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Blackmar’s Origin Of The Jayhawk

December 17, 1926


Few university mascots are as unique, colorful and beloved as the Kansas Jayhawk. Where the use of the term “Jayhawk” began no one knows for sure. Dr. F.W. Blackmar, the first Dean of the Graduate School from 1889-1929, attempted to address this mystery in 1926.

Origin of the Jayhawk
By Dr. F. W. Blackmar

Delivered on the Annual KU Radio Nite Program, December, 1926.

The “Jayhawk” is a myth. It has no historical use. It is neither beast, fish nor fowl. The myth had its rise in the characters of two birds that frequent the Missouri Valley, namely the blue jay, a noisy quarrelsome robber that takes delight in pouncing upon small birds and robbing their nests of eggs and young birds, and the sparrow hawk, a genteel killer of birds, rats, mice and rabbits, and when necessary a courageous and cautious fighter. Just when, where and by whom the names of the two birds were joined in “Jayhawk” and applied to human beings, no one knows. However it is known that the term “jayhawk” originated in the home territory of these birds somewhere between Texas and Nebraska. It is known that it was applied to an overland company of gold-seekers on their way through Nebraska to California. It was applied to Jennison’s band of free-booters, to Montgomery’s rangers, to Missouri guerrilla bands of border ruffians, and finally in a general way to the free-soilers of Kansas.

In the early days of uncertainty of government, life and property, whenever bands were organized requiring purpose, courage, boldness and reckless daring, they were always candidates for the name either through choice or through the derision and hatred of enemies. It is significant also that “jayhawking” become a general term to express marauding or plundering.

blackmar2It is not known how the name gradually became applied to all residents of Kansas. Perhaps it was because Kansas was nationally known as the center of disturbance and jayhawk became a nationally known byword. Probably Jennison’s band of fighters and freebooters, followed historically by Jennison’s “Jayhawk regiment” in the Civil War had something to do with causing the name to adhere to Kansas. But Kansans accept the totemic appellation with good grace and every loyal Kansan is proud to be a member of the Clan-Kansas that now stands for nobler things than “jayhawking.” The “Jayhawk” myth has become a spirit of progress and power. Gone has the spirit of robber birds; gone the reckless spirit of the law and disorder bands of the stress and storm period. Only the spirit of comradeship and the courageous fighting qualities to make and keep Kansas free, remain. The spirit of the modern Jayhawk is to make Kansas great and strong and noble in good deeds. It is a benevolent spirit.

Kansas University seized the word as a shibboleth and attached it to the earth with “rock chalk” and brought out the K.U. yell, the greatest lung developer of all times. It is the voice of the clan. It is a call to courage and the fighting spirit; but more it is a call to comradeship, truth, learning and righteousness.

The artists have tried to express the mythical bird in clever totemic designs, which range all the way from a “dicky-bird” with a huge bill, wearing boots to a disconsolate crow and to a fierce looking fighting bird. All very well as a totem of the clan can express unity and loyalty, but the spirit of the Jayhawk refuses to be photographed.

But no matter about the origin of this mythical creature, about its uncertain history, about its early use by people whose actions were sometimes questionable; today “Jayhawk” embodies the Kansas spirit, the University spirit of unity, loyalty, honesty and right living. Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk K.U.

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For the Blackmar Radio Night speech, see the brochure “Origin of the Jayhawk” by Dr. F.W. Blackmar, December, 19266.  For the history of the individual Jayhawk logos and the early history of the Jayhawk, see The History of the Jayhawk, University Relations, The University of Kansas.]