By I. M. Knosp
The tale of American folklore is an odd one. A collection of stories shaped by the many tropes and traditions of the European settlers, as well as the new and different world that said settlers found themselves in. Among these tales are many monsters, legends, jokes, and long drawn out whoppers told around the fire. Long before literacy rates were high and television was king the stories of our American past had their own flavor and traditions that formed here with us. One of the most notable and often ignored aspects of these tales, are the herculean heroes that populate many of them. Their tall tales and legends are part of the foundations of American mythology. Our own personal demigods from lumberjacks to cowboys, steel workers to apple peddlers. It’s time their legends came home.
Paul Bunyan & The Legendary Northwoods
Among the most well known of these legends is that of Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack of the Northwoods. Many of the older lumbermen had at one point known or claimed to have known him in real life. With many theories and arguments being made as to whether Bunyan was a real person, a composite, or a pure fiction. Many states and groups have laid claim to Bunyan From Maine to Oregon, and from the French-Canadians to the Irish. Statues adorn various small towns and roadways in the north of America, honoring and calling back to this legend of America’s lumber camps.
Many notable stories have been told of Paul Bunyan, such as the story of the pyramid 40, the winter of the blue snow, his conflict with the bumblebee-mosquitoes, and the round river drive are probably the most notable and reoccurring of the group. Along with Bunyan himself, Paul was often accompanied by many camp mates and critters such as; Babe the Big Blue Ox, Lucy the giant milking cow, Johnny Inkslinger, Brimstone Bill, Ole the Blacksmith, Sourdough Sam and Joe Muffraw. These colorful characters populate the many American myths of Paul Bunyan. Within American folklore Paul Bunyan is often considered to fulfill a similar role to that of Hercules or Thor from European mythology, a hero of the every man. He was a man of gargantuan stature, who could cut lumber, manage a camp, drink, whore, outsmart, and fight with the best of them.
Yet Bunyan like any folkloric character has many origins and many ends, as the tale is told it is stretched and reshaped. Though this does not take anything away, instead it embeds Bunyan further into the landscape and culture of all who told his story. The origin of his legend was the lumber camps of the Northwoods.
However, Paul’s mythic origins and reason for his size can vary wildly. One such story involved the light of the full moon hitting Paul in his cradle, he began to grow wildly due to whatever magic had been in the moonbeam. He grew so large that his father had to build a cradle that could be rocked in the lake by the waves, so that the enormous infant could fall asleep. However, on one occasion the infant Paul began to rock his cradle violently, the lake overran its banks and flooded neighboring areas making many of the swamps in what is today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A similar story concerning moonbeams was used to describe the size of Babe, Paul’s sidekick and giant ox.
By the time he was grown however, Paul was supposedly just seven feet tall or over 50 ax handles high, depending on who you asked. Making him as tall if not taller than many of the trees he felled, or only as tall as the average athlete. Though Paul is usually depicted in art and pop culture as the man responsible for cutting or felling the trees with his mighty ax or scythe. He was almost always more the manager of the camp. With his strength and intelligence usually being used to solve far larger problems than the felling of trees. An action that his large crews of men usually take care of. Often times it is either through the discovery by one of his men or by their bumbling oafishness that Paul is truly called upon to shine.
Such was the case of minor but widespread tales like the loss of the camps bean or pea supply into a lake, which Paul using the manpower at his disposal and some quick thinking converts part of the lake into a closed inlet and begins to boil some soup for his crew. Typically, with the help of his camp cooks, Joe Muffraw or Sourdough Sam and their army of cookees.
Another common motif is that of babe and the stretching harness. The harness made of tanned deer hide is tied to Babe and then used to pull the logs. However, it stretches and until a temperature change causes it to shrink again, it goes on for miles before shrinking back and bringing the logs to camp. Things like the harness, Babes metal shoes, and any other borderline magical item that was made in Paul’s camps likely came from Ole the Blacksmith. The only blacksmith man enough to be able to shoe Babe.
Many stories depict Paul’s fights, while he was most definitely a brawler, the most legendary fights were not with other men, but with creatures such as bears or Hodags. Hodags one of if not the most fearsome critter in the North. Described as either some sort of relict creature with horns and the body of a dinosaur. Or as a sort of spirit of lost Oxen that had been transmogrified in the woods somehow.
In some stories he even battles nature itself, defeating the sentient whistling river by freezing it with a captured blizzard and slicing it up for later use. He would use such ingenuity to both create and defeat the bumblebee-mosquitoes.
The bumblebee-mosquitoes are one of the most famous beasts that Paul Bunyan faced. The Northwood camps that Bunyan and his men lived in were no stranger to large insects. Bedbugs big enough to be mistaken for cats and fleas as big as frogs. But the worst of the bug beasts were the mosquitoes, the big ones were as tall or larger than a man measuring 6 feet in length and even the small ones would swarm a man and carry him off for dinner. Often poking through a kettle or pot that the poor victim had hidden under. In order to get rid of these beasts, Paul heard of a race of giant bumblebees and sent for them. Depending on the tale, the origin of the bees change from Texas to as far away as Africa. The bees, for a time, keep the mosquitoes at bay in a war fought to a stalemate and the lumber camps are safe, for a while. But eventually the two giant insects make peace and mate. Resulting in the most fearsome beasts the lumber camps had ever seen. Six foot tall insects with a large stinger in the front to suck blood and a large one on the back to impale prey.
Such beasts were terrors in the camps and would’ve potentially made off with all of Paul’s crew had he not ordered a large amount of sorghum up to his camp. The sorghum syrup was gleefully eaten by the bumblebee-mosquitoes as they were led to the Gulf of Mexico by the time they were there they were so fat that they quickly drowned in the gulf. Though their much smaller cousins still fly around the Northwoods. Yet such a tale is nothing compared to some of the whoppers told of Paul. Some say he made many of the most famous landmarks in North America. From Mt. Hood to the Great Lakes, from the Mississippi to the plains of the Dakotas. Having dug, piled, or chopped down something to make such a place possible. Though among his most famous stories is that of the Pyramid 40.
The Pyramid 40 was a piece of woodland atop a pyramid so tall that the top couldn’t be seen until three weeks of climbing, and by the time the top was harvested the bottom had grown new woods. Populating this strange woodland surrounded by the Big Onion River were birds that laid square eggs so that the eggs would not roll out of the nest. As well as sidehill gougers, a predator of colossal size with legs shorter on one side so it could travel around the pyramid easier, if only in one direction. These and many other beasts were found and fought by Paul and his men upon the Pyramid 40 before the top was harvested. The Pyramid had given millions of cords of wood and had already begun to regenerate new woods when they finished. It was another river and another camp that brought far more tales to Paul Bunyan’s legend though.
Such is the tale of the Round River camp, a story with varied ends, beginning, and even middles. The Round River Camp is exactly what it sounds like; a camp near a round river. The Round River camp serves more as a backdrop for storytellers to go wild crafting varied tales from the river being made into a makeshift sawmill to a Rip Van Winkle story of a crew working the river for 40 years and ending up grizzled gray bearded old men. The story usually begins the same however, with the Winter going as usual and the logs ready to be sent downriver. Paul’s crew is horrified to find that the logs are spinning around and around. The river is without an end. Though depending on the tale Paul either finds a way around this or believing his crew competent enough to send the logs down leaves, not knowing the rivers true shape. Only to return and find his men old and worn down like the logs now the size of fishing poles in the spiraling rapids. Yet some of the strangest and greatest feats of the legendary lumberjack happened in the winter of the blue snow.
The winter of the blue snow is a common setting in Paul Bunyan tales. It was a winter in which it was so cold that the snow turned blue. It was so cold that flames froze, and words froze in the air. The snow was so deep that winter trees that were logged left stumps 40 feet high. It was during this time that Babe supposedly got his blue color from being in the snow too often. Though another similar story has Babe being found by a younger Paul, frozen and after being thawed staying the same frigid blue color. Paul’s camp and crew were so cold that the men were forced to learn sign language as their words froze in the air. Many died of fatigue due to the sheer amount of coats they wore around. Others were forced to sleep with their feet in oil and their clothes on fire, acting as a wick. It was around this time that the Pacific froze over and animals such as Snow Snakes, winter dwelling Siberian serpents 20 feet long or more, crossed over. However, it was so cold even these predatory winter snakes froze and were often used as skids for the trees or as skis. Oddly, this is often followed by a year without winter which impeded much of the logging operation. Forcing Paul to import snow over from Asia using his giant oxen, of which he actually had many not just Babe and Lucy. The Pacific being still frozen over from the winter of the blue snow allowed Paul to use it as a land bridge to carry the snow over. Many more tales arose out of the winter of the blue snow, far too many to speak of in one go around. Though even in a normal logging camp absent any round rivers, blue snow, or giant pyramids. Paul and his crew still found themselves in odd situations and adventures.
There have been many companions of Paul Bunyan, and many stories centered around them. Ole the Blacksmith who was often the one who made whatever contraption Paul had invented or had need for. Sourdough Sam and Joe Muffraw the cooks for his gigantic crews, found clever wars of feeding so many men as well as Paul. They had their cookees grease the oversized griddle by skating atop it with bacon or hams tied to their feet. The army of cooks making enough pancakes to feed a small country and turning small lakes into pea soup. Such was the life of the camp cooks in Paul’s lumber camps. Along with this the colorful cast also included Johnny Inkslinger, the camp accountant and office worker who at times was considered a giant like Paul and the inventor of figures for record keeping, as well as magic items similar to Ole and Paul. There was also Brimstone Bill who invented most cuss words used to this day, and the keeper of many of Paul’s animals. When he died Paul buried him in Hawaii where the pent up cussing spawned a volcano. Paul’s hunting dog is another odd critter, he was sadly cut in half and put back together with the back legs on the top giving it twice as much endurance, as it would just flip over if its two legs got tired, and of course Lucy the giant cow whose milk kept the camp spirits up with the sweet taste of butter.
Many more animals and crew members make an appearance throughout Paul’s legends. From all over the place, From Western and Eastern Europe, New England, and French-Canada. Some say Paul’s camp made them into proper Americans, the lumberjacks camp culture forging bonds and traditions between the men. Yet there is one character who despite his connection to Paul seems to have had little impact on his stories the man some call Paul’s brother, Pecos Bill.
Pecos Bill, The First Cowboy
Pecos Bill was a legend all his own, some call him the first cowboy. The man who invented the art of Lassoing and was weaned on whiskey and panther piss. Born during a storm that some say coincided with the birth of Texas. He was born with a full set of teeth, a mop of red hair on his head and chest and his first words were “Gim’me a drink”. By the time he was 3 his family up and left for Texas, it was then that on a bumpy road and at the back of the wagon filled with his many kin he fell out into the Pecos river. Giving him his moniker as well as washing him downstream where he was found by an elder coyote. Some say it was an old and wizened patriarch of the coyotes, though others say it was a grandmother coyote. Either way, Pecos spent the better part of his youth among the coyotes hunting bears and other beasts with his coyote brethren. Under the assumption he was just a deformed and rather ugly coyote. Despite his deformities, he found himself to be the best out of the Coyote pack. Better at hunting, marking, and howling then any of the other varmints. Though eventually as Texas was settled Pecos Bill would find himself among men again.
Depending on the story, Pecos was either found near a riverside watering hole or in the middle of a kill. But he is always found by some human. Chastised for his nakedness and the raw meat upon his face. Pecos is convinced he is a coyote, but is quickly proven wrong either with his own reflection or with the lack of a tail extending from his behind. He is taken into town where he enjoys all the ways of men, especially the vices such as gambling, roughhousing, and whoring. At this point amongst other men Pecos no longer content on bear steaks and whiskey. Has begun taking shots of explosives mixed with hot peppers, crushed poisonous bugs, and of course rattler venom. His meals consist of the flesh of the more fearsome beasts due to poison or claw and of course a topping of barbed wire. This on at least one if not more occasions caused the head of an outfit to hand over the role of boss to him. Resulting in Pecos running with many a crew of outlaws.
He invented lassoing to rope cows from horses when he found the herders to be unable to keep the cows together while on foot. He found a way to rope them from horseback. Inventing the role of cowboy in the same moment. When he was not content with a rope, or could not find any, he would use a rattler as his lasso. A man like that requires a steed to match.
When he was young Pecos by some accounts had a trained grizzly bear for a mount. Later on when an over-sized cougar challenged him, Pecos tamed it and made it his mount for a time. Facing down a giant rattlesnake atop it.
He even at one point lassoed a tornado and rode all through the southwest. Unable to buck the legendary cowpoke, the twister turned into clouds and rained down on the southwest below him. At the time many a river system that we have now was not there, or at least not as big.
So Pecos was often forced to head to the gulf and herd some water up into Texas. Growing tired of this, he dug a ditch instead and this eventually became the Rio Grande. It was around this time that two of the most important people to Pecos would become a clear part of his legend. The first was his horse, the greatest horse in Texas, he was known as Widow-maker on account of anybody other than Pecos who rode him would be bucked off and likely killed. Only Pecos was able to tame such a powerful and unruly beast. They had many adventures together, train robberies, brawls, and even digging the Grand Canyon. The other was the eventual victim of Widow-maker, the love of Pecos’ life, Slue Foot Sue.
Pecos was a known womanizer and had many a fling and whore. Never before was he smitten quite like he was by Sue when he saw her. Sue was not a timid girl, far from it. She dressed to impress the menfolk and had many wrapped around her finger. She was spirited and stubborn a true woman of the wild west. The moment she earned the heart of Pecos though was when she road the great fur bearing catfish. The southwest has many rivers and the catfish in them are much bigger especially the great fur bearing catfish. Who was twice the size of a whale. Sue rode it like a bull in its own river, the only woman to ever do so. From then on Pecos couldn’t help himself around Sue, she was destined to be his gal. Though their story is often tragic.
After the two meet and Sue is courted and wooed by Pecos. The day of their wedding arrives, Sue was never one to buck a challenge and was far too contrarian to simply do as she was bid, regardless of sense. Often going into enemy territory or into an area overrun with wolves just because she was told not to. But the most notable instance of Sue’s stubbornness was when she rode Widow-maker.
Depending on the one who spun the yarn, Sue either asks Pecos who can’t refuse her pleas to ride Widow-maker or she sneaks out after being told no and rides him anyway. Widow-maker won’t tolerate anyone other than Pecos riding him and eventually bucks Sue off. Now Sue always dressed to impress, so she had a rather springy contraption beneath her dress atop her derriere. Made of whalebone and springs, it bounced her higher and higher every time she landed on it. How this ends depends. Either Sue bounces til she lands on the moon stuck there from that day forward. Or some say the landing broke her neck and poor Sue died that day. Though others say after letting her bounce and dwell in worry for a bit, Pecos lassoed the moon to bring her down and threw it back up into the sky. Though with Pecos Sue continued her contrarian nature. In the former story Pecos drowned his sorrows in drink, nitroglycerin to be exact and he blew to pieces as small as water vapor, in others he and Sue lived happily ever after, or as happy as two wild souls could be. Now with folks like Pecos and Paul you’d start to think the legends of America are all rough and tumble men, but there is one notable fella who bucks the trend. A kindly wanderer by the name of Johnny Appleseed.
Johnny Appleseed, Wise Hermit of the Frontier
Johnny Appleseed, also known as John Chapman was born around the same time as the American nation he would help to define. His father was a soldier in the revolutionary army and his mother cared for John and his two siblings. She died shortly before the war ended, along with Johns younger brother. He and his sister were eventually integrated into his father’s second marriage with a large family as their father and step-mother had many offspring. This large family dwelt in a small house as Johnny matured. All while the nation was spreading west across the Appalachian mountains. This imbued in Johnny a sense of wanderlust. He went west, collected seeds from the cider mills and began sowing orchards throughout the northeast. Not one for material possessions, Johnny had a sack in which he contained his apple seeds and tomes that allowed him to teach himself many a skill. Most notably religious texts as he was a devout believer of Swedenborgianism a new form of Protestantism. One of the most notable things that caused this new church to differ from the old was a belief in a spirit world and a view of heaven that seemed to coincide with the concept of halls of the gods and ancestors. Only in their place, were angels and spirits. This fit well with Johnny’s gentle and animistic worldview. Both of which became integral parts of his legend.
While Johnny’s main portrayals in media portray him as scrawny and timid, he would’ve been fierce to behold. With long dark untamed hair and beard. Creating a mane of hair beneath his cooking pot hat, from which two piercing eyes stared. His feet were almost always bare even in the dead of winter and the little clothes he did wear were often ill fitting and ragged. Often given to him as a gift or in barter for his saplings. As a result, Johnny appears more a gentle wild man of the woods than the scrawny boy he is portrayed as in films. Through the many years that Johnny roamed the countryside planting his orchards and living beneath the stars, he always seemed to find that niche, that point where the settlers ended and the frontier faded into woods and wild beasts.
Wandering as a disheveled eccentric man planting apple trees and speaking of a spirit realm proclaiming his New Church doctrine. Occasionally finding refuge in an inn or country home where he was welcomed, often entertaining his hosts, especially the children with spiritual tales or his own growing legend. He would do tricks for the young ones such as plunging needles into his feet, that had long past become immune to such minor torments. Adding to Johnny’s queerness was this super human endurance.
Along with braving the cold dark winters of the Northeast barefoot, he was also not averse to jamming sharp objects or red-hot pokers into his feet for the entertainment of the onlookers. He was also nimble, quick thinking, and able to give even Paul Bunyan a run for his money when it came to logging. Far from scrawny and weak, Johnny was gentle and strong. In certain famous tales, Johnny went house to house in the spirit of Paul Revere. Proclaiming, during the war of 1812, that the enemy was coming and the townsfolk must flee for their lives. Running the length of a marathon in a night through the winding woods in order to warn the settlers of their doom. He shed no blood that day, but he ran through dark forests filled with bears, boars, and wolves. Hollering at the top of his lungs on the brief stopovers at each homestead. Johnny’s acts of selflessness combined with his ability to live in such a hostile land yet be so gentle made him one of the most well known oddities throughout the region.
Each time he shifted west to follow the frontier, his new orchards and saplings allowed people to more easily own their property by the rules of the government. Orchards meant they were sure to stay and work the land, and Johnny’s many apple orchards made getting to such a point take half the time. Yet there was another mistake often made when speaking of Johnny Appleseed, he did not plant the sweet apples we know of today. Rather in the randomized fashion frowned upon by grafters he spread the seeds of the trees, producing a plethora of cider apples.
That Johnny’s trees had more to do with hard cider and vinegar then the sweet and tart apples we see today, does not take away from his reputation then or now. In fact, it has resulted in his modern nickname “The American Dionysus” as Dionysus was with wine, Johnny seems to have made the American frontier replete with hard cider. He was as a wild man not truly of the domestic lifestyle nor of the wild woods, who communed with spirits and animals in the untamed wilderness, yet gave gifts and joys to those that lived near the edge. It is an odd yet apt parallel. Though Johnny is not known for partying nor a raucous sexual nature like Pecos, Paul, or Dionysus. Rather, he was said to be celibate, adding to his almost saintly nature.
His animistic worldview that made him unwilling to graft or “harm” trees also made him see animals the same way. Unwilling to keep a fire lit for fear of burning mosquitoes or weeping in sorrow when he accidentally killed a rattlesnake. At times this even went so far as to have him gain an animal companion. Helping a wolf in pain resulted in him having a wolf tag along on his wanderings. Such acts as well as his immense herbal knowledge from years in the woods and from texts read long ago, marked him as a sort of medicine man in the eyes of the local Amerindians. A spirit of the woods more so than a man. Which is what he seemed in many ways to those unfamiliar to the old hermit.
There is much more of Johnny than is spoken of here. His many speeches about Swedenborgianism, his encounters with native tribes and other hermits, his communing with spirits and “angels” as well as many adventures that have slipped from the public’s imagination. Though like any legend, his story is incomplete without an end. I have heard two tales of Johnny’s demise one the more prevailing is the one in which upon staying with a family for the night, he died in his sleep after one of his powerful speeches of the spirit world. The other, a rather odd one that I have heard from only one person who grew up with the stories, is that before his death Johnny seeing his work was not done took an apple tree and bent it so that its seeds would spread and those seeds eventually spread throughout America. Forming the many wild apples that grow across the continent. Whether his death was peaceful or mythic matters not. The impact Johnny had in his life and the legacy he left behind both of devout woodsman and of eccentric hermit have endured within the American spirit long after his life concluded. He became more than a man, he became the embodiment of the pioneer spirit, and of a romantic wilderness lost to time. As much as Johnny Appleseed was at home in the lands and rivers of the continent there is one legend who loved the sea as much as Johnny loved the land. The original able bodied sailor of American folklore.
Stormalong, “The” Able Bodied Sailor
Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, better known as Old Stormalong or Stormie to his friends. A giant of a man between 4 and 14 fathoms high. The initials for able bodied sailor are said to come from him, for to him all other sailors are to be compared. Stormalong’s diet was equally as outsized as the man himself, he was fond of Ostrich eggs and his favorite fish to eat was shark, when he’d finish eating he’d lay down and pick his teeth with an oar.
He was a fiercesome sailor and a fearless whaler. When there was trouble Stormalong would throw himself head first into the problem. When his then ship “The Lady of the Sea” was held down by a giant octopus it was Stormie who jumped overboard knife in mouth and fought the kraken below the depths. When he climbed back on the ship he had defeated it by tying its many arms into knots, something that would take it a long time to get free of.
On one occasion Stormalong made the mistake of trying to be a farmer, he found it so miserable he couldn’t fathom why anyone would do it. He gleefully returned to the sea where he could truly be free. However despite his many boons and bonds with his fellow sailors aboard his vessels. His size often caused him to jump ship. As the ship he was on was almost never for a man of his size, he would always jump ship if he saw a bigger one that may accommodate him better. The ship that was finally of a proper size was the “Courser”.
Upon seeing such a large ship Stormalong became distraught and in the night jumped from the Lady of the Sea and swam to join the gargantuan Courser. The Courser was so large that only Stormie was able to keep the wheel on course. It was so big that the silver masts extended high up into the clouds with the the sails dragging them along. A young man would climb up the mast and by the time they came down again they had become grizzled old graybeards. To even keep watch upon such a ship required the men to be on horseback. The Courser was more a man-made island than a ship. It was the perfect size for Old Stormalong however.
Though its size was more of a hindrance in many cases. As it traveled the Northern seas and the Atlantic ocean, and in certain seas like the North Sea above Europe it ended up stuck on course to go through the English Channel, and didn’t have room to turn around. Where it was only able to escape by using the ship’s supply of soap to make the sides slippery enough to squeeze through. This, of course is the origin of the White Cliffs of Dover. In this same incident came the supposed birth of the channel islands, born of the disposed cargo when they needed to lighten the load in the shallows. Another instance of the ship’s size leading to creation via destruction was that of the Panama Canal. Created by the ship accidentally sailing through the Isthmus of Panama, when it was thrown off course in a storm in the Caribbean. Stormalong like many sailors was destined to make his lasting impact upon the open seas and foreign shores far more than his own. Eventually Stormalong would perish aboard that great ship of giants. As they were dropping cargo off in Mexico. How he died I do not know, but they buried him near the shore so that the salty spray of the sea would always be with him. But on the eastern shores Stormalong left behind, another legend would be born.
Joe Magarac, The Soul of American Steel
Among the steelworkers of the Northeast, especially those of Slavic or Hungarian descent, there is a legend known as “The Saga of Joe Magarac”. Joe Magarac was sometimes known as the Paul Bunyan of steel workers. Born of a mountain filled with ore. Joe Magarac was made of the very steel he worked to form, and he was far stronger than any average man, able to do effortlessly what caused men in their primes, eyes to burst from their head in exhaustion. He would work day and night in the steel mills. He had no use for a wife or a house, and in fact his very workstation had been labeled “The Home of Joe Magarac”. Where he stirred the molten steel with his bare hands and took handfuls to form the rails and implements the steel became. He made steel so well and so fast that the plant eventually was forced to close for a few days, due to supply exceeding demand.
This didn’t sit well with Joe, and while he waited in the steel mill, he had an idea. All the men arrived to work on Monday and Joe was nowhere to be seen. Eventually a man heard his voice call to him from a ladle. Joe was sitting in molten steel. The men were worried he would be melted down into the very steel he made. But Joe said that was what he wanted and that from him would come the very best steel, and to use him to build the new mills that they planned to build.
He dipped his head back into the molten metal and melted down. After which came the very best steel, the steel made from Magarac was used to build the new mills. From then on the steel that was made in those mills was the very best, flawless and without seams. Joe had given his whole self to the creation of steel.
There is one more notable legend however, a man who dealt with steel as well, a steel driving man by the name of John Henry.
John Henry, Man Against Machine
John Henry is an oddity in American folklore. As each legend of American folklore has its clear origins, among the lumber camps or the cattle drives, in the frontier or the seas, in the city or the fields. John Henry was a hero of the south though where is not known, most likely West Virginia or neighboring Appalachia. Given that is where his Ballad was born. He was a well liked and well known tall tale in America. When Paul Bunyan began his feud with the Whistling river, it was upon John Henry’s hammer he swore his oath of vengeance. John Henry had even begun to influence those who told tales of other herculean heroes. Or perhaps even the heroes themselves. Yet it is hard to know where John Henry’s story originated, you’d think he was farther out west if you looked at modern media, while most evidence favors somewhere in the American south in the mid to late 1800s.
John Henry was a large man able to swing his 10 pound hammer one handed. His most famous story and by far the most widely told is his race against the steam drill. Wherein John Henry is seen as the Hercules of the camp; strong, courageous, with many women in pursuit of him. He was an every-man of the railroad workers. Driving the spikes through steel rails beside his crew as quick as lightning, the steel ringing with the sound of thunder.
Eventually the steam drill is invented and threatens to put many men out of a job. John Henry puts forth a bet that he will defeat the steam drill in a race. Depending on the version, the bet differs. The more famous one holds that John Henry using two 10 pounds hammers not only was able to keep up with the drill but tore through a mountain before it. While another version has it being a simple race where John Henry defeated the steam drill 14 feet to 9 feet of lain track. Though in every time-honored version this exertion kills him. Either immediately in the form of a heart attack, or later that night as a burst blood vessel. This bet may be for money or for all the men to keep their jobs, it all depends on who you ask. The little known about John Henry is that all the stories say he was a former slave and they refer to him by derogatory terms reserved mostly for those of African descent in the USA. The key word here is “mostly”.
An often forgotten aspect of history is that there were Irish slaves in the United States, and that they were often referred to with the same derogatory words now hoisted upon the Black community in the United States. John Henry is known far and wide as an African -American folk hero. But there are some holes in this theory. For one, the time period and area that his legend originated would not have been the kind of place for such a legend to arise. Especially not among the Appalachian region. But furthermore the name John Henry was far more common a name for people descended of the British Isles than of African-Americans. This does not mean that John Henry was or wasn’t black. But his most famous story and the one I grew up hearing was of him and the steam drill and his sorrowful demise. His facing down a stronger enemy and sacrificing himself, as well as the lightning quickness with which he wields his large hammer. His story was told by many of both races throughout the years, each one infusing their own color and cultures into his story. It is possible that multiple John Henry’s were made into this singular folk hero. Perhaps some of both races. This may be the reason that in such a region his ballad arose and why he seems to fit so well into the vein of Thor or Irish hero Cú Chulainn. He doesn’t fit into the often indestructible and trickster heroes in African-American folklore such as Br’er Rabbit or High John the Conqueror. Perhaps that is why his story seems more in line with a European hero than an African one.
The Legacy of America’s Demigods
These demigods are an integral part of American heritage, becoming characters that exemplify the can-do spirit of the nation that’s told their tales. As well as the natural forces that they in many ways personified.
Bunyan was not just an overgrown lumberjack. He was a hero, a masculine role model, a legend of a culture and era that has come and gone. Yet the lessons and folklore that spawned from him are still with us to this day. He was both the rugged man within nature and the ability to conquer it. He was both the man pushing against the unforgiving natural world and its molder in many ways.
Paul created mountains, lakes, rivers, and even a land bridge. His story not only tells of a powerful masculine leader but also of a northern giant as much a force of nature as the giants of European myth. Perhaps the Thor comparison was a bit more apt than at first glance. As Thor was both a heroic god and the son of a frost giant. Even the very visage of Paul seems to radiate into American culture as the masculine ideal of many a man. The very garb with which American men seem to dress calls back more to this burly lumberman than to Washington or Roosevelt.
Pecos as well calls back to a time and place that takes a special place in many an American’s heart, the wild west. He was both a tamer of beasts and a roustabout, a man who made the west what it was and according to legend created one of the most iconic roles in American culture, the cowboy. Together with his gal Sue, Pecos’ myth radiates not only the wild untamed spirit of the west with its many dangers and moral gray areas. It also calls to mind one thing the southwest is often thought to lack, water.
Pecos becomes tied to the rivers and waterways of Texas and the rest of the southwest as integrally as Paul is tied to the Northwoods. He carves the Rio Grande, brings water from the gulf, digs the Grand Canyon, and even captures a twister which eventually become the very rain that fills the riverbeds. Pecos is not merely a hero of the old west, in many ways the rivers and water he made give life to the Southwest, both people and animals.
Johnny Appleseed may not be as rough and tumble as Pecos or Paul, but his impact still remains. As one of the most well known folk heroes of the American frontier, he is hard to miss. The wandering wild man, spreading wisdom and cider apples all across the land.
The mythic spirit of the frontier and wise forest wanderer. This American legend changed not only the landscape but the feel of the nation. When the land was awash in hostile intentions, he was a man of peace and gentle acts. He not only aided the lands he roamed, he became the progenitor of not only his own legend but of the apples throughout the continent. Far from the mere caricature that he became known as in later times.
Then there is Stormalong for all his strength and prowess he is one of the most obscure of these heroes of myth. He embodied the spirit of the men who cast their lot upon the mercy of the sea rather than the mercy of the soil. Unable to even stand such work. Instead, the call of the open ocean and the many adventures therein sang to him. For even a man as large as he is dwarfed by the majesty of the sea. Even in death he could not be parted from his beloved ocean, buried with the salty spray of the sea upon his grave. While the mythic ship that carried forth his spirit still sails through the domain of Davy Jones and Triton long past his stories end.
Then Magarac who was born of mountain ore and became the greatest steel. While his name may translate to Joe “Jackass” he truly worked like his namesake animal. Never resting, he eventually became part of the very steel with which he built the world we live in today. His spirit became imbued in every steel beam and railroad track lain.
Just as the men who built such modern marvels across this land did. Their blood, sweat, and tears is what pushed the world to build towers to the sky and train tracks from coast to coast. Magarac was not only the ore that made the steel, but the human component as well. In that way he became steel incarnate, for without man and his labors steel is merely mountain stone. In this way, the lands of America have been built from Joe Magarac.
Lastly John Henry, who was of the men who took that steel and put it to use. He became a symbol as well of the defiant spirit of the American people. He sacrificed himself for his people before the altar of modernity. He won his bet but lost his heart. His hammer beat the steel as thunder beats the sky and his hammer became something worthy to swear by.
Regardless of his origins and true ethnicity, he has truly made a mark upon this mythic landscape. His ballad made many a man speak of the power of humanity in a world increasingly based on metal muscles and mindless drudgery.
These are by no means the only heroes to have come out of American myth and folklore. Febold Feboldson, Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone, Doc Holliday, Betsy Ross, and many more have made their legends known upon this land. They fought, loved, swore, made and destroyed with the best of them. The legends they left behind became far more than their day-to-day life. They became forces of nature and heroes to look up to. They were lessons and warnings of the world around us. They exemplified the spirit of a people from coast to coast and to the seas beyond and the skies above. It is high time we recognized these myths we have inherited; it is high time for these legends to come home.
Botkin, Benjamin Albert, and Carl Sandburg. A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People. Globe Pequot, 2016.
Erdoes, Richard. Legends and Tales of the American West. Pantheon Books, 1998.
Means, Howard B. Johnny Appleseed: the Man, the Myth, the American Story. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012.
Stott, John C. Paul Bunyan in Michigan: Yooper Logging, Lore and Legends. History Press, 2015.
Edmonds, Michael. Out of the Northwoods: the Many Lives of Paul Bunyan, With More Than 100 Logging Camp Tales. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014.