KU's Lame Jayhawk Tradition

With the potential that Saturday’s game will be the last in the MU-KU rivalry, here is a parting shot (at least for now) at KU - and their beloved Jayhawk moniker.

KU’s version of the origin of the Jayhawk moniker can be found on the University of Kansas’ official web site.[1] After acknowledging that the jayhawker term was applied during the Kansas territorial period to men that “looted, sacked, rustled cattle, stole horses, and otherwise attacked each other's settlements”, the KU web site goes on to state, “During the Civil War, the Jayhawk's ruffian image gave way to a patriotic symbol. Kansas Governor Charles Robinson raised a regiment called the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks. By war's end, Jayhawks were synonymous with the impassioned people who made Kansas a Free State. In 1886, the bird appeared in a cheer--the famous Rock Chalk chant. ” That sounds nice. However, let us examine the veracity of these statements.

“During the Civil War, the Jayhawk's ruffian image gave way to a patriotic symbol.” False. During the era in question and the region of interest (the Missouri-Kansas border), the term “jayhawk” was a verb and not a noun, much less a symbol. The meaning of the verb was to make a predatory attack or to illegally appropriate (e.g., steal). For example, when Kansas Senator James H. Lane (an infamous liar) told the Lincoln administration that he had the support of Union General David Hunter to lead a proposed military expedition into Texas,Hunter humorously replied, “It seems, from all the evidence before me, that Senator J. H. Lane has been trading at Washington on a capital made up partly of his own senatorial position and partly of such scraps of influence as I may have possessed in the confidence or esteem of the President, said scraps having been jay-hawked by the Kansas senator without due consent of the proper owner.[2] (Hunter's use of "jay-hawked" alluded to the widespread plundering that has occurred during the previous campaign of Lane’s Brigade through western Missouri.)

“Kansas Governor Charles Robinson raised a regiment called the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks.” False. The name of the regiment was the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawkers (not Jayhawks).

“By war's end, Jayhawks were synonymous with the impassioned people who made Kansas a Free State.” Not true. The statement would probably be true if it referenced the term jayhawkers (not jayhawks) and if it was appended with the phrase “in the minds of some Kansans”. Outside the state of Kansas at that time, the term “jayhawkers” as applied to Kansans was a derogatory term reflecting the plundering, arson, and murder committed by the collection of outlaws, independent military bands, and rogue federal troops from Kansas that were collectively called jayhawkers during the war.[3] Even within Kansas, there was a segment of the population that was none too pleased with the emerging trend of using “jayhawkers” as an appellation for the people of Kansas. [4] From the outset of jayhawking operations during the Kansas territorial period, there was a “law and order” segment of the Kansas population that viewed the jayhawkers as nothing more than thieves who used the political turmoil over slavery as cover for their crimes. During the Civil War, while the jayhawkers were more infamous for the plundering, arson, and murder perpetrated on the civilian population of western Missouri, the citizens of Kansas were not immune to their lawless violence. Kansas legislators introduced a resolution asking the Union military command to intervene[5], and in response the Union military declared martial law in Kansas specifically to suppress the jayhawkers.[6] Even today, there is a segment of the Kansas population (albeit quite small) embarrassed that KU selected the Jayhawker as the moniker for their athletic teams, considering what kind of men the original Jayhawkers truly were.[7]

“In 1886, the bird appeared in a cheer--the famous Rock Chalk chant.” Questionable (at best). Was it really a bird that appeared in the chant? 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.[8] Only after Maloy’s invention of the bird mascot was there any image or symbol commonly associated with the jayhawk term. Why would the verb have been incorporated into the KU chant? Surely KU students were not celebrating the plundering and robbing of the original jayhawkers (were they?) While the author of the chant left posterity with an article describing the chant’s origin, it is silent on the jayhawk terminology.[9] 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.”

So, there are have four statements from KU on the origin of the Jayhawk moniker, and all four statements are flat out false or of questionable accuracy. But that is not all. Even more questionable claims regarding the jayhawk tradition were incorporated into a different KU Athletic Department web site.[10] The web site stated that “In an effort to abolish slavery a group of men in Lawrence formed an organization called “The Jayhawkers”. This is a significant distortion of the truth. The term “Jayhwkers” neither originated with, nor was ever primarily associated with, any group of abolitionists in Lawrence. The term as applied to Kansans did not originate in Lawrence, but rather in what was then referred to as southeast Kansas (e.g. Linn and Bourbon counties).[11] The people associated with the original jayhawkers term were more accurately described in an early history of Kansas written by a KU professor: “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.”[12] The KU athletic department web site also claimed that William Quantrill launched his infamous retaliatory raid on Lawrence, Kansas from Columbia, Missouri. It is well documented that Quantrill launched his raid from a western Missouri location nearer to Lawrence than Columbia. There is no evidence that William Quantrill, a former Lawrence resident, ever set foot in Columbia. Thankfully, the KU web site containing these ridiculous statements, KU’s “coachturnergill” web site, disappeared soon after Coach Gill departed Lawrence. It is probably safe to conclude neither the web site nor Coach Gill were axed due to KU concerns with historical accuracy.

KU is proud of their Jayhawk moniker, and it is understandable that KU would seek to put the Jayhawk tradition in a positive light. KU has apparently decided the truth isn’t adequate to accomplish that objective.

K. Piontek
February 2012


[2] Letter from General Hunter to Major General H.W. Halleck; February 8, 1862.

[3] For example, an 1877 dictionary provided the following definition of jayhawker: “A cant (slang) name in the Western States for a lawless or other soldier not enlisted; a freebooting armed man; a guerilla.” (John Russell Bartlett. Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases, Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, Fourth Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1877.) Note this definition did not include any statement about the “impassioned people who made Kansas a Free State”.

[4] Origin of the Word Jayhawking In Application to the People of Kansas. Incidents in the early History of the Territory." The AllenCounty Courant (Iola, Kansas), May 23, 1868; Vol. 2, No. 19.

[5] Missouri Republican newspaper article, reprinted in The Pilot; Manitowoc, Wisconsin; January 31, 1862, page 1, column G.

[6] Jayhawking. Headquarters, Department of Kansas, Leavenworth, Kansas. Feb. 8, 1862. As reported in the New York Times, February 23, 1862. “…the crime of armed depredations, or "Jayhawking”, having reached a height dangerous to the peace and property of the whole State, and seriously compromising the Union cause in the border counties of Missouri.; now, therefore, martial law is declared throughout the State of Kansas, and will be enforced with vigor.”

[7] Coldsmith, Don. “Jayhawkers and Border Ruffians.” The Emporia Gazzette; EmporiaKansas, Monday, March 16, 2009. Accessed 1/14/2010.

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

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

[10] The web site had a section accessed through “Traditions”, then “Rivalries, then “Border Showdown.” Accessed 111-16-2011.

[11] Welch, G. Murlin. Border Warfare in Southeast Kansas: 1856-1859. Linn County Publishing Co., Inc. 1977. Chapter XV, Endnote No. 20.

[12] Spring, Leverett Wilson. Kansas, The Prelude to the War for the Union. New York: Boston Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896.

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