Ohio State: Why the Buckeyes?

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't a philosophical look at fandom, but rather an examination of the origins of the Buckeye name and mascot.

If you have the misfortune of knowing or speaking to people who aren't Buckeyes fans on a regular basis, you may have heard some derision of the Buckeye as a team name and a mascot. A Buckeye is not a scrappy Badger, or a proud Spartan. It's not a Nittany Lion or a Cornhusker. (Nebraska fans should probably not be making fun of the Buckeye as a mascot.) It's just a nut. What kind of a mascot is a nut?

Well, at least it's a poisonous nut.

The buckeye tree is the state tree of Ohio, and was a revelation to early settlers, who had never seen a tree like it elsewhere. The wood is very soft, and was used in those days to carve everything from platters and decorative items, to artificial limbs. The tree bears small, round, dark brown nuts with a lighter brown patch that resemble deer's eyes – hence the buckeye name.

The first recorded instance of an Ohioan being labeled a "Buckeye" was back in 1788, as settlers came in to establish what is now Marietta, Ohio. Colonel Ebenezer Sproat apparently impressed the native population, who dubbed him "Hetuck," their word for buckeye.

That's probably not what made the association between the buckeye and Ohioans so indelible, though. It can more likely be attributed to the 1840 presidential election, when William Henry Harrison went all buckeye everything for his campaign. Harrison, of course, was from Virginia, but wanted to develop an image of a rugged frontiersman on the banks of the Ohio River. The buckeye tree and buckeye nut were established as his campaign symbols, and his supporters carried canes made out of buckeye wood and wore chains of buckeye nuts around their necks, much like Buckeyes fans wear today. The buckeye and Ohio were forever linked from this point forward.

The Ohio State University officially adopted the buckeye as their team name and mascot in 1950, although the name was in common usage long before it became official.

Buckeye nuts, though obviously inedible, are said to bring luck to those who carry them, and are also said to ward off rheumatism, which is something you don't see Badgers or Nittany Lions doing.

While the buckeye tree isn't particularly useful – wood from the tree burns poorly, the nuts are toxic, and the bark smells bad – the tree itself is hardy. In 1833, Daniel Drake, who helped establish the Medical College of Ohio, succinctly explained why the Buckeye is the perfect representation of Ohio State athletics.

"In all our woods there is not a tree so hard to kill as the buckeye. The deepest girdling does not deaden it, and even after it is cut down and worked up into the side of a cabin it will send out young branches, denoting to all the world that Buckeyes are not easily conquered, and could with difficulty be destroyed." - Daniel Drake, 1833

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