Photo of a buckeye on The Ohio State University main campus in Columbus, Ohio
Photo by Ethan Pirigyi
Exactly how and why Ohioan identity came to be associated with a tree species of little commercial or utilitarian importance is shrouded in myth and obscured by folklore. A member of the horse chestnut family and the official state tree since 1953, the Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is indeed native to Ohio, but can be found from northern Texas to the Ohio Valley. Historically, the word certainly stems from the appearance of the nuts of the tree, which resemble the eye of a buck deer; the word is probably a translation of a Native American term for the nuts. In earlier times buckeyes were carried as charms or worn as amulets, suggesting a folk belief in the nut’s curative medicinal powers.
The use of the term to signify an inhabitant of Ohio dates from the early nineteenth century, when the buckeye began to be used in political oratory as a symbol associated with rugged frontier individualism and independence; William Henry Harrison employed buckeye log cabins and walking sticks as emblems of Ohio in his 1840 presidential campaign. With time a buckeye came to represent someone from Ohio who was stalwart and tenacious, much like the tree itself, which thrives in environments often inhospitable to other species. In this way the symbolism and meaning embodied in the buckeye and its use as a synonym for Ohioans, as well as its use as a mascot for Ohio State University sports teams, parallels the frontier imagery personified in other Midwestern terms such as Jayhawk and Hoosier.
Timothy G. Anderson