IN Brief

What is a Hoosier? Indiana bill — with a possible answer — dies in committee

By: - February 21, 2023 2:58 pm

A bill to give Indiana an official nickname is also stirring debate over the word Hoosier. (Getty Images)

Who’s there? It’s definitely not a verdict on the origin of the long-debated Hoosier nickname.

House Bill 1143, which sought to establish “The Hoosier State” as Indiana’s official nickname, died in a House government committee Tuesday after historians raised questions about the “Hoosier” origin story outlined within the proposal.

Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City. (Courtesy of House Republicans

The contention stemmed over the curious history of one Harry Hoosier, which dates back more than two centuries.

Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City, who filed the bill, specifically sought to codify Harry Hoosier as the namesake of the state.

He was born into slavery before becoming a Methodist minister in the 1770s, according to Prescott’s bill. Harry Hoosier became well known at the time for preaching to black and white congregations and was a highly respected preacher and orator despite being illiterate.

“I know that there are multiple different stories as to how we’ve got that name. Can I say with 100% certainty? I cannot. But I do point to the historical facts,” Prescott said. “I think this is the most historically accurate reasoning, and Harry Hoosier is someone that is well deserved of recognition.”

A January 2022 Christian Heritage Fellowship article claims Harry Hoosier’s story is the “most plausible explanation for the origin of Indiana’s nickname.

But the origin of Hoosier has long been questioned and continues to be debated.

Anita Morgan, a senior lecturer in the Department of History at IUPUI and past president of the Indiana Association of Historians told the House committee Tuesday that historians recognize numerous theories exist about the Hoosier nickname. Whether one is true is still uncertain.

She emphasized that historians must follow the documents before verifying “what we hope … or suspect to be true.” 

“You want to make sure everything is absolutely accurate. Because if it’s not — if one thing comes in that’s not absolutely correct — it taints the rest of the story, and people start to question everything else that is there,” Morgan said. “Should we honor Harry Hoosier in this state? Sure. Why not? But as the namesake of our state? We don’t have the evidence to support that.”

“Should we honor Harry Hoosier in this state? Sure. Why not? But as the namesake of our state? We don't have the evidence to support that.”

– Anita Morgan, a senior lecturer in the Department of History at IUPUI

Morgan added it’s “difficult to think” that a man who died in 1806 would be influential in Indiana as late as 1830, when newspapers first started referring to people of the state as Hoosiers.

“Unfortunately for Harry Hoosier — who was an amazing person — without having any association with Indiana whatsoever, there is no documentation to tie him to the state. It just does not exist,” Morgan said. “A lot of us would be incredibly happy if that were true, because it would put this whole idea of, ‘Where does Hoosier come from?’ to rest once and for all.”

“I’ve had this conversation a lot over the last few decades, and we all have our favorite idea of where this name comes from,” she continued. “But I think in the end, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. It’s our name. It’s who we are. It’s probably a mixture of a lot of things that it comes from, but not from this amazing man who died 30 years before it became common usage in this state.”

Committee chairman Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart, agreed, saying “there’s more work to be done on this particular issue.” 

“I think, obviously, there’s differing points of view on historical accuracy,” Miller said Tuesday. “I think it’s a pretty big deal for the state of Indiana to take this step, so we want to get it right.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.