Though most often referring to a mythical bird of Kansas today, utilized as the University of Kansas’ mascot, and often applied to anyone from the state, Jayhawkers were very real during the Kansas-Missouri Border War and continuing into the Civil War.
The term was first known to have been used in 1849 by a group of California bound travelers passing through Kansas who called themselves Jayhawkers. The term was thought to have been inspired by a cross between a hawk and a blue jay, taking on the predatory habits of the former, and the noisy nature of the blue jay.
By the 1850s, the term was widely accepted in the region as anyone from Kansas. When the new territory was opened for settlement in 1854 and was flooded by both anti-slavery advocates and pro-slavery residents, mostly from Missouri. Tensions were immediate between the opposing factions, which soon led to the Kansas-Missouri Border War, often referred to as “Bleeding Kansas” in the years prior to the Civil War.
As tension mounted between the two groups, a number of skirmishes and battles occurred between the two factions, with the anti-slavery proponents referred to as Jayhawkers, and the pro-slavery advocates referred to as Bushwhackers or Border Ruffians.
The battles between the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers continued even after Kansas was declared a “Free-State” and into the Civil War. By this time, the term was so well-known that many Confederates referred to any Kansas troops as Jayhawkers, but this was not the case. The true Jayhawkers were guerilla fighters that were often undisciplined, unprincipled, thieving and murderous. Because of their ruthless ways and tendency towards theft, the term “Jayhawking” became widely used as a synonym for stealing, and the term “Jayhawk” itself, was also used as an epithet for any marauder, robber, or thief.
Liking the tough image the term conveyed, Kansas soldiers continued to use the term and members of the Seventh Kansas regiment, commanded by Colonel Charles R. Jennison, were widely known as Jayhawkers. Jennison’s troops, who wore red breeches, were also referred to as “Redlegs.” Other prominent Jayhawkers of the time were renowned politician, James H. Lane who commanded what was known as “Lane’s Brigade,” and Daniel R. Anthony, an ardent abolitionist and the brother of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. In many cases, true Jayhawkers and Redlegs refused to join units officially sanctioned by the U.S. Army; however, guerrillas on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border achieved some measure of legitimacy through sanction from the Federal and Confederate governments.
During the Civil War, Jayhawker bands invaded Missouri, often committing some of the most notorious atrocities of the conflict including the Sacking of Osceola on September 23, 1861, led by James H. Lane, in which the entire town was set aflame and at least nine male residents were killed.
Two years later, when William Quantrill attacked Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863 in what has become known as the Lawrence Massacre, Confederate guerillas could be heard shouting, “Remember Osceola!” Though Lane was in residence in Lawrence at the time, he was able to escape the attack by racing through a cornfield in his nightshirt.
Afterward, these Jayhawker bands began to receive much criticism from the Union leaders and they were “reigned in.”
As the Civil War continued and the Jayhawk raids diminished, the ruffian image gave way to patriotic symbol and Kansas Governor Charles Robinson raised a regiment called the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks. By the end of the war, Jayhawks were synonymous with the impassioned people who made Kansas a Free-State.
In 1886, the mythical bird “appeared” in a cheer during a University of Kansas athletic event — the famous Rock Chalk chant. Later it was adopted as the school’s mascot.
Today the term continues to apply Kansas natives and as the University of Kansas’ mascot.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser, updated June 2018.