Origin of the Term
What is a Jayhawk?
No, it is not a real bird.
The origin of the term "Jayhawk" is tied to the tumultuous period of Kansas' territorial years, known as "Bleeding Kansas."
The U.S. congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, opening up the territory to Euro-American settlement, and providing for self determination as to whether the territory would join the Union as a free or slave state. The resultant political turmoil caused serious conflict in Kansas, played out on a national stage. Much border conflict between Kansas Territory and Missouri arose between free-state and pro-slavery proponents, with heated debate, raids, and violence.
Though not clear in its origin, the term “jayhawker” came to be applied to those followers of James Lane, and others dedicated to the free-state movement. Lane, a powerful, and controversial territorial figure, incited both intense support and opposition. Calling someone a “jayhawker” carried both a positive and negative connotation, and was associated, at least initially, with the aggressive guerilla warfare carried on against pro-slavery forces.