Nebraskans have been blessed (or cursed) with various nicknames including “Bug Eaters,” “Tree Planters,” and “Cornhuskers.” Nebraska has had two official state names: “The Tree Planter State” (1895), and “The Cornhusker State” (1945-present). From 1956 through 1965, the license plate carried the motto, “The Beef State,” but it was never an official state name by act of the legislature.
Apparently the earliest nickname applied to Nebraska residents was “Squatters,” according to a July 21, 1860, article in the Omaha Weekly Nebraskian. This term undoubtedly derived from the fact that many early Nebraska settlers moved onto their claims before the land had been surveyed. Although being called squatters was not very flattering or inspiring, other state nicknames of that era were arguably worse. How about the South Carolina Weasels, the Illinois Suckers, the Alabama Lizards, the Georgia Buzzards, the Missouri Pukes, or the Mississippi Tadpoles? Several state nicknames in 1860 were the same as today, for example, the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Wolverines, and Iowa Hawkeyes.
By the later years of the nineteenth century, “Bug Eaters” had replaced “Squatters” as the Nebraska nickname. According to John A. MacMurphy, secretary of the Nebraska Territorial Pioneers Association, writing in November 1894, the bug eater appellation probably originated during the grasshopper invasions of the 1870s. An easterner came to Nebraska to visit relatives and, on his return home, was asked about conditions here. According to MacMurphy’s account, the man responded, “Oh, everything is gone up there. The grasshoppers have eaten the grain up, the potato bugs ate the ‘taters all up, and now the inhabitants are eating the bugs to keep alive.” Some newspaperman heard the comment and published it as a joke.
MacMurphy argued that the Territorial Pioneers and other groups should promote “Tree Planters” as the official state nickname “and say goodbye to the Bug-eaters forever.” Their efforts succeeded when the legislature on April 4, 1895, passed a resolution declaring Nebraska “The Tree Planters State” in honor of its role as the originator of Arbor Day.