Rock Chalk, Rob, KU?

Or, KU’s Paean of Pillaging

“Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk, KU.” The chant is known to many. How many understand its origin?

Ask KU fans about the chant, and a respectable percentage of them are able to parrot back the official KU story of its origin with the KU Science Club in 1886, “Rock Chalk” replacing the “Rah Rah” of the original chant at some later date, and its eventual embrace by the larger student body. Ask about the meaning of the chant, and most KU fans focus on the “Rock Chalk” part, a transposition of “chalk rock” and an almost-rhyming reference to the limestone that comprises a hill and some of the older buildings on the KU campus. Well, what about the “Jay Hawk” part? That is simply a reference to the same mythical bird the football team is named after, right?

[Promoted to front page.  It's Hate Week!!!]

Wrong. The football team was not named after a mythological bird. The original name of the football team was the Jayhawkers, and the shorter Jayhawk term did not completely supplant the original Jayhawkers term until the 1950’s. The originator of the Jayhawk bird mascot, Henry Maloy, struggled for over two years to create a pictorial symbol for the team, until hitting upon the bird idea in 1912 As explained by Mr. Maloy, “the term ‘jayhawk’ in the school yell was a verb and the term ‘jayhawkers’ was the noun.[i] If the bird implication had escaped Mr. Maloy for so long, one must conclude the link to the mythological bird, which is now a well-ingrained part of KU’s jayhawk tradition, was not very widely recognized (if at all) in the moniker’s early days. One must also conclude the term “jayhawk” was primarily used as a verb in that era.

What did the verb “jayhawk” mean? The verb is derived from the noun “jayhawker”, which came into common usage during the lawless years of the Kansas Territorial period, when the men who took advantage of the chaos to raid and rob were called jayhawkers. While it may have been initially applied to men of both sides of the territorial conflict, by the time of Kansas statehood in 1861 it had become primarily associated with the raiders affiliated with the Free State cause. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the term was broadened to encompass Kansas men and troops that waged a form of warfare against the citizen population of western Missouri in which pillaging and arson were common. Thus, examples of jayhawkers included outright brigands like Marshall Cleveland, military leaders such as Senator Jim Lane of Kansas, and marauding troops such as those under Lane’s command. The extensive depredations by the jayhawkers in western Missouri during the opening year of the Civil War hastened and steepened the region’s descent into the horrors of an internecine conflict in which civilians were “fair game”, and precipitated Quantrill’s retaliatory raid on Lawrence.[ii] By the end of war, Jayhawkers was being used as a derogatory term for any Kansas troops. While those outside Kansas generally used the term as an insult, Kansas residents embraced it, and eventually the term came to describe Kansans in general. In the regional lexicon, the verb “jayhawk” retained its original meaning, to plunder or to rob.

Why was the verb incorporated into the KU chant? Surely KU students were not seeking to instill a spirit of plundering and robbing. While the author of the chant left posterity with an article describing the chant’s origin, it is silent on the jayhawk terminology.[iii] Perhaps the use of the jayhawk term in the chant, and the embrace of the chant by KU, were merely an attempt (albeit one in poor taste) to tweak the nose of the rival Missourians. After all, why did KU’s new cartoon bird have such a big beak? According to the KU fight song written by Dumpy Bowles in 1912, it was “to twist the Tiger's tail.”

One Kansas newspaper editor discussed the evolution of the story behind the KU moniker. “The criminal and murderous act of jayhawking was all but forgotten, (except by people of my grandmother’s generation, who lived through it). This may be one of the most remarkable examples in history of political correctness out of control — sanitize it by denying that it happened. Pretend that there was a legend about a gigantic bird called a ‘jayhawk,’ and the criminal act, jayhawking, is forgotten. Jayhawk becomes a noun instead of the verb….”[iv] KU students who embraced the jayhawk terminology in the midst of such white-washing of the historical reality should be forgiven on the basis of their ignorance of the ugly truth.

Whether by design or through ignorance, the available evidence suggests the original Rock Chalk chant was indeed a paean of pillaging, or at least it was almost certainly viewed as such on the east side of the Missouri-Kansas line. One can only wonder at the intensity of the earliest MU-KU football games, as the MU squad took the field against a team called the Jayhawkers, with the exhortations of the KU fans to “Jayhawk!” ringing in their ears.

No wonder the animosity of the original Border War carried over to the gridiron and hardwood. Little wonder the MU-KU rivalry has presisted to the present. Long may it live!

K. Piontek
March 2010


[i] Kirke Mechem. The Mythical Jayhawk. Kansas Historical Quarterly, February 1944 (Vol. 13, No. 1), pages 1 to 15.


[ii] Castel, Albert. Kansas Jayhawking Raids into Western Missouri in 1861; Missouri Historical Review 54/1, State Historical Society of Missouri; October, 1959.

[iii] E.H.S. Bailey. How and When “Rock Chalk” Came into Being. The Jayhawker Yearbook, Class of 1917.

[iv] Don Coldsmith. Jayhawkers and Border Ruffians. The Emporia Gazette; March 16, 2009. Available at:

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