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The Jayhawk in History and Legend

April 18, 1861


Any member of the University of Kansas community, present or past, automatically becomes a Jayhawk. What does this popular mythical figure really mean? The colorful bird, which does not exist in nature, has a friendly appearance today. In sports it can still represent a fierce rivalry, but the Jayhawk is not violent.

In the past, the story was different. In previous decades the Jayhawk’s countenance underwent numerous transformations. There is evidence of another kind of Jayhawk, a militant and even vengeful one. When the image of this bird was first adopted by students of the university in the 1880s, the idea of the Jayhawk was combined with the sound of the words rock chalk (the soft limestone visible on the side of Mount Oread). The combined sounds created an appealing chant for all occasions. About thirty years earlier, in the 1850s, there was also much talk about the Jayhawks, but that had nothing to do with chants, cheers, or the rivalry in sports.

The Jayhawk and the Jayhawkers were in the midst of great political conflict about the future of Kansas. The territory, having been opened for settlement, became a battleground to decide whether Kansas would be a state with slavery or one without it. For the first settlers there was no compromise was possible on that fundamental question. For both sides there was a cause to fight for, and a national crisis of the “Bleeding Kansas” was the result.

James H. Lane was one of the early settlers. He came to Kansas with impressive political and military credentials. Previously, he had been a U.S. congressman, the lieutenant governor of Indiana, and an officer in the Mexican War. He was, above all, a powerful and charismatic speaker. Before long he was organizing and leading the volunteers of the free-state settlers to defend Lawrence and other settlements against the overwhelming advantage of the proslavery forces.

In the winter of 1857 August Bondi, a young revolutionary of 1848 Vienna, observed Lane addressing a free-state contingent to drive out the proslavery men from Kansas.

He heard Lane urge on his troops: “As the Irish Jayhawk with a shrill cry announces his presence to his victims, so must you notify the pro-slavery hell-hounds to clear out or vengeance will overtake them. Jayhawks, remember, Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but we are his agents.” Bondi commented in his report about Lane’s speech: “So originated the name, Jayhawks …, afterwards applied indiscriminately to all Kansas troops. Of all the 150 in and around the school house that night I am the only survivor.

The designation of Jayhawk was not entirely Lane’s invention. One of his fighters, Pat Devlin from Ireland, who claimed that this bird actually existed in Ireland. His description made it appear like a cruel animal: “When the Jayhawk catches another bird,” he said, “it strangles it to death, just like a cat does to a mouse.” What others called foraging off the enemy, Devlin called “Jayhawking.” There is no evidence that there was ever a bird called the Jayhawk in Ireland. From the very beginning Jayhawk acquired a double meaning. It represented Lane’s fight against slavery, but for many it stood for an opportunity to grab the property of the proslavery enemy.

In 1859, the struggle, with its constant back-and-forth of revenge attacks, reached a new phase with the participation of the most famous abolitionist John Brown. Brown encouraged attacks into Missouri for the purpose of freeing slaves. Such attacks led to the intensification of bloody reprisals on both sides. In that year a serialized novel with the title Jay-Hawker appeared in the Lawrence newspaper Herald of Freedom. The fictional representation of the Jayhawk made many fighters appear simply as thieves. Lane, the leader of the Jayhawkers, and Brown, called an “old Jayhawk apostle,” supposedly discussed Brown’s vision that the border attacks would eventually provoke a war between the North and South and thereby bring about the insurrection and finally free the slaves. There is no evidence that this meeting between Lane and Brown actually took place. But for Lane, who became a Kansas senator and who, at the outbreak of the Civil War, led a company to protect the newly elected president, Lincoln, Jayhawking implied not robbing but fighting to defeat slavery.

When Lane and his company of Kansas soldiers arrived at the White House, their fame as Jayhawkers had preceded them. John Hay, assistant to Lincoln, observed the arrival of Lane’s Frontier Guard, which took residence in the East Room to protect the president. Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, noted in his diary, these men were the Jayhawkers, and Lane was their leader. “[April 18, 1861] The White House is turned into barracks. Jim Lane marshaled his Kansas Warriors today . . . . the western Jayhawkers ….” Hay took note of Lane as a “gaunt, tattered, uncombed and unshorn figure.”

Lincoln, who was grateful to Lane for his services, appointed him brigadier general. At the outset of the Civil War, Lane returned to Kansas and recruited cavalry units for military incursions into Missouri. His most renowned engagement was in Osceola. Here he conducted a brutal raid in which the entire city plundered and then destroyed by fire. Defenders of Lane’s attack contended that his action led to the freeing of more than one hundred slaves. Lane was responsible for the formation of the first black regiment of the Civil War. His radical initiative was a major step toward Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves.

It is said that Quantrill’s raid of 1863 was revenge for the raid that Lane had conducted in the Missouri town of Osceola. In Lawrence, Lane had a stable built on his property. It is the oldest building on the university’s campus and the only one of Lane’s buildings that survived Quantrill’s raid.

The views on Lane’s contributions are sharply divided. For many of his contemporaries Lane was a hero. He was the flamboyant speaker who could excite his audience to action. He had many admirers, those who forgave him from his erratic and the brutal actions of his fighters. But he also had many enemies, who showed him as a bloodthirsty warrior.

These contradictions were typical for the times, plagued as they were by the accusations of grave, unjust injuries and the responding cries for vengeance. The vicious circle of violence, in which Lane and the early Jayhawks participated, ended only with the conclusion of the Civil War. Today, after so many years in which the fighting spirit is evident mainly sports, it is easy to overlook that this ancestor of the popular mascot could represent significant aspects in the state’s and nation’s history.

Frank Baron
Max Kade Center for German-American Studies
The University of Kansas