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March 28, 2012

Why is Minnesota the gopher state?

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Lori Williamson @ 9:29 am

[Click above to enlarge cartoon]

One of my favorite things in the Collection is this political cartoon from 1858. I’m sure I don’t get all the points (155 years is a long time and well, one probably just had to be there) but it is a beautiful, large drawing containing many funny details, such as the devil as pied piper, the gin barrel, and the small figure reminding people that they “develop the resources of the state.”  This cartoon answers the age-old (okay, actually 155 year old) question – why are we the Gopher state? This very cartoon started it all.

One of the first acts of the first legislature of the new state was to amend the brand new constitution, enabling them to issue credit and loan $5 million (or $ 137,000,000 in today’s dollars) to railroad interests. While some were against this, most people supported the amendment: it passed with 25,023 votes in favor and 6,733 against.

This cartoon is clearly in the nay column. It shows a railroad car full of bond holders being pulled by nine striped rodents with human heads, representing the legislators (many of whom also had a stake in the railroads). The issue of business looking for money never gets old, does it?

The artist is R. O. Sweeny from Saint Paul, and it was originally published as a broadside when the issue was being debated. So, from the messy ordeal of state development we got both the railroads and our nickname.  The original drawing of this cartoon is currently on display in the Library Lobby during Library open hours.

Lori Williamson, Acquisitions and Outreach Coordinator

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One Response to “Why is Minnesota the gopher state?”

  1. Lori Williamson Says:

    I was asked on Facebook, why gophers? Sadly, I don’t really know why the artist picked gophers. But I have guesses! 1. Gophers were much more prevalent in the 1850s than they are today (I’m going to try to prove this tomorrow using the book Mammals of Minnesota in the MHS Library – will let you know) or 2. They were likely a major nuisance to homesteaders in the western, prairie-part of the state – the same place the railroads were going or 3. Gophers are the least ominous rodent-like option the artist could use to make his point.

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