Sign Up Twitter

Jayhawk Jubilee

September 12, 1996


The smiling Jayhawk originally drawn by Harold “Hal” Sandy in the mid-1940s is perhaps KU’s most recognizable symbol. It may also rank as one of the University’s wisest investments. Sandy sketched his version of the KU mascot as a means of financing his last two years of education on Mt. Oread – he produced it in decal form and retailed it on campus and around Lawrence. Following his graduation in 1947, Sandy sold the copyright to his bird to the Kansas Union Bookstore for $250, which he thought at the time was a substantial amount of money.

Since then, of course, KU has plastered Sandy’s Jayhawk on an endless array of apparel and merchandise, making millions of dollars in the process. Thus it was only fitting that KU marked the 50th anniversary of this avian emblem with a parade down Jayhawk Boulevard in Sandy’s honor on September 12, 1996. Although the smiling Jayhawk was the only cartoon Sandy ever drew for money, it was hardly the first iteration – or the last, for that matter – of this most peculiar collegiate mascot.

The terms Jayhawk and Jayhawker have been virtually synonymous with Kansas and Kansans since the Territorial period, but their etymology is, at this juncture, virtually unknowable. Numerous sources have provided “authoritative” explanations of the origin of the word. However, the accounts seldom correlate well and often contradict each other. Depending on whom one might be inclined to believe, the term was coined in 1848 or 1849 or perhaps somewhat earlier or maybe a shade later.

Similarly, the mythical bird was a combination of the blue jay (a territorial and often aggressive bird) and the sparrow hawk (a bold and fearsome predator) or maybe of some other kind of jay and some other kind of hawk. According to one version, an Irishman by the name of Pat Devlin coined the term following his one-man plundering raid on a camp of Missouri “Border Ruffians” at the outset of the period now known as “Bleeding Kansas.” (When asked how he had pulled it off, he bemusedly replied that he had not stolen anything, but that his horse, however, was apparently akin to a bird called a jayhawk that lived in his native Ireland and “just took things.”)

By another account, the term jayhawk owes its provenance to a group of people passing through Kansas on their way to California during the gold rush who witnessed a group of blue jays drive a hawk from the sky. Still others credit it to Pat Devlin, but under different circumstances, or trace its origins to different individuals or groups altogether.

Of course, it is equally possible that the term had less precise origins and merely reflected the biases of pro-slavery Kansans and their Missouri brethren. Indeed the “jay” part of the term might represent a backhanded insult to the New England emigrants to Kansas whom Missourians considered “greenhorns,” for such was one of its slang meanings.

It is even possible that the term had its origin as a pejorative for the theft or liberation of slaves. That Jayhawkers separated slaves from their owners – often at the point of a gun – is not a matter of historical debate. Indeed in a letter written to the US Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1862, Union General Henry Halleck complained that the chief occupation of the “Kansas Brigade” under noted Jayhawker James Henry Lane (the US senator from Kansas known as the “Grim Chieftain” whom Lincoln had granted a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers) was not the waging of war but “the STEALING OF NEGROES.” The “evidence of their crimes,” added Halleck, who made this charge prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, was “unquestionable.”

Thus it might well be that much like a chicken hawk derived its name from stealing poultry, the jayhawkers may have derived their name from stealing “jays” – i.e. a derogatory term for blacks, since jays belong to the same family as crows. This semantic slight then would be to the slaves rather than the free-staters – much as the segregation laws enacted in the decades following emancipation would be dubbed Jim Crow laws as an insult to the freedmen and their children.

Much then is unknown about the term’s origins. What is known, however, is that on the eve of the Civil War the term came to be applied (primarily in a uncomplimentary sense) to anti-slavery free-staters who engaged in various guerilla skirmishes and vigilante activities against Missouri’s Border Ruffians. Given the Jayhawkers’ somewhat complicated legacy, it is not surprising that historians have alternately celebrated and condemned them.

While they generally opposed slavery and fought to keep it out of Kansas (a meritorious service), many were also anti-black as well as anti-slavery, and their guerrilla war tactics often differed little from those of the Border Ruffians (hardly commendable activities). Western novelists such as Louis L’Amour used the term Jayhawkers as a synonym for tough “bad guys,” and western movies such as The Outlaw Josey Wales reflect a similar understanding of them. In fact, most dictionaries define jayhawking as a slang term for stealing or raiding. Nonetheless, the fact that Jayhawkers opposed slavery has mitigated, at least to some degree, some of their lawless activities and has stood them in somewhat higher stead than their Border Ruffian counterparts.

Regardless of the merits of the original Jayhawkers, the ultimate Union victory and the abolition of slavery caused free-staters (and Kansans in general) to pride themselves on the moniker. Thus it was that in 1886, KU Professor E.H.S. Bailey incorporated the term Jayhawk into the University science club’s cheer, which soon evolved into the Rock Chalk, Jayhawk chant, and represented the first manifestation of the Jayhawk on Mt. Oread.

It would not be the last. Songs would be written about the mythical bird, which also would lend its name to numerous University publications and clubs. With the Jayhawk already shrouded in legend and folklore, more myths would be added, some inadvertently, and some, like, Kirke Mechem’s booklet, “The Mythical Jayhawk,” deliberately written tongue in cheek. And so over time, the Jayhawk would come to serve as the most widely recognizable symbol of the state’s flagship university.

Perhaps it is surprising then, that it was not until 1912 – the same year that George “Dumpy” Bowles wrote “I’m a Jayhawk”— that a caricature of the Jayhawk first became widely accepted as an emblem of the University. Prior to that, the University’s athletic teams had no set mascot for sporting events. Apparently a bulldog was the most commonly used mascot as it appeared on KU pennants and post cards, but it was hardly the only one used.

1909 Kansas Football Team with Don Carlos. (click to enlarge)
image: University Archives

The members of the 1909 football team, for instance, each contributed a dime a week to the feeding of Don Carlos, “a very substantial porker” from a farm in Leavenworth. An assistant coach donated what the Kansas City Star referred to as “his pigship” to the team at the beginning of the season. The squad apparently even purchased a “gaudy suit of KU colors” for their pig prior to their annual Thanksgiving Day clash with Missouri in Kansas City’s Association Park. Thus for at least one season, the University could boast a Jayhawker pig as its mascot.

Although the caricature sketched by KU student Henry Maloy in 1912 with his quasi-human appearance (complete with shoes rumored to be worn in order to better kick the Missouri Tiger) gained widespread backing, evidence suggests it was not the first popular iteration of the Jayhawk, and support for it was not universal. In December 1916, the University Daily Kansan ran an article about a group of disgruntled alumni who objected to “the conventional twentieth century Jayhawker” and sought to “revive the original Jayhawker with the jay bird body, hawk head, and eagle beak.”

Indeed the student newspaper quoted a “prominent cartoon advertiser and sign painter” who prognosticated that the “Jayhawker … of the future will be of the original type of the bird” with a black body and head and long, hooked, yellow beak. Of course the sign painter’s prediction proved to be errant, but the fact that disgruntled alums called for the revival of an older characterization of the Jayhawk indicates that there had likely been drawings of the mythical bird before that of Maloy. (That the “original” Jayhawk had a black body and head might lend further credence to the idea that the term Jayhawker originated in the theft of slaves.)

Those objecting to Maloy’s cartoonish Jayhawk apparently represented a small minority. His long-legged bird remained the University’s unofficial mascot for the remainder of the 1910s. The first of several attempts to improve the caricature of the Jayhawk came in 1920. Although this version was blue rather than black, it looked much more like the “original Jayhawk” described by the disgruntled alumni in 1916 as it sat perched on a KU monogram, looking dignified with its hooked “eagle’s” beak.

That version of the Jayhawk, however, was short lived and was replaced in 1923 by a Jayhawk as cartoonish as Maloy’s, although with short-rather-than-long legs and without any shoes. It had, as the Kansas Alumni magazine pointed out, “a quaint, duck-like” essence. The third alteration in the Jayhawk of the 1920s to win widespread acceptance came in the year of the great stock-market crash. The1929 Jayhawk, which had been designed by an artist in the employ of the Alumni Club of Kansas City, stood in what might be described as a boxer’s pose and served as the University’s mascot for the next 12 years.

This is not to say that the 1930s added nothing to the legacy of the Jayhawk. As the nation suffered through the Great Depression, a KU student by the name of Ray Senate designed a version of the mythical bird that looked as though it had fallen on hard times with much of the rest of the country. For reasons that are fairly obvious, the featherless bird with the long face and sad eyes, sapped of its spunk and fight, never won widespread acceptance.

In 1932, following his return from a Central American expedition, Dr. Richard Sutton presented “a real, honest-to-goodness Jayhawk in everything but name” to Chancellor E.H. Lindley. The University Daily Kansan asserted that the mounted toucan was a “replica” of the University’s mascot, “except for the coloring, which is yellow and black instead of crimson and blue.” (It also maintained that a KU fraternity had once had such a bird, which unfortunately had “passed away dramatically” following a loss to Missouri in their 1928 gridiron match up. That toucan “was reported to have died of shame and a broken heart.”)

When the Great Depression gave way to the Second World War, a KU student by the name of Eugene “Yogi” Williams who served as a cartoonist for the University Daily Kansan, Jayhawker, and Sour Owl, sketched a Jayhawk that quickly gained popularity. His “Fighting Jayhawk,” as it became known, was aptly named. It wore a scowl to match its ruffled tail feathers and appeared even more aggressive than its immediate predecessor. Notably, it drew upon Maloy’s 1912 Jayhawk inasmuch as the University’s mascot donned shoes for the first time in more than two decades.

Williams’ fighting Jayhawk, however, barely outlived the war before a new caricature of the University’s mascot won widespread acceptance. In 1946, a KU student by the name of Harold “Hal” Sandy designed a “smiling Jayhawk” which fit the happy mood of a victorious United States. The 1946 Jayhawk looked much like the “Fighting Jayhawk,” except, of course, for its smile and friendlier demeanor.

A quarter century later, a KU student by the name of Amy Sue Hurst jokingly mentioned the idea of having a small Jayhawk follow the University mascot around to Eldon Puett, who served as the University’s Jayhawk at athletic events. (She claimed to have gotten the idea from the decals on cars where there was one big Jayhawk and several small ones “following” it.) Puett, in turn, was enamored of the idea and suggested it to the Kansas Alumni Association, which also liked the concept but lacked the funds for another Jayhawk costume. Hurst spent the summer building such a costume and then donated it to the University, which in turn invited her to wear it at sporting events. “Baby Jay” was “hatched” at halftime of KU’s Homecoming victory over K-State on October 9, 1971, and has since served as a second mascot.

The addition of “Baby Jay” notwithstanding, and despite occasional attempts to introduce new versions of the University’s mascot, the Jayhawk designed by Sandy has proved much more durable than any of its predecessors.

Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Harvey R. Hougen, “The Marais des Cygnes Massacre and the Execution of William Griffith,” Kansas History 8 (Summer 1985), 74- 94; Richard Sheridan, “The Historic Jayhawkers and the Mythical Jayhawk,” in Dennis Domer and Barbara Watkins, eds., Embattled Lawrence: Conflict and Community (Lawrence, KS, 2001), 41-52; Frank W. Blackmar, ed., Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History (Chicago, 1912) vol. 2, 21-2; Kansas Alumni (November 1971); Jayhawker – 1951, 1996; University Daily Kansan – 12 December 1916, 18 October 1925, 21 April, 1950, 30 November 1951, 7 January 1970, 31 January 1972; Kansas City Star 21 November 1909; Kirke Mechem, The Mythical Jayhawk, (Topeka, 1956); Lawrence Journal-World 13 September 1996; Jayhawk Scrapbook Files vols. 1-2, University of Kansas Archives, Spencer research Library, Lawrence, KS – this contains original decals and a number of articles including a transcript of Frank Blackmar’s 1926 six-minute radio talk on “The Origins of the Jayhawk”; The Jayhawk File, University of Kansas Archives, Spencer Research Library, Lawrence, KS – this contains year-by-year folders of articles relating to the Jayhawk.]