College football’s greatest appeal comes the unmatched ferocity of its greatest rivalries, and no rivalry matches the intensity of the annual clash between Missouri and Kansas.
Thanksgiving week is referred to as Hate Week in the two states, and rightfully so. Lesser words such as disdain, dislike and aversion are all too kind to describe the animosity diehard Kansans and Missourians hold in their hearts towards each other.
Auburn and Alabama? Texas and Texas A&M? Michigan and Ohio State? Merely respectful disagreements in comparison to the Tigers-Jayhawks feud, an athletic rivalry rooted in bloody Civil War history.
The United States government’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 planted the conflict’s seeds by establishing the Kansas and Nebraska territories and opening them up to settlers. The Act declared the legality of slavery in Kansas would be decided based on a vote by their inhabitants.
Missouri, a slave state, had a vested interest in Kansas’ vote favoring slavery. Already bordered by Illinois and Iowa, two free states, Missouri’s slave economy stood to suffer from being bordered by yet another state to which slaves could escape.
Slavery in the two new territories was a national issue as well. The addition of a new free state’s representatives would weaken slave states’ voting power in Congress, so the nation’s eyes were on the outcome of the new states’ elections.
Pro-slavery and pro-abolition settlers alike poured into Kansas to influence the vote’s outcome, and violent disputes inevitably followed. Anti-slavery settlers known as “jayhawkers” engaged frequently in guerilla conflicts with Southern settlers known as “Border Ruffians.”
Racial tensions ran high on both sides of the slavery issue. Missouri senator David Atchinson labeled Kansas abolitionists “negro thieves” and told Missourians to “kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.” A large faction of Kansas’ anti-slavery settlers wanted to completely ban black people from Kansas in order to secure more jobs and land for white workers.
Controversy surrounding the voting itself further intensified the animosity in Kansas. Proslavery candidates won the election for the state legislature, although the number of votes cast greatly outnumbered the number of registered voters in the state.
The legislature enacted laws similar to Missouri’s slave code, including a sentence of death or ten years’ hard labor for anyone convicted of assisting escaped slaves. Anti-slavery forces established their own Free State Legislature in Topeka, Kans., refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the pro-slavery legislature.
In 1856 a three-man committee sent by the United States Congress came to Lecompton, Kans., the pro-slavery movement’s de facto capital, as part of an investigation into Kansas’ political turmoil. The committee reported Kansas’ elections were illegitimate and the Free State Legislature represented the populace’s desires.
Congress ignored the investigation’s report, continuing to recognize the pro-slavery legislature as Kansas’ official government. Pro-slavery forces burned the Free State Hotel in Lawrence, Kans., a free state stronghold, and destroyed local homes. Abolitionist forces under John Brown’s command responded by kidnapping and murdering five pro-slavery men in Pottawatomie Creek, Kans.
John Geary, the federally appointed territorial governor, came to Kansas Sep. 1856 and struck a deal with Missouri governor Sterling Price to allow safe passage through Missouri for free-state supporters.
After an estimated 55 deaths in the time period known as “Bleeding Kansas,” Geary’s presence temporarily stabilized the conflict between the states until the Civil War erupted.
Old tensions flared back up in the beginning of the Civil War. The jayhawkers and Missouri’s “bushwhacker” guerilla forces skirmished frequently, crossing state boundaries to maraud each other’s border towns.
Jayhawkers entered Osceola, Mo., Sep. 22, 1863, shelling the courthouse and burning the entire city to the ground. Osceola’s Chamber of Commerce estimates the city’s population to have been between 2,000 to 2,500 people before the jayhawkers’ raid. 183 survivors remained alive as the Kansans left the city.
Missouri guerilla William Quantrill led forces into Lawrence, Kans., in August 1863 as retaliation for the destruction of Osceola. Quantrill’s forces killed an estimated 150 people and left the entire city burned to the ground.
The violence between the two states simmered down and eventually died in the years after the Civil War’s end, but a generation’s worth of violence bred an enmity that still manifests itself today through sports.As the largest public institutions in each of their respective states, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas came to describe their athletic contest as iterations of the “Border War.” In 2004, the series’ name changed to Border Showdown.
“We feel that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing events around the world, it is inappropriate to use the term ‘war’ to describe intercollegiate athletics events,” KU athletic director Lew Perkins said at the time.
The sensitivity in changing the series’ name is understandable, but it completely disregards the history that makes the rivalry so intense. The violent history and legitimate ill will between the regions is what makes the rivalry between Missouri and Kansas the most intense and passionate in college sports.
Other rivalries feature teams who are said to have “bad blood” between them. The Border War rivalry is rooted in actual bloodshed. Nearly 150 years after the Civil War, the violent history between the two states looms large on the region’s mind.
In recent years, Missouri fans have made t-shirts picturing Quantill’s raid with the caption, “Scoreboard.” Kansas fans have distributed t-shirts with a picture of Brown, captioned “Kansas: keeping America safe from Missouri since 1854.”
As Missouri prepares to move to the Southeastern Conference, the two schools’ hatred for each other will foment to a peak by Saturday’s final Border War game. Kansas officials have said they will not continue to play Missouri once it moves to the SEC. If Kansas is true to its word, the second-most played rivalry in college sports will come to an end.
The hatred will not.
Additional Border War History