Brief Background and History

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Brief Background and History

Even though the American Civil War ended some 143 years ago, the Missouri-Kansas border war continues to this day, although in a different way and for a different reason.  Although the settlers and soldiers of yesteryear have now been replaced by college athletes and students, the two great universities involved, the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri and the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas still wage war against each other for reasons many still don’t know or understand. 

Athletic teams from the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas compete in numerous sports throughout the academic year as bitter rivals in the Big 12 Conference.  Beginning in 1891, the rivalry between the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas is now considered to be the oldest college rivalry west of the Mississippi River.  Even though most MU and KU athletes, students, fans and alumni don’t know, this border state rivalry goes way beyond school pride and sports and way back to the era of the American Civil War. 

Step back in time to just before the Civil War and one would find out what a true “Jayhawker” really was.  Is it really a cute little blue, red and yellow bird that Kansas University has adopted as their official mascot, or is it something much different?  The Missouri Tigers, are they named for the beautiful great cat or for something else?
University of Kansas Jayhawks

Well, KU did not choose the name Jayhawks to pay homage to a cute little bitty bird, but rather they chose it to honor settlers and soldiers of the Kansas Territory before and during the American Civil War.  According to the university, “the mascot of the University of Kansas is the “Jayhawk,” a mythical bird whose origin is rooted in the historic struggles of early Kansas settlers.  The term combines two birds - the blue jay, a noisy, aggressive bird known to rob other nests, and the sparrow hawk, a stealthy hunter.  During the 1850s, the Kansas Territory was a battleground between those who wanted a state where slavery would be legal and those committed to a free state.  The Missouri and Kansas factions looted, sacked, rustled cattle, stole horses, and otherwise attacked each other's settlements.  For a time, border ruffians on both sides were sometimes called “jayhawkers.”

Some sources say that origin of the word “jayhawk” came from the area of Osawatomie, Kansas sometime around 1856 where a little group of abolitionists were known as the "Free Sons of Liberty" use to meet.  One of their members supposedly was an Irishman named Pat Devlin.  Devlin came into town unusually late one morning after “patrolling” and one of the community’s citizen asked him with suspicion what he had been doing all night.  Devlin remarked: "O, I've just been out there jayhawking."  When the curious citizen asked him what is jayhawking, Devlin replied; “Why, you don't know what a jayhawk is?  Over in Ireland there is a bird that lives on the young and eggs of other birds who are its enemies, and they call this bird a jayhawk."

The term jayhawking started to spread around the border area since it did somewhat describe the border-crossing raids and attacks that were going on at that time.  Men who participated in the activities were starting to be called Jayhawkers.  Some sources state that originally the term jayhawking may have applied to Kansans and Missourians alike who were involved with these cross-border raids before the Civil War.  Eventually the term came to refer to those from Kansas exclusively.  Raiders and some of the pro-Confederate military units from Missouri started being called "bushwhackers" and/or “guerillas.” 

The town of Lawrence, where KU is located, was as the University states, “a free state stronghold.”  It is also where numerous abolitionists and jayhawker militia units such as the infamous Jennison’s Jayhawker 7th Kansas Cavalry regiment lead by Charles R. “Doc” Jennison and Kansas units of James Henry Lane sometimes resided.   The acts and raids from these and other Kansas militia units into Missouri when the Civil War erupted is what lead to the dramatic rise of Missouri “pro-southern” militia groups and Confederate army units.  Many, if not most, of the leading and famous Missouri Confederate guerillas of the Civil War such as William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger Brothers and dozens more can all associate their initial motivation and involvement into the war against the Federals from situations involving the raids and exploits of Kansas Jayhawkers. 

Union commanders and officials in Missouri immediately recognized the problem on the border and realized that these jayhawkers were alienating and turning many citizens of Missouri against the Federal government and causing them to become pro-Confederate.  The jayhawkers were representing the Union side of the war and they were causing a host of problems for the Federals.

Early in the Civil War, Union General Henry Halleck, who was at the time the commander of all Union forces in the Department of the West, was so against Lane & Jennison’s Jayhawkers that he ordered Union General John Pope to drive them out of Missouri and back into Kansas.  He ordered General Pope to “drive them out or, if they resist, to disarm them and hold them prisoners.  They are no better than a band of robbers; they cross the line, rob, steal, plunder and burn whatever they can lay their hands upon.  They disgrace the name and uniform of the American soldiers and are driving good Union men into the ranks of the secession army.”

General Halleck also complained to Washington D.C. numerous times and even to General George B. McClellan who commanded all Union forces directly about the atrocities of Lane and Jennison’s Jayhawkers. On December 19, 1861, Halleck wrote to General McClellan “I receive almost daily complaints of outrages committed by these men in the name of the United States, and the evidence is so conclusive as to leave no doubt of their correctness.  Lane and Jennison have done more for the enemy in this state than could have been accomplished by 20,000 of his own army.”

Famed Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, who was a staunch Unionist, commented about the wrongs and atrocities that Jennison and the jayhawkers had done to the Missourians, “if Jennison were hung, Confederate General Sterling Price would lose the best recruiting agent he ever had.”  Bingham also stated that “Jennison’s execution upon a scaffold would do more for the Union cause in Missouri than the defeat of a Rebel army.”

In fact, the raid on KU’s hometown of Lawrence on August 21, 1863 where about 150 people were killed by William Quantrill’s men purposely targeted the town for revenge by the Missourians.  Lawrence was the “home, association and gathering place” of many of the men who were in some of these jayhawker regiments and other units once controlled by Jennison, Lane and others that kept crossing the border into Missouri harassing, plundering and murdering Missourians.  Lane was known to be in Lawrence at the time of the raid and narrowly escaped by fleeing into a cornfield.  The raid also has been attributed to a revenge attack by the Missourians for Lane’s earlier attack on Osceola, Missouri and the Kansas City prison collapse that killed friends and relatives of some of the Missouri guerillas, most notably the fourteen year-old younger sister of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson.

It is fair to say that many men in these jayhawker units were nothing but thieves, thugs and desperadoes. However many of them also were soldiers who believed that they were acting in a manner that protected their communities and would help end slavery and punish those associated with its continued existence.  In theory, these units were supposed to protect the area from hostile Indians, criminals and other people they viewed as a threat or an enemy.  Many of these jayhawker units however allowed things to escalate.  Some eventually turned into plundering bands and groups who would cross the border into the state of Missouri and harass, steal, plunder and sometimes murder Missourians, primarily slave-owning Missourians and those they associated with.

Based on the premise that they were acting in the defense of humanity and responsibility, they would sometimes burn Missouri farms, steal valuables and take slaves back across the border to Kansas where the slaves were told that they would be free.  Once across the border, a number of these Missouri slaves did gain their freedom in Kansas and some would actually end up in the Union army.  Others would travel back to their former homes in Missouri, while still others actually ended up being sent deep into the Confederacy and back into slavery.

It is however important to remember that not all Kansas Union troops were considered jayhawkers.  Many regiments from Kansas went into the Civil War and distinguished themselves with honor and glory on battlefields all over the north and south.  The units we have described above are those that patrolled along the border of western Missouri and eastern Kansas primarily around the area of present day Kansas City, Missouri (Jackson, Clay, Platte, Cass, Wyandotte, Johnson, and other nearby counties on both sides of the border.)   We have only described the Kansas units that the term jayhawks referred to and what was the meaning behind the terms jayhawk, jayhawker and jayhawking.
University of Missouri Tigers

The mascot of the University of Missouri is a “tiger” but it is not actually named in honor of the beautiful animal as many people would think it is.  Just like the Kansas Jayhawks, Missouri also has a mascot that relates to the American Civil War.  The truth is the Missouri Tigers are named in honor of a Missouri Union militia unit that guarded the area of Columbia, Missouri (MU’s hometown) as well as the university itself during the American Civil War.  The true “Missouri Tigers” were a Union “Home Guard” militia unit made up of local men from the area around Columbia.  Their duties were to protect the University of Missouri and the area from approaching Confederate forces, pro-Confederate guerillas, desperadoes and others that may have threatened the area.

In fact, the Union army actually came onto the university’s campus in 1864 and took up residency on the campus in order to completely protect it from threatening pro-Confederate forces that were reportedly in the area.  According to the University of Missouri, “one of these guerrilla bands that threatened to sack the town was that of the notorious Bloody Bill Anderson.” College classes were cancelled and the students were sent home for the semester until the danger had passed.  While on campus, the soldiers patrolled the grounds and even stayed in the President’s residence and other important buildings.  The town's constant state of preparedness is credited in preventing this attack and its reputation helped discourage other Confederate guerilla activity from occurring around the university during the remainder of the war.   

In the 1890s, the University of Missouri’s first football team was organized and the athletic committee adopted the nickname "Tigers" to officially honor and recognize the fighting spirit of those Civil War Union home guards that protected the university and the area surrounding Columbia, Missouri. 

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