Back on September 10, we took note of the request from the city of Osceola to the University of Kansas to quit referring to its teams as Jayhawks. Osceola, which was burned by jayhawkers during the Civil War, felt it was politically incorrect to identify with the “domestic terrorists that the Jayhawkers were in the days of Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War. Here’s a follow-up.

Our senate press table seatmate Rudi Keller does a daily piece in the Columbia Daily Tribune noting what was happening in his area 150 years ago on that day. He’s enjoying digging out these nuggets and we enjoy reading them. Monday his column included an editorial from the St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican for October 3, 1861. It gives us some insight into the historical background of “Jayhawk” or “Jayhawker.” Here’s the editorial Rudi cited in his article:


We are unable to give the etymology of this word, very often used on our Western border.

It is one of those terms which mean nothing in themselves, but are exceedingly significant among the people who understand them. We have heard legislators speak of a bill being “jayhawked.” A foreigner who gets his ideas of our language out of the dictionaries would be puzzled by the word, for Webster does not define it and Worcester seems never to have heard of it. The foreigner would therefore acquire interesting information to be told that to jayhawk, in a legislative sense, is to smuggle a bill in committee, to pass it over without action, or to put it in into the pocket of the chairman, never to be reported.

This, however, is not the only, nor the most important, meaning of the active transitive verb to jayhawk. It has a signification wider and more comprehensive, though we cannot say that it is entirely comprehensible.

We may define jayhawking, in general, as a species of land privateering or political freebooting. A jayhawker is different from a common highway robber in that he assumes to sit in judgment upon the conduct of his neighbors or other parties, and to make what he deems errors of opinion or opposition to his own views payable in treasure, property or lives of the offenders. A common highway robber never makes any distinction as to other people’s notions or behavior, exercising in this respect the greatest liberality and toleration.

The Jayhawker, on the contrary, base, or profess to base, his operations upon the narrower principles of never robbing or hanging one who entertains the same political creed as himself, if it is convenient to avoid it. The Jayhawkers band together like other marauders, and gallop over the country, appropriating horses, cattle, farming implements, guns, and in short whatever comes in their way, belonging or being supposed to belong to anybody whom they don’t like.

Should the owner of the confiscated property be found, he is usually left the option of being stretched to the limb of an adjacent tree or departing the vicinity forthwith.

Jayhawking is a Kansas institution. The Leavenworth Conservative (whose conservatism will appear from the extract) says of it:

“Jayhawking was got up in Kansas. It’s one of our things. It works well; we believe in it, we are going to have it. It don’t make any difference whether the authorities, civil or military, believe in it or not. Kansas don’t care much for authorities; never did, never will.”

We like candor, and this is candid enough to suit us. It means that plunder and promiscuous pillage are good things. It is refreshing, when public sentiment all over the world is “down” on robbery and kindred villainies, to find a newspaper with the independence to come out in favor of the unpopular side, and vindicate and defend scoundrelism. This ends our chapter.

Thanks for digging that out, Rudi. Osceola should be honored to have been burned by such honorable people.

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One thought on “Jayhawks

  1. Being that my Dad lives in Osceola (also being a KU graduate), and I myself having spent considerable time in that burg, I’m certain he will appreciate this peculiar use of the word ‘honored.’

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