So What's a Buckeye?
Ohio has several nicknames, but the most
common is the Buckeye State. There are buckeye streets all over and businesses
named after Buckeyes and, of course, The Ohio State University sports teams. So
what's a Buckeye?
Well, it's a tree of the horse chestnut family, native throughout
the Midwest, but not usually found further east. When white settlers arrived,
they used these trees extensively for building log cabins and other structures.
The actual name buckeye comes from the tree's large brown nuts. Native Americans
thought they looked like the brown eyes of a male deer. Hence, the name: buck
eye. Today, buckeye trees aren't as common in Ohio as they once were. One reason
is that the settlers cut them down. Another reason is that they aren't a great
tree to have in your backyard. Sure, they're big and beautiful and stately. But
they're also a lot of trouble, precisely because of those buckeyes, encased in a
large, heavy, leathery coat. They fill up a yard and leave the home-owner with
the task of keeping them picked up. After a few seasons of buckeye gathering,
you think about moving to, maybe, Michigan, where the state tree is the eastern
white pine, or Illinois where the state tree is the white oak—both a lot easier
to live with than a buckeye tree.
The term Buckeye as a nickname for Ohioans dates to the
presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840. Harrison had been born
in Virginia but moved to Ohio where he made his home. His campaign is notable
because it marks the beginning of modern political campaigns based more on image
than substance. Harrison was advised by his managers, "Don't say a single word
about what you believe, about what you’ll do as president." Instead they sought
to create an image—Harrison was portrayed as a hardy man of the people in what
was called a "log cabin and hard cider" campaign. His campaign manager, Horace
Greeley, had log cabins built all over the country to make the point. Since Ohio
log cabins were often made of buckeye wood, the term came to be applied to
Harrison and all other Ohioans: Buckeyes.
Now in fact, Harrison wouldn't have felt much more at home in a log
cabin than you or I. He had been born into privileged family that owned a
plantation in Virginia and was accustomed to walking in the halls of power. But,
no matter, the campaign gambit worked and Harrison won the election.
As president, William Henry Harrison is remembered for having given
the longest inauguration speech in American history: one hour and 45 minutes.
Moreover, he gave this speech outdoors on a frigid day without a coat and in the
process caught a cold which developed into pneumonia. He never recovered, died a
month later. The longest inaugural speech was followed by the shortest
presidential term, possibly a reason why none of his successors have ever
repeated that trick.
But the term Buckeye stuck, describing the log cabin existence of
modern Ohioans just as inaccurately as it did that of William Henry Harrison.