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Jayhawkers is a term that came to prominence just before the Civil War in Bleeding Kansas, where it was adopted by militant bands affiliated with the free-state cause. These bands, known as "Jayhawkers", were guerrilla fighters who often clashed with pro-slavery "Border Ruffians". After the Civil War, "Jayhawker" became synonymous with the people of Kansas. Today the term is a nickname for a native-born Kansan.[1]

The term refers to the mythical "Jayhawk", a cross between two common birds, the noisy blue jay and the quiet sparrow hawk.


The origin of the term "Jayhawker" is uncertain. The term was reportedly adopted as a nickname by a group of emigrants traveling to California in 1849.[2] The name combines two birds, the blue jay and the sparrow hawk.[3]

The term became part of the lexicon of the Missouri-Kansas border in about 1858, during the Kansas territorial period. The term was used to describe militant bands nominally associated with the free-state cause. One early Kansas history contained this succinct characterization of the jayhawkers:[4]:

“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.”

Another historian of the territorial period described the jayhawkers as bands of men that were willing to fight, kill, and rob for a variety of motives that included defense against pro-slavery "Border Ruffians", abolition, driving pro-slavery settlers from their claims of land, revenge, and/or plunder and personal profit.[5]

The meaning of the jayhawker term evolved in the opening year of the Civil War. When Charles Jennison, one of the territorial-era jayhawkers, was authorized to raise a regiment of cavalry to serve in the Union army, he characterized the unit as the "Independent Kansas Jay-Hawkers" on a recruiting poster. The regiment was officially termed the 7th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, but was popularly known as Jennison's Jayhawkers.[6] Thus, the term became associated with Union troops from Kansas. After the regiment was banished from the Missouri-Kansas border in the spring of 1862, it went on to participate in several battles including Union victories of the Battle of Iuka and the Second Battle of Corinth. Late in the war, the regiment returned to Kansas and contributed to Union victory in one of the last major battles in the Missouri-Kansas theatre, the Battle of Mine Creek.

The jayhawker term was applied not only to Jennison and his command, but to any Kansas troops engaged in predatory operations against the civilian population of western Missouri, in which the plundering and arson that characterized the territorial struggles were repeated, but on a much larger scale. For example, the term "jayhawkers" also encompassed Senator Jim Lane and his Kansas Brigade, which sacked and burned Osceola, Missouri in the opening months of the war after their defeat by Sterling Price's Missouri State Guard in the Battle of Dry Wood Creek[7][8] A number of other smaller Missouri towns, and large swaths of the Missouri countryside, were similarly plundered and laid waste by Union forces as back and forth raids were undertaken by forces from both sides.

However, lending to confusion over the precise meaning of the jayhawker term along the Missouri-Kansas border, it also continued to be used to describe outright criminals like Marshall Cleveland that operated on a smaller scale and outside the Union military command, but still under the cover of supposed Unionism.[9] A newspaper reporter traveling through Kansas in 1863 provided definitions of jayhawker and associated terms[10]:

Jayhawkers, Red Legs, and Bushwhackers are everyday terms in Kansas and Western Missouri. A Jayhawker is a Unionist who professes to rob, burn out and murder only rebels in arms against the government. A Red Leg is a Jayhawker originally distinguished by the uniform of red leggings. A Red Leg, however, is regarded as more purely an indiscriminate thief and murderer than the Jayhawker or Bushwhacker. A Bushwhacker is a rebel Jayhawker, or a rebel who bands with others for the purpose of preying upon the lives and property of Union citizens. They are all lawless and indiscriminate in their iniquities.

The depredations of the jayhawkers contributed to the descent of the Missouri-Kansas border region into some of the most vicious guerrilla fighting of the Civil War. The most infamous event in this war of raids and reprisals was Confederate leader William Quantrill's attack on Lawrence, Kansas known as the Lawrence Massacre.[11]

As the war continued, the term came to be used by Confederates as a derogatory term for any troops from Kansas, but the term also had different meanings in different parts of the county. In Arkansas, the term was used by Confederate Arkansans as an epithet for any marauder, robber, or thief (regardless of Union or Confederate affiliation).[12] In Louisiana, the term was used to describe anti-Confederate guerillas, as well as free-booting bands of draft dodgers and deserters.[13]

Over time, proud of their State's contributions to the end of slavery and the preservation of the Union, Kansans embraced the "Jayhawker" term. The term came to be applied to people or items related to Kansas, similar to the term "Hoosier" for Indiana, "Sooner" for Oklahoma, and "Buckeye" for Ohio. When the University of Kansas fielded their first football team in 1890, the team was called the Jayhawkers.[14]

Cultural influence[]

  • The football team at the University of Kansas in Lawrence was originally called the Jayhawkers, and the university's sports teams are now known as the Jayhawks.
  • Clint Eastwood's Missourian character in the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales took up the Confederate cause after Redleg Jayhawkers from Kansas killed his son and raped and murdered his wife.
  • A cattle drive being held up by Jayhawkers is depicted in The Tall Men.
  • In a Gunsmoke episode called "The Jayhawkers", men of that name extort money from cattle-drivers by threatening to scatter their herds unless paid off.
  • Colonel James Montgomery in the movie Glory was referred to as "a real Jayhawker from Kansas."
  • Abolitionists were referred to as "Jayhawkers" or "Red Legs" and both were used as terms of derision towards those from Kansas after the Civil War. The term "Jayhawk" has evolved over the years to a term of pride used by all Kansans. The term "Red Leg" as applied to Kansans has disappeared from common lexicon.
  • Items stolen in raids into Missouri were frequently referred to as having been "Jayhawked".
  • The United States Coast Guard adopted the name "Jayhawk" for its search and rescue helicopter model HH-60J.

See also[]


  1. Jayhawker -
  2. Fox, Simeon M. "The Story of the Seventh Kansas." Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society 8(1904): 13-49.
  4. Spring, Leverett Wilson. Kansas, The Prelude to the War for the Union. New York: Boston Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896.
  5. Welch, G. Murlin. Border Warfare in Southeast Kansas: 1856-1859. Linn County Publishing Co., Inc. 1977.
  6. Starr, Stephen Z. Jennison’s Jayhawkers, A Civil War Cavalry Regiment and Its Commander. Louisiana State University Press. 1973. Page 57.
  7. Goodrich, Thomas. Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  8. Benedict, Bryce. Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane. University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.
  9. Starr, Stephen Z. Jennison’s Jayhawkers, A Civil War Cavalry Regiment and Its Commander. Louisiana State University Press. 1973.
  10. Connelly, William E. Quantrill and the Border Wars. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press. 1910. Page 412.
  11. ICastel, Albert. Kansas Jayhawking Raids Into Western Missouri in 1861. Missouri Historical Review 54/1. October 1959.
  12. Daniel E. Sutherland. Jayhawkers and Bushwackers. The Encylcopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
  13. Block, William T. Some Notes on the Civil War Jayhawkers of Confederate Louisiana.
  14. Official KU web site, Traditions at the University, The Jayhawk.


  • Castel, Albert (1997). Civil War in Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. (ISBN 0-7006-0872-9)
  • Kerrihard, Bo. "America's Civil War: Missouri and Kansas." TheHistoryNet.
  • Starr, Steven J (1974). Jennison's Jayhawkers: A Civil War Cavalry Regiment and its Commander. (ISBN 0-8071-0218-0)
  • Wellman, Paul. (1962) A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (details the origins of the James-Younger and other outlaw gangs in the Kansas-Missouri border war).

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