University of Missouri head basketball coach Norm Stewart famously despised the University of Kansas so much that he refused to spend a penny in the Sunflower State. The legendary coach was well known for his hatred of the Jayhawks, even going so far as spending the night in Kansas City and gassing up the bus before crossing the state line when the Tigers had a road game in Lawrence.1 Stories like Stewart’s are present throughout the history of the MU-KU rivalry, which has been officially renamed the “Border Showdown” by the universities, but is more affectionately known as the “Border War” by fans. The roots of the rivalry can be connected to the hostilities along Missouri’s western border from 1854 to 1865, when pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces fought throughout Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. Those clashes took place over 150 years ago, but their legacies live on in the contempt many Kansans and Missourians still have for each other. This intense rivalry could especially be felt in Lawrence, Columbia, and Kansas City when the Tigers and Jayhawks faced off on the basketball court or football field.
Competing attitudes of reconciliation and resentment took hold along the border in the years following the Civil War. The war was especially brutal along the state line, as tensions that had been boiling since the 1850s erupted into full-scale guerrilla warfare. The localized combat resulted in citizens experiencing the full force of the war and the destruction of entire communities. Pro-Confederacy Missouri Bushwhackers terrorized Lawrence, and the Union Army removed residents and burned the properties of four western Missouri counties. Following these struggles, many region’s residents preferred both sides come together, and they attempted to foster an attitude of healing to memories of the war. These feelings were likely spurred on by the possibilities of economic growth, as intrastate commerce made the region more attractive for potential immigrants. Railroad expansion in particular prompted boosters to advocate for a more harmonious border, as they saw railroads as key to the development of post-war Missouri and the West.2
The anger brought on by the border conflict could not be smoothed over so quickly for others, however. Confederate sympathizers formed a perspective built around bitterness, regret, and a shared victimhood, resting on the idea that hard feelings lingered although the fighting was over. Confederates living in Missouri competed with Union commemorations after the war and made great efforts to explain why Missouri was worthy of an honorable place in the South. They argued that Missouri shared the same virtues as the true Confederate states and that the state’s location on the border led to an increased level of violence and suffering for the rebel cause. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) worked hard to place Missouri within the Lost Cause narrative, leading many in the state to adopt a Southern identity and memory of the conflict.3
The recollections of violence on both sides became central to this narrative, as groups like William Quantrill’s Bushwhackers and Jim Lane’s Jayhawkers were regarded as famous or infamous depending on which side of the state line you resided. One Southern sympathizer was William Napton, a former judge of the Missouri Supreme Court. Napton lost his seat after refusing to take a Union loyalty oath in 1861, and a year later, he lost his wife during childbirth amid harassment from a pro-Union militia. In the years following the war, Napton was known to keep an image of John Wilkes Booth in an album alongside a photo of his oldest son in a Confederate uniform. Men and women like Napton would lead the charge of remembering Missouri as a Confederate state, and Kansas City became the symbolic capital of this movement. They worked to keep the two sides separate, dividing Kansan from Missourian and Black from White. Straddling the turbulent border, the city gave former Bushwhackers and Confederates a chance to keep an eye on any would-be invading Jayhawkers.4
The hard feelings between the states deepened as the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas began competing in athletics. The schools first met in football in 1891, playing the game in Kansas City. The Jayhawks won that inaugural game 22-8 in front of 3,000 fans. The schools were rivals from then on, and even though the play on the field was peaceful in these early games, private security guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Kansas City police were used to ensure the crowds did not get too rowdy. The first men’s basketball games between the schools tipped off in 1907 and these contests became frightening because of the crowd’s proximity to the floor. At one game, Missouri fans nearly started a fight after a Jayhawk player stepped on a Tiger guard, and Missouri players reportedly practiced avoiding objects thrown at them when running onto KU’s court.5
The bad blood between the states continued outside of the sporting world, brought on in large parts by competing reunions. Members of Quantrill’s gang began meeting annually in Independence, Missouri, in 1898 to share war stories and hold on to the guerrilla way of life that had been so important in their youth.6 Lawrence residents were shocked to learn that the men who had once destroyed their town were now gathering in remembrance of their deeds, and the fact that the former guerrillas often met around the anniversary of the deadly raid was not lost on the Kansans. After a string of disagreements, Lawrence leaders were able to hold their own reunion in 1913, the 50th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on the town. The reunion brought together 200 men and women and the Lawrence Journal recorded that it gave survivors a chance “to live the past 50 years over again.”7 The last of the Quantrill reunions was in 1929, as four men, including formerly enslaved Henry Wilson, gathered in Independence. Wilson was one of three elderly African Americans to occasionally attend the reunions. He claimed to have fled Union troops and served as a cook and bodyguard in Quantrill’s gang during the war. The reunions on both sides showed that wounds along the border had never really healed, and as the Topeka Daily Capitol noted in 1913, they resisted any notion of forgiveness and propped up the idea of revenge.8
The dueling reunions that occurred heightened the polarized dynamic that stemmed from the border violence and conflicting memories of the war. Although Missouri never formally entered the Confederacy, the celebration of pro-slavery guerrillas and the embrace of the Confederate narrative by many connected the Civil War border state with the South.9 Meanwhile, Kansans embraced a free-state history based on racial acceptance, though that narrative did not always match the true story. Thirty-seven Black men were lynched in Kansas from 1864 to 1920.10 Racial segregation and racist rhetoric were also common throughout the state, and in 1905 newspapers from Emporia ran headlines calling for lynchings. Examples like these show how the racial utopia portrayed by many Kansans was a myth. In reality, its free-state origins were based more on white men maintaining political and economic power than on a sense of morality. Many in the state used violence and intimidation to oppress African Americans for decades after the war, and harsher racist attitudes in Missouri helped Kansans rationalize their views. Kansans openly embraced figures like John Brown and routinely blamed incidents of violence near the border on Missourians and other outsiders. This allowed Kansans to uphold an air of righteousness and separated the Midwestern state from Missouri and the rest of the Jim Crow South.11These competing cultures added to the hard feelings that accompanied the memory of the Border War and entrenched both sides in their disdain for one another.
Efforts of Civil War remembrance became prevalent throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and various southern-sympathizing organizations worked to keep up with their Union rivals. Groups like the UDC relied on efforts of memorialization to keep the Confederacy at the forefront of Missouri history. Statues commemorating Confederate soldiers went up in Kansas City, St. Louis, and numerous towns in between.12 In Higginsville, the home for Confederate veterans was converted to a memorial park. This space, the UDC noted, was meant as a place where Missourians could enjoy nature and celebrate the valor that was shown by Confederates during the war.13 These efforts kept the legacy of the Confederacy alive in Missouri and continued to stoke old tensions throughout the state.
By the late 1940s, college students across the South had adopted Confederate symbols to show pride in their schools. Confederate flags became a staple at college football games, as southern powerhouses emerged in a sport traditionally dominated by northern universities.14 This was also true at the University of Missouri, where Confederate culture had become fully entrenched by the 1960s. Confederate flags flew at sporting events, and the university band played “Dixie.” Fraternities also flew the flag, and the Ordinances of Secession were read annually at the “Old South Days.”15 This embrace of the Lost Cause enflamed the culture clash between the states, and the sports rivalry hostilities matched that level of escalation. Following a controversial football result, the two schools faced off on the hardwood in Columbia in March 1961. The game turned into a bench-clearing brawl, with kicking, punching, and hundreds of fans rushing the court. The contest ended with a 79-76 MU win and KU losing their chance at a conference title. That fight sparked a stream of incidents between the rivals that included Missouri football coach Dan Devine flipping off Kansas coach Pepper Rodgers and KU football coach Don Fambrough refusing to cross the state line to see a recommended surgeon in Missouri.16
By the 2000s, the border conflict between Missouri and Kansas had become fully ingrained in the rivalry between the flagship universities. The schools officially established the Border War series in 2002, with the name being changed to Border Showdown two years later.17 One of the biggest football games in the rivalry’s history occurred in 2007, when No. 3 Missouri beat No. 2 Kansas 36-28.18 The prestige of the teams and the history of the region was a perfect storm for many to make connections between the real war and the athletic competition. The Kansas City Star wrote “digital bushwhackers and jayhawkers” still battled, while Metro Sports said the rivalry was “the only American college rivalry derived from actual warfare.” Outlandish fan behavior also gained national attention. Missouri fans could buy shirts featuring a Tigers’ logo and the image of a burning Lawrence, with the word “Scoreboard” prominently shown. Meanwhile, KU fans wore shirts that said “Kansas: Keeping America Safe from Missouri since 1854” and included an image of John Brown. The schools continued to show disdain for each other even after the rivalry had seemingly ended in 2012. After Missouri joined the Southeastern Conference, KU’s public relations office responded by posting, “Missouri forfeits a century-old rivalry. We win.”19
A resolution considered in 2011 by the Board of Aldermen in Osceola, Missouri showed the level of contempt both sides have for each other and how real battles and sporting events have inherently become one in the same for many people. Around the 150th anniversary of a deadly raid on the town by Lane’s forces, the Board passed a resolution condemning the use of the mascot name Jayhawk by KU, citing the name’s origin as a “group of domestic terrorists.”20
With the recent announcement that the universities’ plan to resume the football and basketball rivalries, the conflict between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri lives on.21 Through those games, memories of the violence that took place along the border will also endure, and even though stories of deadly raids and reunions have turned into divided tailgate parties and fan-made shirts, the conflict still holds influence over Missourians and how they view their neighbors to the west.
- Jennifer L. Weber, “’William Quantrill Is My Homeboy’: Or, The Border War Goes to College,” in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border, ed. Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013), 266.
- Jeremy Neely, Border between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011), 242-47.
- Amy Laurel Fluker, Commonwealth of Compromise: Civil War Commemoration in Missouri. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2020), 101.
- Christopher Phillips, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 328-29.
- Weber, “’William Quantrill Is My Homeboy,’” 259-65.
- Jeremy Neely, “The Quantrill Men Reunions: The Missouri-Kansas Border War, Fifty Years On,” in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border, ed. Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013), 243.
- Katie Armitage, Lawrence: Survivors of Quantrill’s Raid (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 7.
- Neely, “The Quantrill Men Reunions,” 251-57.
- Joseph M. Beilein and Matthew C. Hulbert, The Civil War Guerilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History and Memory, and Myth (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 130.
- Genevieve Yost, “History of Lynchings in Kansas,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 2, no. 2 (May 1933): 210.
- Brent M. S. Campney, “’A Little Different than in Alabama’: Sectional Narratives and the Rhetoric of Racist Violence,” in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border, ed. Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013), 228-236.
- Fluker, Commonwealth of Compromise, 194.
- Amy Fluker, “’Missouri! Bright Land of the West’: Civil War Memory and Western Identity in Missouri,” PhD diss., (University of Mississippi, 2015), 218.
- John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 94.
- LeeAnn Whites, “You Can’t Change History by Moving a Rock: Gender, Race, and the Cultural Politics of Confederate Memorialization,” in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, ed. Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 225.
- Weber, “’William Quantrill Is My Homeboy,’” 265-66.
- Weber, “’William Quantrill Is My Homeboy,’” 268.
- “No. 4 Missouri Thwarts Kansas’ Perfect Season, Closes in on BCS Title Game Spot.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, November 25, 2007, https://www.espn.com/college-football/recap?gameId=273282305.
- Weber, “’William Quantrill Is My Homeboy,’” 269-70.
- Rudi Keller, “Osceola Urges Kansas to Drop Jayhawk Name,” Columbia Daily Tribune, September 15, 2011, https://www.columbiatribune.com/article/20110915/news/309159664.
- “Mizzou-Kansas to Resume Longstanding Football Rivalry,” University of Missouri Athletics, May 2, 2020, https://mutigers.com/news/2020/5/2/mizzou-kansas-to-resume-longstanding-football-rivalry.