The dark side of the Jayhawks' nickname

September, 16, 2011
9/16/11
4:10
PM ET
The Kansas Jayhawk mascot seems friendly enough. He's red and blue and has big eyes and a semi-smile. He wears boots. As mascots go, you could do a lot worse. (I can't look at the Oklahoma State mascot without feeling a chill on the back of my neck. Creepy, that guy!)

Apparently, not everyone finds the Jayhawk mascot or nickname quite so harmless. On Thursday, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Osceola, a 950-person town in Missouri, passed a resolution -- presumably at a potluck -- condemning what the town sees as a "celebration of this murderous gang of terrorists by an institution of ‘higher education’ in such a brazen and malicious manner."

Wait ... what? The Daily Trib provides a much-needed history lesson:
On Sept. 22, 1861, Osceola was a prosperous city of 2,500. The town lived on Osage River commerce and was split between Unionists and secessionists. U.S. Sen. Jim Lane led his band of about 2,000 “jayhawkers” in the Kansas Brigade to the city for a two-day orgy of looting, arson, drunkenness and murder. A dozen men were executed on the town square. When the attackers left -- taking away all the property and livestock they could move -- the town was a smoking ruin, and fewer than 200 people remained. The town has never again had as many people as it did before the raid.

Kansas doesn't necessarily dispute this portion of the mascot's history, but it asserts the term originated in a variety of ways, not all of them negative. On its "History of the Jayhawk" page, the KU athletics program says the term was originally coined in the late 1840s to describe a "band of pioneers" crossing over from Nebraska. Kansas athletics admits the term was used in the abolitionist conflicts Osceola describes, but notes that it became a patriotic symbol when then-Kansas Governor Charles Robinson raised a regiment called the "Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks." "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" appeared soon thereafter, and in 1890 the name was passed along to Kansas's first football team.

Yes, I just spent an entire paragraph summing up the disputed history of the term "Jayhawk." Why? Because I'm a former history minor who loves these kinds of things. I sure didn't spend that time typing because we needed a serious summation of both sides' arguments. I mean, come on. With all due respect to the town of Osceola and what that town's ancestors went through during the most violent and tumultuous time in America's history, this happens to be 2011. There's absolutely nothing offensive about the name "Jayhawk" in 2011. In fact, given the final words of the resolution -- which you can view here -- I'm not sure Osceola is even taking this all that seriously:
IT IS FURTHER RESOLVED that citizens of the City of Osceola, Missouri requests the University of Missouri to educate the above-named Defendants on the FULL historical origins of the “Border War.”

IT IS FURTHER RESOLVED that no citizen of the City of Osceola or the alumni of the University of Missouri shall ever capitalize the “k” in “kansas” or “kU,” as neither is a proper name or a proper place.

See? I mean, I can empathize with lingering historical anger -- I'm the descendant of Irishmen, after all -- but really, Osceola? I don't mean to downplay your feelings on this vital issue, but come on. Really?

Fortunately, some lasting good did arise from this mess. It comes in the form of an emailed statement the Columbia Tribune received from Kansas news service director Jill Jess, who responded to Osceola's resolution as follows:
“A Jayhawk is a blue bird with a red head and a big yellow beak that wears boots. It would be hard to confuse it with anyone with terrorist intent, though we admit we have been terrorizing the Tigers on the basketball court for some time. Tigers have been known to kill people. Bears, too.”

That might be the single greatest press release/statement in the history of the form. Talk about one for the history books.

(Hat tip: Eisenberg)

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