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Who were the Jayhawkers? What is a Jayhawker?


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 overland 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 scrap-book 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 jawhawkers.

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. See also: Kansas Civil War History and Missouri Civil War History.

Recommended Reading: Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Description: The long agony" was over: Kansas, as of January 29, 1861, was a state--it had "moved to America." In Leavenworth, Lawrence, Topeka, and other towns Kansans celebrated the "glorious news" of the coming of statehood in a "fury of excitement." Cannons boomed, cheering crowds gathered on the street corners, a judge and a militia general stood on their heads, and the saloons were scenes of inebriated revelry. Continued below…

So begins Albert Castel's classic history of Kansas during the Civil War. Long recognized as a key study on the war in the trans-Mississippi West, Civil War Kansas describes the political, military, social, and economic events of the state's first four years. Castel contributes to a better understanding of the Civil War in this region through a realistic presentation and analysis of the Kansas-Missouri border conflict, the operations of the Missouri guerrillas under Quantrill, and the Union and Confederate military campaigns in Missouri, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and Kansas itself.

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Recommended Reading: Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Hardcover). Description: During the Civil War, the western front was the scene of some of that conflict’s bloodiest and most barbaric encounters as Union raiders and Confederate guerrillas pursued each other from farm to farm with equal disregard for civilian casualties. Historical accounts of these events overwhelmingly favor the victorious Union standpoint, characterizing the Southern fighters as wanton, unprincipled savages. But in fact, as the author, himself a descendant of Union soldiers, discovered, the bushwhackers’ violent reactions were understandable, given the reign of terror they endured as a result of Lincoln’s total war in the West. Continued below…

In reexamining many of the long-held historical assumptions about this period, Gilmore discusses President Lincoln’s utmost desire to keep Missouri in the Union by any and all means. As early as 1858, Kansan and Union troops carried out unbridled confiscation or destruction of Missouri private property, until the state became known as "the burnt region." These outrages escalated to include martial law throughout Missouri and finally the infamous General Orders Number 11 of September 1863 in which Union General Thomas Ewing, Federal commander of the region, ordered the deportation of the entire population of the border counties. It is no wonder that, faced with the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, Missourians struck back with equal force.


Recommended Reading: Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865: A Riveting Account of a Bloody Chapter in Civil War History. From Library Journal: The Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri border was initially fought by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, guerrillas from Missouri and Kansas, respectively. Union troops mostly displaced the Jayhawkers by 1862, but the Bushwhackers remained active until Lee's surrender. Continued below...

Historian Goodrich describes the death and destruction the guerrilla war wrought on this region through excerpts from diaries, letters, local news accounts, and published articles, letting the victims do most of the talking. Citing cases that graphically underscore the terrorism, Goodrich captures the fear of the populace. He indulges in a few overly dramatic statements… This title should be considered for public libraries with strong Civil War collections.


Recommendedd Reading: Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West, 1861-1865. Review: Gray Ghosts is an excellent foray into a chapter of the Civil War that does not always garner attention -- the establishment of a police state in Missouri and the subsequent backlash and ensuing war of sabotage by local guerrillas. Complexifying the historical landscape, Missouri and Kansas had shared much animosity in the years leading up to the Civil War, and Kanasas, who was a steadfast Union state, used the War as an opportunity to raid Missouri towns as Union Army representatives. Missouri to this point had been a borderline state. Many of the bands of Guerrillas, while they received aid from the Confederacy, never considered themselves a part of any Civil War cause. As Bill Anderson wrote, "I am a guerrilla. I have never belonged to the Confederate Army, nor do my men...I have chosen guerrilla warfare to revenge myself for wrongs that I could not honorably avenge otherwise" (201). Continued below...

These "wrongs" included the murder of his father and mother and the imprisonment of Anderson's sisters. The book is excellently written with thorough footnotes and documentation. Brownlee applies an array of primary and secondary sources, and also shows himself to be an excellent writer, stringing together the accounts into a vivid portrait of the time. His conversations with such characters as Jessie and Frank James, Bloody Bill Anderson, and William Quantrill represent Lazaras-esque scholastic resurrections... From such a perspective, Brownlee comments on both the contextual factors shaping the guerrillas and the decisions they made that in turn shaped history.


Recommended Reading: Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Description: Few people would have expected bloodshed in Kansas Territory. After all, it had few slaves and showed few signs that slavery would even flourish. But civil war tore this territory apart in the 1850s and 60s, and "Bleeding Kansas" became a forbidding symbol for the nationwide clash over slavery that followed. Many free-state Kansans seemed to care little about slaves, and many proslavery Kansans owned not a single slave. But the failed promise of the Kansas-Nebraska Act--when fraud in local elections subverted the settlers' right to choose whether Kansas would be a slave or free state--fanned the flames of war. Nicole Etcheson seeks to revise our understanding of this era by focusing on whites' concerns over their political liberties. The first comprehensive account of "Bleeding Kansas" in more than thirty years, her study re-examines the debate over slavery expansion to emphasize issues of popular sovereignty rather than slavery's moral or economic dimensions. Continued below…

The free-state movement was a coalition of settlers who favored black rights and others who wanted the territory only for whites, but all were united by the conviction that their political rights were violated by nonresident voting and by Democratic presidents' heavy-handed administration of the territories. Etcheson argues that participants on both sides of the Kansas conflict believed they fought to preserve the liberties secured by the American Revolution and that violence erupted because each side feared the loss of meaningful self-governance. Bleeding Kansas is a gripping account of events and people-rabble-rousing Jim Lane, zealot John Brown, Sheriff Sam Jones, and others-that examines the social milieu of the settlers along with the political ideas they developed. As Etcheson demonstrates, the struggle over the political liberties of whites may have heightened the turmoil but led eventually to a broadening of the definition of freedom to include blacks. Her insightful re-examination sheds new light on this era and is essential reading for anyone interested in the ideological origins of the Civil War.

Sources: Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc., Volume II, pp. 21-22, with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar.

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