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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 5, 2012

Wisconsin is "Badger State" because of early miners, Gov. Scott Walker says

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to make it easier for a proposed iron ore mine, said to be worth more than $1 billion and packing potentially thousands of jobs, to win state approval.

The Republican governor, who made creating 250,000 private-sector jobs his signature campaign promise, mostly touts expected economic benefits. But, pointing to symbols on the state flag, he also argues that mining is central to Wisconsin’s history.

In a Feb. 23, 2012 interview on WTMJ-AM (620) in Milwaukee, Walker expressed hope that the Legislature would pass a bill to "streamline" the mine approval process. Then he made a claim about the state animal that might surprise some of us in Wisconsin who weren’t paying attention in school.

"If there's any state in America that should be able to" adopt a mining bill that balances job creation and environmental safety, "it should be the Badger State," Walker said.

"Because we're called the Badgers not because the animals are abundant here, but because we got nicknamed the Badgers because, back before we were a state, our ancestors came here with the hopes of living the American dream by mining. We should be able to do it again here in Wisconsin in 2012 and beyond."

To be sure, the main issues involving the proposed mine are money and the environment. We found to be Mostly True a claim that the mine proposed for near Hurley in far northern Wisconsin could generate billions of dollars of economic activity over 100 years.

Meanwhile, one Wisconsin conservation organization has said a mining bill pending in the Legislature would allow groundwater to be polluted and "our most sensitive wetlands to be filled in with mining waste."

But given the governor’s new tack on promoting mining, we wondered whether Wisconsin, known more for brewing, milking and sausage making, got its Badgers nickname because of mining.

Wisconsin mining origins

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie pointed us to a Wisconsin Historical Society article that explains the importance of mining in the state’s history.

It said in part:

"In the early nineteenth century, Wisconsin lead mining was more promising and attractive to potential settlers than either the fur trade or farming. Its potentially quick rewards lured a steady stream of settlers up the Mississippi River and into Grant, Crawford, Iowa, and Lafayette counties in the early nineteenth century. By 1829, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwestern Wisconsin, producing 13 million pounds of lead a year."

As for mining’s connection to the badger, Werwie cited the state symbols section of the 2011-2012 Wisconsin Blue Book. It says that images on the state flag include a "yeoman (usually considered a miner) with a pick," a mining pick and shovel, and  13 lead ingots that represent "mineral wealth," as well as a badger.

The Blue Book continues:

"History, rather than the law, explains Wisconsin’s unofficial nickname as the ‘Badger State.’ During the lead-mining boom that began just prior to 1830 in southwestern Wisconsin, the name was first applied to miners who were too busy digging the ‘gray gold’ to build houses. Like badgers, they moved into abandoned mine shafts and makeshift burrows for shelter. Although ‘badgers’ had a somewhat derogatory connotation at first, it gradually gained acceptance as an apt description of the hardworking and energetic settlers of the Wisconsin Territory."

The state historical society and the Blue Book are as solid as lead as sources on state history.

We also found similar accounts about the connection between mining and the badger nickname in the historical society’s "Dictionary of Wisconsin History" and in a 1918 Milwaukee Sentinel article.

Few miners ‘badgers’?

But an article from the winter 1992-1993 edition of the historical society’s Wisconsin Magazine of History raised questions.

Then-Marquette University history professor Karel Bicha wrote that proving the conventional wisdom about mining and the badger nickname "leads the investigator along an evidentiary pipeline which is ludicrously tenuous." That’s because the traditional understanding, he said, "derives largely from ‘tradition’ rather than verifiable ‘history.’"

"Tradition aside," Bicha continued, "it is legitimate to wonder whether there were ever, in reality, any cave- or dugout-dwelling miners. If so, who first observed them in their natural or man-made hillside orifices and divined the inelegant nickname ‘badgers’ to refer to them?"

He goes on to say there is plenty of evidence of large numbers of miners living in cabins and other dwellings, but little evidence that more than a small number lived as "badgers," or that they stayed in their caves or dugouts for very long.

Nevertheless, Bicha concludes:

"Realistically, the importance of the sobriquet ‘badgers’ lies not in its origin but in its diffusion. The diffusion of the term undoubtedly occurred by the same rapid and undocumentable process of oral transmission characteristic of slang, argot and jokes.

"Within two decades of its creation the expression had become divested of its specific association with both miners and the lead region. By the mid-1840s it made no difference whether the badger tradition was rooted in past reality or possessed no more inherent substance than the legend of William Tell. It was synonymous with Wisconsin and its people -- all of its people."

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University of Wisconsin-Madison folklore professor James Leary, director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, notes -- somewhat disturbingly -- that badgers had quite a different definition in the British volume known as the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Badgers were "a crew of desperate villains who robbed near rivers, into which they threw the bodies of those they murdered."


But Leary reassured us that the origin of the badgers nickname in Wisconsin is from mining. "There’s no doubt about that," he said.

Our rating

Walker said Wisconsin is called the Badger State because "our ancestors came here with the hopes of living the American dream by mining." At least one scholar suggests that the number of miners who lived like badgers was relatively small. But he and other authorities agree that the dwelling habits of at least some of the miners are what gave Wisconsin its nickname.

We rate Walker’s statement True.

Our Sources

WTMJ-AM, Scott Walker interview, Feb. 23, 2012

Email, Gov. Scott Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, Feb. 23, 2012

Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-2012, state symbols

Wisconsin Historical Society, "Lead mining in southwestern Wisconsin"

Wisconsin Historical Society Dictionary of Wisconsin History, "badger"

Wisconsin Magazine of History, "From where come the badgers?," Winter 1992-1993

Milwaukee Sentinel, "Why this is ‘Badger State,’" Dec. 15, 1918, Gov. Scott Walker Reagan Day dinner speech (at 2:30), Feb. 17, 2012

Interview, University of Wisconsin-Madison folklore professor James Leary

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More by Tom Kertscher

Wisconsin is "Badger State" because of early miners, Gov. Scott Walker says

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