By I. M. Knosp
America is a comparatively young country when compared to the cultures of Europe such as England, Rome, Sweden, and beyond. Yet we are not lacking in our own folklore, spirits, heroes and even demigods. Among these mythic figures perhaps it may surprise those outside of the coasts of Lady Liberty’s lands. Yet here it not only makes sense but brings a knowing smile to my face when I say in all seriousness that the first two gods of America are a Lumberjack and a Groundhog. This is the Story of The Legendary Lumberjack the one and only Paul Bunyan.
The most well known and beloved of the American demigods. This folk hero and giant of the Northwoods, had stories told about him for the better part of the last 200 years. His height differed depending on who you asked from seven feet to seven ax handles high (21 feet approx) to well over 50 ax handles high making him as tall if not taller then the trees he felled. Paul’s stories seem to have likely originated in the North-Midwestern great lakes region (Michigan and Wisconsin). Arising out of the folk culture of the American lumberman AKA Lumberjacks or just Jacks. He is often thought of as the American Thor or Heracles. Being a folk hero who was seen as both strong and clever as well as a role model for young men. While undoubtedly clever Paul was often thought of as illiterate ordering supplies for his camp via pictures he carved or drew. Many of Bunyan’s tales tell of setbacks he had to solve or beasts he had to defeat. Most notably those of the Sidehill gouger (a sort of giant cat with feet that are shorter on one end so it can go around the mountain easier), the Hodag (The most feared Northwoods beast said to be the spirits of abandoned or lost oxen), or the terrifying 6 foot tall Bumblebee-Mosquitoes.
The latter of which were born of mosquitoes that were so big that they flew off with their prey, in an attempt to stop them from killing his crew Bunyan sent one of his men to get 6 feet tall bumblebees from Texas. The two species warred for awhile but upon finding peace, mated and produced enormous predatory insects able to prey on grown men with a stinger in the back and a large needle to absorb the blood of their victims in the front. He eventually defeated these beasts though smaller brethren continue to swarm the Northwoods. Another epic fight was that in which Bunyan fought the whistling river. A sentient river that would climb out of its banks and whistle loudly alerting all the lumber camps in North America when quitting time was and when it was time to wake up. However after it decided to play a prank on Paul squirting water in his face that littered his beard with plants, fish, and debris from its banks. Paul swore revenge and eventually figured out how to defeat it. Heading north with Babe he captured a blizzard (Creating icebergs for fun in the process) and had it forged into chains that could freeze the whistling river and then pulled the river straight. He eventually sliced it up and stored it for later use.
Bunyan has many animals who are often there to aid him. Having a massive herd of oxen (Many of which likely became Hodags). Among his Oxen some notable examples include Benny the oxen, Lucy a giant cow who produced the sweetest milk and butter for the men who worked in Bunyan’s camps. But the most famous of Paul’s oxen was Babe the big blue ox. Babe was originally unnamed but received the title of Babe after the stories had been published.
He varied in height usually proportional to Bunyan. Being slightly over-sized to the size of Bunyan, to being so large that when an eagle flew from one of his horns to the other it went bald from stress, creating the Bald eagle in the process.
Another notable animal Paul had was his hunting dog. While its origins and breed and even name often differ it is notable for being accidentally sawed in half then reattached improperly resulting in its bottom half being on top of it. So that it would run on two legs then flip upside down so as to continue running. Oddly this made it an even better hunting dog. More nimble and energetic.
Paul was also a former of a landmarks. Bunyan is credited with creating many bays, lakes, and landmarks in America such as Pikes Peaks, The Mississippi River, and even the great lakes at times. Some stories even tell of him being in love with and for a time living and being married to a spirit of the lakes (The lady of the lake). Though others have him perpetually single avoiding domestic bliss in favor of the wild woods and spending his time in mythic brothels and taverns. By building Pikes peak he ties into other American folklore such as Pike’s peak being the throne of Uncle Sam (a propaganda formed spirit of America who replaced the beautiful Columbia who still adorns the Capitol building), therefore he formed the seat where the personification of the USA keeps watch in defense of its people. There are other famous stories of Paul Bunyan I shall focus on the main ones so as to avoid making this too overly long.
The first is that of the Round River Camp, a logging camp Paul ran in which the river was a closed circle. Many motifs and stories have been written about this. Including that Paul upon accidentally sending his logs down the river before realizing its shape made the best of it by eventually building a method of sawing them to the proper size within the river eventually filling it up with sawdust. Another has a borderline rip van winkle story happen in which Paul leaves his men to finish the work on the round river only to return later to his men still trying to get the now fishing pole sized logs through the river. The men old and grey haired with thick, long, unkempt beards still trying to get the logs out of the river as per Paul’s orders. Another is the story of the Pyramid forty, forty acres on a pyramid shaped land surrounded by the Big Onion River. This pyramid was also the home of the Sidehill gouger as well as birds that laid square eggs so they would not fall and drown in the big onion river. Here the top of the pyramid 40 could only be seen after three weeks of climbing and by the time the top was logged the bottom had already had a new crop of trees at the bottom. Another story tells of how Paul Bunyan is responsible for the Dakotas being prairie having logged it clean long ago.
Bunyan was also aided by many loyal men such as Sourdough Sam and Joe Muffraw his camp cooks, the latter famous for his sourdough (that once blew up taking an arm and/or a leg from him). The other for his magnificent cooking who to feed Paul and his large crew of lumberjacks would have two or more cookies tie a piece of pork fat, bacon, or whole hams to their feet and have them skate around the oversized griddle or in some cases a converted frozen lake to grease the pan for pancakes. Another notable member is Ole the blacksmith “The big swede” who declared he had no religion and even stuck the camp evangelist up his forge chimney having the zealot pop out the top looking more devil then man. Ole was the only one able to properly shoe Babe, with the weight of the shoes pushing him down into solid rock. Another notable member was Brimstone Bill, who often took care of the camp livestock such as Babe. Bill was often thought to have invented most modern cuss words and when he died he was buried in Hawaii by a distraught Paul, but the firey swears stored in bill turned the mountain he was buried in, into a volcano. The final notable member of Paul’s crew was Johnny Inkslinger. In many ways the right hand man to Paul who kept the books, managed salaries, and did all the office Work Paul didn’t have time or the talent for, sometimes considered a giant himself and the inventor of figures for record keeping.
Other stories tell of Pauls prowess for hunting and other Northwoods activities. A story tells of Paul’s ingenuity when he invents a shotgun so good that he can shoot a bird down from so high up that by the time it hits the ground it has spoiled. To avoid this Paul began salting his shot to preserve the meat. Paul also at one point had his camps whole supply of beans and/or Peas (Depending on the version) fall into the lake, after which he ordered a part of the lake dammed off and the edges of the lake were heated to the point of boiling the lake creating enough bean or pea soup to feed the whole camp for months. Bunyan often fought creatures and beasts such as the ones spoken of above. Yet more exist and another notable one is that during the winter of the blue snow (A mythic trope in american folklore of a winter so cold the snow was blue and flames froze and words froze in the air before thawing in a confusing and cuss filled jumble of shouts). The Pacific Ocean froze and snow snakes up to and above 20 feet long crossed over from Siberia and raided and hunted among the camp. However they eventually froze as well and Paul used them for skids for the logs. In another year there was no winter and Paul crossing with his Oxen pulled snow over from Asia across the still frozen Pacific to be able to get the logs down to the mill.
When depicted in his colossus size Paul has an unkempt beard that he grows until it interferes with his work combing it with pine trees. When he needs it trimmed a massive amount of shaving cream is applied and his beards hairs are felled like pine trees. When he was very young one theory as to why Paul is so big is that a full moon shone on him when he was in the cradle (a similar story is often attributed to Babe) which had some sort of magic blessing (perhaps from the man in the moon or Mani). His size grew so fast his parents would use the lake to rock the infant Paul to sleep, but when angered he rocked so much that the lake overflowed creating swamps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
He is also said to have either gotten babe as a child or have found him frozen solid creating his blue color (other reasons for his color is either that Babe ate a certain kind of blue flower or berry, or that the winter of the blue snow turned his coat blue).
Paul was also not a fan of fire, this is possibly due to Paul’s friend in one of the more down to earth stories having his whole town nearly burned to the ground. Resulting in Paul defending the forest against fires and being extremely paranoid about fires that his crew made. Paul’s finale of sorts differs depending on who you ask and which story you follow.
Some say he retired to a lakeside house (Perhaps to the women of the lake he loved so dear), perhaps upon jumping and creating a bay he saw Venus was full of trees and jumped so far he landed there to begin logging. Another says he died of unknown causes and the grief killed Babe. Others say he went north with Babe where the two’s roughhousing created the Northern Lights.
Paul Bunyan is many things in the North of the continent. He is a legendary hero for many. A tall tale born of whoppers and jokes for many around a campfire. A virile and rugged man who is a role model for the more wild part of us. He has been depicted as a bumbling oaf, a strong man, a wildman veering towards a neanderthal like visage, a giant of the woods, a continent shifting demigod, a caring husband, and a devoted leader. The Yankees, French-canadians and various Europeans who came through his camp were forged into Americans under his tutelage. As the country expanded and headed west so did Paul, becoming the spirit of Manifest Destiny alongside Columbia. His continent shifting, tree felling, mountain making, and lake filling actions seem to make him almost a personification of the Laurentide ice sheet that once covered North America and built much of the landscape and topography we now know today and also filled in the Bering land bridge creating the connection between Eurasia and America. He has had many many statues and claims of his birthplace come about. With many of his said statues once proudly displayed throughout the Northern USA disappear under government regulations and the death of small towns. As his legend is torn down and infantilized to sell films and toys. However he still lives in his people man or giant he is an American hero, who has been beloved and honored for over a century.
Botkin, Benjamin Albert, and Carl Sandburg. A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People. Globe Pequot, 2016.
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.
Folklore from Other American’s I have talked to