The Story of “Harry Hoosier”
Our special thanks to the Indiana Bicentennial Commission for endorsing our legacy project last year.
As we celebrated the 200th anniversary year of Indiana statehood we wanted to highlight and memorialize Harry Hoosier (1750 – 1806) the man for whom some historians say we get our state nickname. We have had the privilege of interviewing Dave Barton of WallBuilders on radio and his research solidly points to Harry Hoosier being the nickname-sake of our great state.
The summer of 2015 I pulled an old book off my shelf titled ‘Illustrated History of Methodism’ printed in 1880 and found a chapter devoted to Harry Hoosier who has been described as one of the greatest Christian Evangelists in American History.
The book noted for all practical purposes Indiana in the 1800’s was a Methodist state with more people in the Hoosier state belonging to the denomination than any other during our founding century. Since Harry was a Methodist preacher it made sense to me our state nickname originally could have been derived from him.
Addressing two popular theories:
John Finley (1797 – 1866) was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia and came to Indiana in 1821 settling in Richmond. In 1833 his poem ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’ was published and it was the first literary use of the word “Hoosier”. Many have credited his popular poem for originating our state nickname but one of John Finley’s daughters is on record stating people knew the term Hoosier before her father wrote the poem.
The Harry Hoosier ministry legacy was known in Virginia when John Finley was born. Harry gave the first recorded Methodist sermon by an African-American in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1781.
One of the greatest admirers of Harry Hoosier was Benjamin Rush who was a signer of The Declaration of Independence from Philadelphia. Hoosier and Rush were buried in Philadelphia in the early 1800’s. Benjamin Rush from the age of 8 was raised by his uncle the Reverend Samuel Finley who was President of Princeton University.
Dr. Samuel Finley was one of 7 famous Finley brothers and his younger brother William was the grandfather of John Finley the author of ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’. According to some accounts Thomas Jefferson drafted his original Declaration of Independence in a Finley family home in Philadelphia.
One renowned Methodist preacher James B. Finley from Ohio was instrumental in doing evangelistic work in Indiana in the early 1800’s. His ministry certainly could have helped perpetuate the legacy of Harry Hoosier. In sum John Finley was familiar with the term Hoosier before he penned his famous poem and he was not the originator of it.
Governor Evan Bayh and Senator Vance Hartke signed on to the theory our state nickname was derived from a supposed Louisville canal construction contractor named Samuel Hoosier who was to have preferred hiring workers from the Indiana side of the Ohio River from 1825 – 1833. Hartke would have this posted in the Congressional Record in 1975.
JP Dunn was a native of Indianapolis and a secretary of the Indiana Historical Society. He authored “The Word Hoosier” in 1907 in conjunction with John Finley’s daughter and discredited the Samuel Hoosier legend after extensively researching for any family with the surname Hoosier. Wikipedia also notes the US Army Corps of Engineers has been unable to find any record of a Hoosier or Hosier in surviving canal records.
Dunn was a Democrat and ran for Congress in Indiana’s 7th District in 1902 and lost to Republican Jesse Overstreet. Although he ended up debunking the Samuel Hoosier story he did not discredit Harry Hoosier as a source for our state’s nickname.
We seek to pay tribute to Harry Hoosier the man behind our state nickname and the soul winning evangelist who from our earliest pioneer days was highly acclaimed for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.