Where did the Name Hoosier Come From?

Source of the name for the Hoosier National Forest

HOOSIER - pronounced hoo'zher - is an inhabitant or native of Indiana, and the name of our National Forest. No one is quite sure where the term originated for sure, but there are five primary theories.

I. One story goes that a contractor named Sam Hoosier, on the Ohio Falls Canal in Louisville, preferred Indiana workers over any others because he believed them to be the most reliable and hardworking. The workers from Indiana became known as Hoosier's men and proudly carried the label home.

II. A similar story involves the National Road, which got it's start in Cumberland , Maryland, and slowly extended westward as the United States expanded (today, we know it only as U.S. 40). It truly was a "national" road, in that it was "mcadamized" (we'd call it an "asphalt" road today), quite an innovation for the nineteenth century. It was far ahead of it's time, easily providing the best transportation route of it's era. The road had reached Columbus, Ohio, just about the time that Indiana was in it's final stage as a territory.

As plans were made to extend the highway to Richmond, Indiana, the call went out for laborers. Knowing that the Federal Government would pay "top dollar", workers for a contractor in the Indiana Territory reportedly named Robert Hoosier asked their boss if they could go work for this higher wage in the neighboring state of Ohio (Ohio attained statehood 13 years before Indiana did). Mr. Hoosier gave his consent, asking them to return to work for him when this section of the road was done.

Just as in the Sam Hoosier story, the crew of Indiana workers proved to be industrious, conscientious, and efficient. The Federal foreman referred to the group as "Hoosiers" meaning they were workers that Robert Hoosier had allowed to join the National work crew. It wasn't long before people along the National Road used the term to describe the folks living in the territory to the west.

III. Some say the word was derived from "hussar" which was a term used on the Kentucky frontier for people who were public nuisances. Hussars were hard drinking carousers. This theory carries the implication that a large share of such folks came from Indiana.

IV. The most common belief is that the term was a greeting. When approaching a man's home in those early frontier days, you shouted from afar, "Hello the cabin" to avoid being shot. The inhabitants would then shout back "Who's yer?" (who's there). As it got slurred together over time, the country folk came to be called Hoosiers.

V. Another plausible explanation for “Hoosier” is that it sprang from Kosciusko County in the northern part of the state. Indeed Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish noble who fought with George Washington in the Revolutionary War, may have been the first “Hoosier.” (This explanation was provided from research by Eugene Eoyang, professor at Indiana University).

“Hoosier” reflects the American penchant over the years of mispronouncing words and place names from other languages. and is a corruption of the Polish word, “huzar” or “hussar” (Hungarians, hussar, Russian hussar, French hussard) which before the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary meant “freebooter, freelance”.

Then, in the second half of the 15th century, it acquired the meaning of “light horsemen.” It is this sense that the term could be applied to the dashing, heroic light Calvary regiments who “fought with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.”

The military connotations of “hoosier” are strikingly reinforced in the Journal of the Kosciuszko Guards by William S. Hemphill. William S. Hemphill was born in 1832 and died in 1907. There is no indication of the exact year in which the journal was written, but it was, presumably, sometime in the years following the end of the Civil War in 1865 and before his death in 1907. The word “hoosier” or “hoosiers” occurs frequently in the journal. Indeed, the Indiana regiment who fought in the Civil War named their camp “Hoosiertown.”

VI. the most telling anecdote is of a splendid Massachusetts regiment who disdained to soil their hands with the chore of moving a massive rock. So the regiment from Indiana, referred to as “Hoosiers”, sets about the project. The soldiers from Massachusetts merely looked on. “A large, fine looking man,” Hemphill recalls, “wearing a common soldier’s blouse and slouch hat, on passing, had paused to watch the proceedings. ” He began to berate the leader of the Massachusetts regimen, a second lieutenant. Abashed, the second lieutenant takes on airs, and threatens to teach the interloper some manners, but upon noticing that the “burley form of the Hoosier looked rather formidable, decided to appeal to Hemphill, who was in charge of the Indiana regiment. “Sergeant,” the second lieutenant said, “this is one of your men; arrest him and take him to your commanding officer. I will prefer charges against him and have him properly punished!” Hemphill took no action; as he reported later, because “I was full of laughter that I could make no answer.” When the interloping Hoosier realized how upset the second lieutenant was, he makes a pretty speech—if not an apology, then of polite remonstrance—ending with these plainspoken words: “I guess the Sergeant will not arrest me, but if you wish to prefer charges against me, you can do so. I am Lieut. Col. George Humphrey, of the 12th Indiana Infantry at your service.”

Hemphill adds: “It was a complete take down; and the Lieutenant’s turn to apologize. The Hoosiers all joined in the laugh, and three cheers were given for Col. Humphrey; while the crest fallen Yankees quietly returned to their camp to wonder what kind of men the Hoosiers were anyhow.”

VII. Before its use in America, hoosier was used in England to refer to someone who lived in the hills or mountains. It may also be related to the French word "osier", meaning someone from the countryside, or an uncultivated person. This term is still used in Eastern Canada.

VIII. In colonial America, the term cracker or hoosier were used to refer to white farmers who did not own slaves or large plantations. These farmers usually lived in the hills and were identified with subsistence farming and were poor and usually uneducated. Therefore, the terms had derogatory connotations. Linguistic maps of the southern states indicate that cracker was used more often in the coastal areas. Hoosier was predominant in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. As Indiana was settled, this was where the settlers came from and by the early 1800s, hoosier was widely used to refer to the poor farmers or ignorant rustic people in general. The first newspaper usage of the term hoosier to refer to people from Indiana was in 1832. Though the nickname originally had a negative connotation, it was adopted and used with pride by the bearers of the name. By the American Civil War the nickname was firmly established.

Whatever the real story, people from Indiana now have a strong affinity to the name and throughout the state, many businesses and agencies have Hoosier in their name. It reflects not only people willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done, teamwork, and perhaps also military prowess and loyalty. The name seems a distinctive and honorable label for Indiana's only National Forest.