But, of course, that tree does have a lot to do with the story. When pioneers came into the Ohio Valley, they found a tree that they'd not seen before. There were buckeye trees growing across the hills and valleys of Ohio. Truth be told (and we don't like to admit it) there are buckeye trees in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia (and probably other places). However, it does appear that the tree was originally native to Ohio.

Of course, the Native Americans living in the area already knew all about the buckeye. They roasted, peeled and mashed the nuts into a nutritional meal. I didn't read anywhere that described it as delicious.

The pioneers were quick to find uses for the plentiful supply of buckeye wood. It was lightweight, easy to split, and useful for carving and whittling. Settlers carved utensils, wove splits of buckeye wood into hats and baskets and even used the wood to carve artificial limbs.

The little brown nut from Ohio was reported to have all kinds of medicinal values. Wearing it as a charm around your neck gave the wearer wisdom or, at least, good luck. It was believed that buckeyes relieved the pain of rheumatism. Regardless of whether it did any good, the buckeye was used as a general cure-all for generations.

The local Native Americans referred to the buckeye at "hetuck". It might not come as any surprise that hetuck translates as "buck eye". They were referring to the animal, of course. With the dark chocolate coat accented by a lighter brown circle, it resembled the eye of a buck.

Appearantly, calling someone "hetuck" was considered a compliment by the Native Americans. (They were probably not from Michigan though.) The term "buckeye" was first recorded in 1788. Fifteen years before Ohio became a state, Col. Ebenezer Sproat lead a legal delagation to the first court session at the pioneers' fort in Marietta, Ohio. He was an impressive guy, standing well over six feet tall, and he had a big shiny sword. The Native Americans attending the session called out, "Hetuck! Hetuck!" Sproat was very pleased with he learned the translation meant "Big Buckeye!" He kept the nickname for the rest of his life. The name gradually spread to others living in the area. By the 1830's locals were commonly referred to as Buckeyes.

So far, all you've really heard about it a tree. Now, it's time for the rest of the story.

Sad to say, nasty political races go way back in American history. In 1840 William Henry Harrison was in the race for the US presidency running as the candidate of the Whig party. He was a military hero, born in Virginia, but settled in Ohio. Then as now, not everyone liked every candidate nor did they behave well. Before nasty commercials hit the radio, television and internet, they were broadcast in newspapers. Perhaps you have heard of newspapers?

One opposition newspaper attacked Harrison stating, he "was better fitted to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider than rule in the White House." Even back in 1840, political thinkers knew how to put a positive spin on a story. Harrison became "the log cabin president" twenty years before Abraham Lincoln! He issued an engraving of himself in a rustic buckeye wood cabin. Of course, the cabin contained barrels of cider, walls covered with raccoon skins, and buckeyes hanging from pegs. His supporters carried buckeye canes and buckeye cabins along the campaign trail. In parades, they even rolled whiskey barrels. Like it or not, from that day on, the buckeye would forever be associated with Ohio.

There was even a campaign song.

..........“Oh where, tell me where was your buckeye cabin made?"
.........." 'Twas built among the merry boys who wield the plough and spade,
..........Where the log cabins stand, in the bonnie buckeye shade.

Okay, there is more to it than that. However, even I had to quit reading after they sang about the"merry boys" and the "bonnie buckeye shade".

Anyway, yes, "Old Tippecanoe and Tyler too" defeated the incumbent Martin Van Buren. And now, you know the rest of the story.

The Buckeyes became the official mascot of Ohio State in 1950, but the nickname had been common for many years before that. The State of Ohio officailly adopted the buckeye as the state tree in 1953. No explanation what took them so long.

Copyright 2011 and 2012 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.