Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas People
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J.H. Lane

The origin of the term "Jayhawker" appears to be veiled in uncertainty. During the Civil war the members of the Seventh Kansas regiment, commanded by Col. C. R. Jennison, became known as "Jayhawkers," and probably from this fact the jayhawker came to be regarded by many as purely a Kansas institution.

But there is plenty of evidence that the word was in use long before the outbreak of the Civil war. There is a report that it was used freely by the Texans during their struggle for independence, but this is not well authenticated.

In 1849 a Party of gold seekers from Galesburg, Ill., bound over land for California, took the name of jayhawkers. Adjt.-Gen. Fox says the name was coined on the Platte river in that year, and offers the following explanation of how it was adopted: "Some kind of hawks, as they sail up in the air reconnoitering for mice and other small prey, look and act as though they were the whole thing. Then the audience of jays and other small but jealous and vicious birds sail in and jab him until he gets tired of show life and slides out of trouble in the lower earth. Now, perhaps this is what happens among fellows on the trail—jaybirds and hawks enact the same role, pro and con—out of pure devilment and to pass the hours of a long march. At any rate, ours was the crowd that created the word 'jayhawker' at the date and locality above stated. ... So far as Kansas is concerned the word was borrowed or copied; it is not a home product." Mr. Fox is corroborated by U. P. Davidson and J. W. Brier, who were members of the Galesburg party, and by Alexander Majors in his "Seventy Years on the Frontier." On the overland journey these men were lost in Death Valley and narrowly escaped death by starvation. For many years the survivors held annual reunions, and John B. Colton had a large scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings relating to these "jayhawker" meetings.

John J. Ingalls, in the Kansas Magazine for April, 1872, in an article entitled "The Last of the Jayhawkers," says: "The Border Ruffians constructed the eccaleobion in which the jayhawk was hatched, and it broke the shell upon the reedy shores of the Marias des Cygnes. Its habits were not migratory, and for many years its habitat was southern Kansas." In the same article Mr. Ingalls says "The jayhawk is a creation of mythology. It was an early bird and caught many a Missouri worm."

The jayhawkers alluded to by Mr. Ingalls were the free-state men who composed the band commanded by James Montgomery (q. v.), which for some time in the territorial days kept the pro-slavery settlers of southeastern Kansas in a state of terror. In the winter of 1858-59 the term "jayhawker" was used by J. E. Jones of Fort Scott and George W. Cavert of Osawatomie in letters to the governor, and Gov. Medary made use of it in a communication to the legislature, under date of Jan. 11, 1859, when he said: "Capt. Brown was fortifying himself on Sugar creek and Montgomery claims that he can raise 200 men. Good citizens that formerly sustained these men begged to have something done to stop the 'jayhawking' as they termed it," etc. Richardson, in his "Beyond the Mississippi" (p. 125). says that on June 13, 1858, he "found all the settlers justifying the 'jayhawkers,' a name universally applied to Montgomery's men, from the celerity of their movements and their habit of suddenly pouncing upon an enemy."

The Standard Dictionary defines a "jayhawker" as a "freebooting guerrilla," and applies the term to persons engaged in plundering their political enemies in Kansas and western Missouri during the territorial period. But that work does not make a proper distinction in its definition between the "border ruffians," who represented the cause of slavery, and the free-state men, who were the real jayhawkers. Another story concerning the origin of the word attributes it to an Irishman named Patrick Devlin, who lived in the village of Osawatomie. According to this story, Devlin was seen entering the village in the fall of 1856 with his horse loaded down with plunder of various kinds, and a neighbor suggested that he must have been on a foraging excursion. Devlin answered that he had been jayhawking and when asked the meaning of the term, explained that in Ireland there is a bird called the jayhawk which always worries its prey before devouring it.

From all the evidence at hand the story of the gold seekers of 1849 seems to be the best established. However, through the operations of Montgomery's men and others like them, the "jayhawker" came to be regarded as purely a Kansas institution, and in more recent years the term "Jayhawker" is applied to Kansas men and products, much as the word "Hoosier" is applied to an Indianian, or the work "Buckeye" to a resident of the State of Ohio.


Source: Blackmar's Cyclopedia of Kansas History Vol. II pp. 21-22, 1912


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