Part 1: Kansas Mythology

{Editor's note: In preparation for this year's Border War, RMN reader Keith Piontek has authored a four-part series on the origins of the Missouri/Kansas rivalry. In Part 1, he examines the mythology commonly associated with Kansas.}

Most passionate fans of the University of Missouri and University of Kansas know that the rivalry between the schools is rooted in the Civil War.  This rather unique basis for a college sports rivalry has led to a rather unique form of trash talking between the rival fans.  Almost inevitably, the rivalry banter turns to bushwhackers and jayhawkers, Quantrill and the burning of Lawrence, the depredations of the Kansas troops in Missouri, etc. 

Forgive me if I paint KU fandom with too broad a brush, but the version of Civil War era history that many KU fans seem to have is not much deeper than the following: it was "Missouri versus Kansas", with "Missouri = slavers", "Kansans  = noble abolitionists", and "noble abolitionists in Kansas = jayhawkers."   This is the first in a series of four articles that attempts to sort the true history of the rivalry’s origins from the mythology that tends to be cited by KU fans. 

Missouri versus Kansas

The origins of the conflict between Missourians and Kansans lie in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the resulting struggles between those that would expand slavery into and those that would exclude slavery from what would become the new state of Kansas.  Certainly, this included conflict between a pro-slavery element in Missouri and what became a majority of the new settlers of Kansas Territory.  Without a doubt, the resulting animosity between Missourians and Kansans from the Territorial period spilled over into the Civil War.  However, “Missouri versus Kansas” is an overly simplistic summary of the nature of the conflict.  In the case of these conflicts, the devil was truly in the details. 

First, a large number of the settlers in Kansas Territory were transplanted Missourians.  By 1860, slightly over 10 percent of the Kansas population was comprised of settlers from Missouri (versus only 4 percent comprised of the “Yankee abolitionist” emigrants from the New England states). [1]  A substantial number of these settlers from Missourians joined the Kansas free-state party (i.e., those that opposed the expansion of slavery into Kansas).  Second, not all of those who attempted to expand slavery into Kansas were from Missouri.  Just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act spurred immigration of abolitionists from the northeast, so it spurred immigration of slavery expansionists from the Deep South.  The infamous Marais des Cygnes Massacre of Bleeding Kansas lore is often attributed to the “dastardly Missourians”, but the truth of the matter is that this crime was planned and led by a Georgian that had attempted to settle in Kansas Territory but had been driven from his claim by free-state militants.    

Similarly, while the Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border certainly had Missouri versus Kansas attributes, the conflict was far more complex.  Missouri was a border state, and Missouri residents exhibited a broad spectrum of sentiment on matters such as Union, states rights, and slavery.  It is ludicrous to characterize all Missourians as being on one particular side, or having one particular stand on the key issues of that era.  The Civil War in Missouri was just as much (or more) about “Missouri versus Missouri” than it was “Kansas versus Missouri”, although the latter generated many of the most infamous incidents along the border. While understandable to an extent given the nature of the warfare that erupted in Missouri, some Kansans are surprised to learn that the Union (and Kansas as a Union state) was never at a formal state of war with Missouri.  Missouri retained a pro-Union government throughout the war, and the United States government never classified Missouri as being in a state of rebellion. 

Missouri = Slavers

"Missouri = slavers" is KU trash-talking shorthand for the notions that Missourians of that era can generally be classified as slave-owning advocates of slavery expansion into Kansas, and/or were among those who fought in the Civil War to save slavery.  This characterization is so overly simplistic and inaccurate as to be almost laughable if it wasn't so widely believed in KU fandom.  

While Missouri entered the Union as a slave state according to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was distinct from the slave states of the Deep South.  By 1860 slaves accounted for just under 10 percent of Missouri’s residents, the smallest proportion of all slave states save Delaware. Fewer than 1 in 5 Missouri families owned slaves, lowest of any of the slave states save Delaware and a far cry from South Carolina, where more than half of all free white families owned slaves.[2] 


Many Missourians were against slavery and/or its expansion.  Notable examples include Thomas Hart Benton, the pre-eminent Missouri politician of the pre-war era, whose principled stand against slavery expansion earned him a place in Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book that described eight United States senators of exceptional integrity.  Frank Blair of St. Louis was a leader of the Missouri Free Soil Party, helped to save Missouri for the Union, and served as a brigadier general in the Union army.  Blair’s brother, St. Louis attorney Montgomery Blair, represented Dred Scott before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued for his freedom.  Missourian Edward Bates was one of the leading candidates for the 1860 Republican Party presidential nomination, and later served in Lincoln’s cabinet as Attorney General. 


In the years leading to the Civil War, the Missouri state government arguably became increasingly aligned with the radical pro-slavery element of the Deep South.  However, secession was overwhelmingly rejected at the state convention called to consider the issue.  The voters of Missouri did not elect a single avowed secessionist to the convention.[3] 


When war come, many more Missouri men served the Union than the Confederacy (by over a 3:1 margin).  Over 14,000 Missouri men died while in Union arms.[4]  While many Missourians did fight for the Confederacy, it would be misleading and unfair to characterize the motivations of all or even most of these men as fighting to save slavery.  In deciding “which side’, family heritage and nationality tended to be greater influences than opinions on slavery and abolition.  “If the family came to Missouri along the southern migration path—Virginia to Tennessee or Kentucky, then on to Missouri—the person usually went with the Confederacy. If the migration path was northerly, through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois into Missouri, the person usually went with the Union. Family allegiance, and social and cultural upbringing, tended to be the influencing factors.[5]


Many if not most Missourians that suffered at the hands of marauding Kansans during the Civil War wanted nothing to do with either slavery expansion or the secessionist element in Missouri.  Many in western Missouri sought to stay out of the war, and many of those that ultimately chose to join the Confederacy and/or to fight the Kansans did so not for any high-minded political or ideological cause, but simply to defend their families and communities from an invading and plundering foe, and for revenge on the outrages perpetrated on their families and communities.    

Were there "slavers" in Missouri?  Yes.  In the Border War era, did "Missourian = slaver"?  Absolutely not. 

Kansans = Noble Abolitionists

"Kansans = noble abolitionists" is a myth.  While there were noble-minded and principled abolitionists that settled in Kansas, they were a decided minority, and the rank and file of the Kansas Territory free-state contingent was comprised of men that "were as much anti-Negro as they were anti-slavery, and they were in a large measure anti-slavery because they were anti-Negro; that is, they feared the social and economic consequences of the introduction of Negro slave labor into the state."[6]

This characterization is supported by the nature of the Topeka Constitution, the state constitution initially developed by Kansas Free-Staters.  The Topeka Constitution would have prohibited slavery in Kansas, but it also allowed for the exclusion of free blacks.  When the Free-Staters voted to accept the constitution, they voted by a 3:1 margin for the exclusion of free blacks.  (The U.S. Congress rejected the Topeka Constitution, in part because its “black law” characteristic was concealed by the Kansans who presented the constitution to Congress.)[7]

(Since some KU fans like to play the racist “slaver” card, it seems fair to point out that Kansas has not exactly been the beacon and bastion of lofty humanitarianism and equality often implied.  Most notably, blacks did not gain the right to vote in Kansas until the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and schools in Kansas were not desegregated until the United States Supreme Court’s famous Brown versus Board of Education (of Topeka, KS) decision.)

Militant Wing of Noble Abolitionists = Jayhawkers

The biggest misconception held by many KU fans is that "jayhawkers" was a term used in the Territorial and Civil War eras for the militant wing of the noble abolitionists.  While there was a strain of noble and principled abolition in Kansas, it was polluted to an almost overwhelming degree by men that used Union and Abolition as a cover for theft, plunder, and worse.  “Jayhawker” was the term that was used in that era for these lawless men. 

The emergence of the jayhawker term in the Kansas Territorial Period is described in a 1885 history of Kansas history written by a KU professor.  He described the men in southeast Kansas Territory that first acquired the moniker.  “Confederated at first for defense against pro-slavery outrages, but ultimately falling more or less completely into the vocation of robbers and assassins, they have received the name --- whatever its origin may be -- of jayhawkers”.[8]

Some KU fans will argue that, while the jayhawker term did describe an unsavory element of the Kansas population, it also encompassed the noble abolitionists that employed force to liberate slaves while the institution was still protected by the United States constitution (men who were therefore doing good although engaged in what technically was a criminal activity).   According to some historians, James Montgomery was the epitome such a principled, militant abolitionist.  One of Montgomery’s biographers was very careful to differentiate his motives and activities from those of the jayhawkers.  "The truth seems to be that while he was the greatest leader of the Jayhawkers, yet he was not himself a Jayhawker.  He did not himself believe in nor practice plundering from the Pro-slavery men, merely because they were Pro-slavery men, nor in plundering Missourians merely because they were Missourians... the odium which rightfully should attach to those who were "Jayhawkers" in the odious sense of that term, wrongfully attaches to Montgomery's name."[9]

From these historical tidbits, one can begin to understand the original meaning of the term “jayhawker” in the Territorial Period and Civil War along the Missouri-Kansas border: thieves and plunderers that hid under the cover of abolition and Union to prey on civilians, particularly Missouri civilians.   Commenting on Albert Castel’s classic history of the Civil War in Kansas, one reviewer stated that the book, “uncovers villains by the dozen but nary a hero”.[10]  To a surprising degree, the history of early Kansas is dominated by an assortment of unsavory rogues.  Collectively, there were no categories of Kansas men more unsavory than the jayhawkers and the associated redlegs.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the Missouri-Kansas rivalry is how Kansans, and later the University of Kansas, came to embrace the jayhawker term and the redleg symbol.      




The version of Missouri-Kansas Border War history that is often cited by KU fans is more myth than historical fact. This is not surprising when one understands the extent to which mythmaking has permeated the historiography of Territorial Kansas and the subsequent years of Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas border. 


As a KU history professor once wrote, “TRUTH, THE adage has it, is stranger than fiction, but stranger than either of them is fiction purveyed as its opposite. For over a century descriptions of territorial Kansas have had an abundance of that peculiar commodity. In the year 1856 much of Kansas was in a turmoil compounded of violence, murder, and outright war. For their own purposes, the men who described the troubled times banished fact and summoned fancy in its place. Within the territory and throughout the nation, politicians, newspapermen, and participants in the events reconstructed the recent history of Kansas at will. For a century afterward the example of the partisans of '56 endured. While Kansans themselves created fables about the territorial days and boasted that because Kansas became a free state the nation was free of slavery, abolitionists generated legends about the valor and humanitarianism of John Brown, and historians nurtured the myth that the strife in Kansas was the Civil War in miniscule.  Instead of a historical reality, territorial Kansas was a state of mind.”[11] 


In subsequent installments of this series, I will attempt to shed more light on the historical reality at the basis of the Missouri-Kansas rivalry, and the associated KU “state of mind” that continues to influence the emotions and semantics of the rivalry through the present day. 


Keith Piontek
November 2008


[1] Territorial Kansas Online 1854-1861, A Virtual Repository for Territorial Kansas History, Immigration and Early Settlement.

[2] Phillips, Christopher.  “The Crime Against Missouri”: slavery, Kansas, and the cant of Southerness in the border West.  Civil War History.  March 1, 2002.   

[3] Evans, Clement A.  Missouri in the Civil War.  Confederate Military History, Vol. 9, Chapter II.  Confederate Publishing Company.  1899.  

[4] Missouri State Archives.  Soldiers' Records: Abstract of Wars & Military Engagements, War of 1812 through World War I.  Missouri Digital Heritage:

[5] D. H. Rule.  Choosing Sides.  Civil War St. Louis web site.

[6] Castel, Albert.  Civil War Kansas.  University Press of Kansas.  1997.  Page 43. 

[7] Leverett Wilson Spring.  Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union.  Houghton, Mifflin, and Company.  1896.  p 240.

[8] Ibid.  pp. 71-78. 

[9] Cutler, William G. History of the State of Kansas, Era of Peace, Part 43.

[10] Wichita Eagle.  Review comment on the dust jacket of Civil War Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 1997. 

[11] Griffin, C.S.  The University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty.  Kansas Historical Quarterly: Winter, 1968 (Vol. XXXIV. No. 4), pages 409 to 426.

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