The selection in 2005 of a final design for the Nebraska quarter, winnowed from thousands of suggestions Nebraskans submitted, reminded us of just how seriously we take the symbols and slogans that represent our state to outsiders. Do we want to be remembered for some unique physical landmark, such as Chimney Rock (which ended up being chosen for the quarter), or for some historical milestone, such as the first homestead in the United States or as the home of Arbor Day? Perhaps we’d like to call attention to our political innovations, such as the unicameral legislature or our publicly owned power system. Is being recognized primarily as a college football powerhouse a plus or minus? Should we present ourselves as looking back into the past, or forward into the future? Similar issues come up each time our license plates are redesigned.
In Nebraska’s early years, it had to overcome the label assigned by the early explorers: “The Great American Desert.” It soon became apparent that this perception was faulty but even now, we who live here know that not every part of Nebraska is suited by climate or landscape for agriculture, particularly without irrigation. And a New Yorker driving through the Sandhills might think the desert label still applies, though we know the region as the world’s best cattle country. We also realize that Nebraska is not entirely flat, but tell that to travelers who never leave I-80.
Nicknames have often revealed how Nebraskans perceived themselves, or were perceived by others. We have been blessed (or cursed) with various nicknames including “Bug Eaters,” “Tree Planters,” and “Cornhuskers.” Nebraska has had two official state names: “The Tree Planter State” (1895-1945), and “The Cornhusker State” (1945-present). From 1956 through 1965, the license plate carried the motto, “The Beef State,” but it was never an official state name by act of the legislature.
Apparently “Squatters” was the earliest nickname applied to Nebraskans, according to a July 21, 1860, article in the Omaha Weekly Nebraskian. This term undoubtedly surfaced because many early Nebraska settlers moved onto their claims before the land had been surveyed. Although being called squatters was not very flattering or inspiring, other state nicknames of that era arguably were worse. How about the South Carolina Weasels, the Illinois Suckers, the Alabama Lizards, the Georgia Buzzards, the Missouri Pukes, or the Mississippi Tadpoles? Several state nicknames in 1860 were the same as today, for example, the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Wolverines, and Iowa Hawkeyes.
By the later years of the nineteenth century, “Bug Eaters” had replaced “Squatters” as the unofficial Nebraska nickname. According to John A. MacMurphy, secretary of the Nebraska Territorial Pioneers Association writing in November 1894, the bug eater appellation may have originated during the grasshopper invasions of the 1870s. An easterner came to Nebraska to visit relatives and, on his return home, was asked about conditions here. According to MacMurphy’s account, the man responded, “Oh, everything is gone up there. The grasshoppers have eaten the grain up, the potato bugs ate the ‘taters all up, and now the inhabitants are eating the bugs to keep alive.” Some newspaperman heard the comment and published it as a joke. Other sources attribute the nickname to the Nighthawk, a bird with a voracious appetite for bugs.
MacMurphy argued that the Territorial Pioneers and other groups should promote “Tree Planters” as the official state nickname “and say goodbye to the Bug-eaters forever.” Their efforts succeeded when the legislature, on April 4, 1895, passed a resolution declaring Nebraska “The Tree Planter State” in honor of its role as the originator of Arbor Day. Nevertheless, the University of Nebraska football team used the “bug eater” nickname until about 1900 when Lincoln sportswriter Charles H. “Cy” Sherman started referring to the team as “the Cornhuskers,” a name that quickly caught on. At that time harvesting corn by hand, “corn husking,” was a central feature of Nebraska life; today it is a quaint and dimly- remembered remnant of our agricultural past.
— James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian