It appears Minnesotans have been misled about their beloved gophers.

For more than a century, Minnesota has been known as the Gopher State, a nickname that led the University of Minnesota to adopt a smiling, bucktooth rodent dubbed Goldy Gopher as its school mascot in the 1940s. The Minnesota State Fair named Fairchild the gopher as its official mascot in 1966 then added his nephew, Fairborne the gopher, more than two decades later.

Dressed in civilized attire, the mascots bop around campus and the fairgrounds with their striped tails wagging. And that, according to people who know their rodents, is the telltale sign that what you’re seeing is no true gopher. Instead, it’s likely a thirteen-lined ground squirrel.

But before we get to the nitty-gritty of that, let’s back up a bit. We stumbled onto the gopher-squirrel debate after a reader asked Curious Minnesota how Minnesota became the Gopher State. The question was a top vote-getter at the State Fair, and we decided to nail down the answer as part of our community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from inquisitive readers.

Lori Williamson of the Minnesota Historical Society figures a political cartoon from 1858 likely inspired the moniker.

Legislators in the newly formed state wanted to amend the constitution to enable them to issue credit and loan $5 million to railroad interests, Williamson said. Minnesotans overwhelmingly agreed, voting 25,023 in favor to 6,733 against.

St. Paul artist R.O. Sweeny apparently wasn’t a fan of the plan and drew a cartoon depicting nine legislators as striped rodents with human heads pulling a railroad car full of bond holders, Williamson said. The detailed image includes a devil as the pied piper.

Although Minnesota eventually became known as the Gopher State, the gopher — or the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, for that matter — is not listed among the state’s symbols. The loon, monarch butterfly and walleye, however, are among those designated by law.

Now let’s get back to the debate over whether those striped rodents are gophers.

The pocket gopher, which is native to Minnesota, is a medium-size rodent with huge claws on its front feet — a nice asset for burrowing into the ground, said Lori Naumann with the Nongame Wildlife Program at Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. “But gophers don’t have stripes,” she said.

Sharon Jansa, who knows all about rodents, confirmed that. She’s a University of Minnesota professor of ecology, evolution and behavior and curator of the Bell Museum’s mammal collection.

Although chipmunks have stripes, she believes Minnesota’s rodent mascots are actually thirteen-lined ground squirrels, which also are found in Minnesota.
“The kicker is that they have striped coats, not striped tails,” she said. As for the striped-tail mascots: “That’s just artistic license,” she said.

Stripes or no stripes, it could be that the Minnesota gopher mascots aren’t trying to be one rodent or another. “The lowercase gopher is generic for any rodent that lives under ground,” Jansa said.

When she looks at Goldy, she doesn’t see a squirrel or a gopher. ”I see Goldy,” she said. “Goldy is a thing unto himself as far as I’m concerned.”

The warm and fuzzy-looking Goldy has had to stand up against more fierce-sounding Big Ten mascots such as the Wisconsin Badgers, Northwestern Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines. In 1985, the U gave Goldy a tough-guy look. But when fans balked, a more friendly-faced Goldy returned.

As for those who look at Goldy’s striped tail and see a squirrel, Jansa is OK with that.

“I like squirrels,” she said. “They’re feisty and pugnacious.” 

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