Our Iowa Heritage: Burlington & The Hawkeye State.

Red-Tailed Hawk.

The Hawkeye State is a popular nickname for the State of Iowa, and those who believe themselves to be true Iowans, will gladly identify themselves as Hawkeyes.

So, how did the name Hawkeye get associated with us?

Well, according to the State of Iowa web site…

Two Iowa promoters from Burlington are believed to have popularized the name. The nickname was given approval by “territorial officials” in 1838, eight years before Iowa became a state.

In all truthfulness, the story of how Iowans took on the nickname Hawkeye varies slightly, depending on who you ask, but suffice to say, it is much more colorful than what the “official” Iowa website says. Allow me here to walk you through the story, and I promise, to stick to the facts. Just the facts! (my fingers are crossed, by the way)…

Hawkeye Fact #1:

Our Hawkeye story all started in Burlington, Iowa. Click here to read more about this grand city on the Mississippi River.

Hawkeye Fact #2:

There were, indeed, two men from Burlington who were largely responsible for the adoption of the Hawkeye nickname: Judge David Rorer (below-left) and newspaperman, James G. Edwards (below-right).

Apparently, around 1838/1839, Judge Rorer, who was quite the colorful character, became concerned that Iowa would be given an unflattering label by its regional neighbors. He thought it would be better if Iowa created its own nickname, so he enlisted the help of his friend, James G. Edwards, a Burlington newspaper editor, to help popularize a good state nickname.

Now, this is where the details of our Hawkeye story get a bit hazy. One version states that it was Mr. Edwards who began the process of establishing a solid nickname by first changing the name of his newspaper, The Iowa Patriot, to The Burlington Hawk Eye, in tribute to two of his good friends, Chief Black Hawk, and Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, a fur-trader from Illinois whose nickname was Hawkeye. Click here to read more about Phelps.

According to the Iowa Journal of History, Edwards, agreeing with Rorer’s nickname concern, published these words…

If a division of the territory is effected, we propose that the Iowans take the cognomen of Hawk-eyes. Our etymology can then be more definitely traced than can that of the Wolverines, Suckers, Gophers, etc., and we shall rescue from oblivion a memento, at least, of the name of the old chief. Who seconds the motion?

Indeed, Iowa history shows us that Edwards and Rorer were right with their warnings about possible ‘outsider influence’ poisoning our nickname waters. Just ask any Minnesota Gopher fan today to tell you about Iowa and they will pull out at least a half-dozen Iowa jokes with no effort at all. For example…

Q: What’s the best thing to come out of Iowa? A: I-35. (Ba-boom)

(BH-100) The ultimate Iowa Hawkeye vs Minnesota Gopher joke book.

Now, back to our Hawkeye story . . .

So…speaking of books. The second theory out there is that Judge Rorer, who loved literature, first borrowed the name Hawkeye from James Fenimore Cooper’s popular novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and began associating the nickname with fellow Iowans. For those who haven’t read the novel, or seen the movie, Hawkeye is a fascinating character whose chief strength is adaptability. In Cooper’s story, Hawkeye adapts to the difficulties of the frontier while bridging the divide between white and red cultures. A “half-breed,” this keen-eyed (eyes like a hawk) sharp-shooter identifies himself as a white European living in a Native American world, in which his closest friends are the Mohicans, the Chingachgook, and the Uncas.

Hawkeye Fact #3:

Most reliable sources wonder if Rorer and Edwards did a “both/and,” agreeing that by choosing Hawkeye as the state’s nickname, they would both honor Chief Black Hawk & “Hawkeye” Phelps, and offer the good folks of Iowa an easy sell thanks to the great popularity of The Last of the Mohicans. So, by 1839, while Edwards was using his Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper to promote the idea, Rorer did his part by ghostwriting several anonymous letters widely published in Iowa newspapers. His series of articles was called A Wolverine Among the Hawkeyes; letters supposedly written by a Michigan traveler visiting Iowa. While it’s not certain that Rorer was the true author, there’s little doubt that these letters, as they circulated around Iowa Territory, helped secure strong support for the Hawkeye nickname.

So, whatever the order (or truthfulness) of these Burlington-based tales, by 1840, two years after Iowa was officially sanctioned as a U.S. Territory, the nickname Hawkeye had stuck.

Now, you know the rest of the Iowa Hawkeye story. And, without any further interference from any Gopher, Badger, Wolverine, Cyclone, or Cornhusker, we’re sticking with it!

In closing, let me offer you a handful of really famous Hawkeyes over the last 150+ years:

Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, fur-trader known to the Meskwaki tribe as Hawkeye. Click here to read more.
Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo) The Last of the Mohicans.
Benjamin Franklin (Hawkeye) Pierce – M*A*S*H.
Marvel Comics superhero: Clinton (Hawkeye) Barton.
George (Hawkeye) Boller (1921-1994). Click here to read more.
Most of my immediate Boller/Hawkeye family, except my wife Sandy, who seems to prefer her Alma Mater, the Northwestern Wildcats.

And of course, in closing…the most famous Hawkeye – Herky the Hawk…


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Why Is Iowa Called the Hawkeye State? Amanda Holland, WiseGeek website, December 14, 2020

The Red-Tailed Hawk artwork

Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, Pioneer, Phelps Family History

A Wolverine Among Hawkeyes: Excerpts from the Rorer Letters, David Rorer, The Palimpsest – Volume 70 Issue 3, Article 3, July 1989.

Herky the Hawk, Wikipedia

Herky the Hawk, Iowa City Press Citizen, Iowa City Chronology, February 17, 1987, p 29

David Rorer, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Press

Burlington on the Mississippi – Sesquicentennial 1833-1983, Helen T. McKim, Helen Parsons Editors, 1983, Doran & Ward Lithographing Co


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