By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Goldy is the mascot of the University of Minnesota. Fairchild the Gopher is the face of the Minnesota State Fair. And, since its inception, Minnesota has been known as the Gopher State.

So, why is the gopher Minnesota’s state mascot? Good question.

“It’s because of a cartoon,” says Lori Williamson of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The political cartoon dates back to 1858, the year Minnesota became a state. The cartoon shows nine creatures — half human, half-gopher — being pulled in a cart by bondholders. The creatures are depictions of state legislators who had pushed for a $5 million bonding bill to build new railroads.

“The idea is that they’re pulled along by the rodents, the legislative rodents in this case,” says Williamson.

The illustrator, R.O. Sweeney, believed the deal to be corrupt. The cartoon was not published in a newspaper when it was first introduced, but was the equivalent of a modern-day viral Facebook post.

Williamson says it’s not clear exactly why Sweeney chose to depict the legislators as gophers, but she has a few theories.

“One is that gophers were much more prevalent in the 1850s,” she says. “The were kind of everywhere and scourge to farmers.”

The second is that Sweeney wanted to choose a rodent, but not a rodent considered terrible, like a rat. Instead, he chooses a more palatable rodent so as not to be offended.

The cartoon became so popular that it eventually stuck with Minnesota. Goldy Gopher started his career at the University of Minnesota in 1940. Fairchild the Gopher will turn 52 this year.

Heather Brown