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What is a Jayhawker?

By Kris Roudebush
Updated May 17, 2024
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Today most people hear the word jayhawker and think of Kansas University basketball. It’s an image that is just about as far from slavery and guerilla warfare as an image could be. But the border between Kansas and Missouri in the 1850’s was a hotbed of turmoil and the jayhawker emerged as a symbol of Kansas’s fight to be a free state. In the,a jayhawker was a Kansas abolitionist, who would cross the border to raid Missouri, usually in revenge of a raid by Missourians called bushwhackers. Later the term would apply to most Kansas fighting men and eventually anything to do with Kansas.

While Kansas was establishing itself as a territory, bushwhackers, Missourians who were pro-slavery, would raid towns and homesteads in an effort to intimidate anyone who was anti-slavery or a free-stater. The early jayhawker was an abolitionist, a guerilla, and a Union sympathizer who would retaliate by raiding Missouri’s border towns. This period of fighting would become so intense that it would be known as the Bleeding Kansas affair.

During the American Civil War, a jayhawker could be almost any Kansas fighting man no matter what side they were on in the years before the war. Civil War jayhawkers were known for their fierce and often brutal fighting. Occasionally they were aligned with the Union which lent them some legitimacy but not always. There were groups of jayhawkers who even the army couldn’t support because of their viciousness. Victims of jayhawker violence would claim to be jayhawked. While jayhawking could be used interchangeably with stealing, there was no stigma associated with it.

Some notable jayhawkers included James Lane, who led “Lane’s Army,” a group of abolitionists who settled in Kansas in hopes of keeping Kansas a free-state. During the American Civil War, Lane would continue the fight and eventually lead the Sacking of Osceola. The Sacking of Osceola was made into a movie in 1976 called The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Charles "Doc" Jennison was another notable jayhawker who made his stand on slavery clear. He was an ardent supporter of John Brown, a famous and militant abolitionist. On more than one occasion Jennison hanged pro-slavery Missourians when they tried to return runaway slaves to their masters.

We are separated from the violence of the days before, during, and after the American Civil War by more than a hundred years. The negative connotations, are forgotten, but the jayhawker remains a moniker of Kansas.

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Discussion Comments
By anon119227 — On Oct 17, 2010

To the previous poster, I find it deplorable that you conveniently left out the acts of notorious Missouri bushwackers aside from Quantrill (for example, Archie Clement).

For every Jayhawker raid there was certainly one from pro-slavery bushwackers into Kansas. I agree that many Jayhawkers were most definitely "unsavory and dishonest", but their actions were certainly not one-sided. Those from both Kansas and Missouri plundered and murdered equally with the unfortunate climax in Lawrence. When you directly blame the Jayhawkers only for the war, you are omitting half of the accurate history.

By anon25247 — On Jan 26, 2009

During the latter stages of the Kansas Territorial struggle, it was used to describe men who used abolition as cover for criminal acts. While some acted in the noble cause of freedom, many and arguably most were nothing more than thieves. When the Civil War broke out, Kansas Senator Jim Lane and others were advocates of total war against Western Missouri, and the campaign of devastation wreaked on western Missouri in the first year of the war by Lane's brigade and others like Doc Jennison was called a jayhawking. The Union command attempted to stop the jayhawking, declaring martial law and jayhawking a crime. Jennison's Seventh Kansas Cavalry (a.k.a. Jennison's Jayhawkers) was orderd out of the region. While jayhawking was stamped out as an official policy of Kansas troops, the practice went underground and lived on, with the practitioners called "redlegs". All in all, the jayhawkers and redlegs were an unsavory and dishonorable lot. They hastened and steepened the Misosuri-Kansas border's descent into the horrors of total war. Their actions led directly to Quantrell's retaliatory raid on Lawrence.

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