Wisconsin is known as the Badger State, but not because of the furry animals that live in its forests and prairies. The nickname comes from the early settlers who mined for lead in the southwestern part of the state in the 1800s. These miners lived in makeshift shelters dug into the hillsides, resembling the burrows of badgers. The nickname stuck even after the lead mining boom ended and Wisconsin became a leader in dairy production.
In this article, we will explore the history of lead mining in Wisconsin, how it shaped the state’s identity and culture, and why badgers are still a source of pride for Wisconsinites today.
The Lead Rush
Lead was a valuable commodity in the 19th century, used for ammunition, pipes, toys, and paint. Wisconsin had rich deposits of lead ore, especially in the area near the Mississippi River. Indigenous tribes like the Ho-Chunk had mined for lead for centuries, using it for body paint and fishing weights. European colonizers soon took over their lands and exploited the mineral resources.
The first wave of miners came from southern states like Missouri and Kentucky, followed by immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, and Norway. They flocked to Wisconsin in search of fortune and opportunity, creating a population boom in the region. By 1840, Wisconsin had over 30,000 inhabitants, mostly concentrated in the lead mining districts.
These miners faced harsh conditions and fierce competition. They often had to dig their own mineshafts and tunnels, using primitive tools and explosives. They also had to deal with land disputes, claim jumpers, outlaws, and Native American resistance. To save time and money, many miners chose to live near their mines instead of building permanent houses. They dug holes or caves into the hillsides and covered them with poles, grass, and sod. These shelters were called “badger holes” or “badger dens” because they resembled the homes of badgers.
The Badger Nickname
The term “badger” was originally used as a derogatory name for the miners by outsiders who looked down on their rough lifestyle. However, the miners embraced the nickname as a badge of honor, showing their resilience and adaptability. They also identified with the badger’s characteristics of being hardworking, tenacious, and fierce.
As early as the 1840s, Wisconsin was already using the badger as a symbol of state pride. The state legislature adopted a coat of arms featuring a badger on top of a shield in 1848. The state flag also incorporated the badger emblem in 1863. The University of Wisconsin-Madison chose the badger as its mascot in 1889, naming its sports teams and student newspaper after it.
Today, Wisconsin is still proud of its badger heritage. The state animal is the badger, and the state motto is “Forward”, reflecting the spirit of progress and innovation that drove the early miners. The state song is “On Wisconsin”, which includes the line “On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin, grand old badger state”. The state’s residents are called Wisconsinites or Cheeseheads (another nickname derived from its dairy industry), but also Badgers.
The Badger State Today
Lead mining declined in Wisconsin by the mid-19th century, as the ore supply was exhausted and new industries emerged. Wisconsin became a leader in agriculture, especially dairy farming, earning another nickname: America’s Dairyland. Wisconsin is also known for its beer brewing, paper making, cranberry growing, and cheese making industries.
But what about the actual badgers? Do they still live in Wisconsin? The answer is yes, but they are not very common or visible. Badgers are shy and nocturnal animals that prefer open grasslands and prairies. They are also solitary and territorial, avoiding contact with humans and other animals. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), there are about 5,000 to 10,000 badgers in the state today.
The DNR considers badgers a protected species and advises people to respect their habitat and avoid disturbing them. Badgers are beneficial for the ecosystem because they control rodent populations and create burrows that provide shelter for other animals. However, they can also cause problems for farmers and homeowners by