10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

Larry Holzwarth - December 5, 2017

Legendary figures abound in American history, some totally fictional and some based, in part, on historical facts. There are near-mythical explorers, workers, frontiersman, and pioneers. Some came about as extensions of legends brought to America by early immigrants. Others developed from similar tales gleaned from the Native Americans. There are legendary actions attributed to real life Americans which grew upon each retelling to become mythological. Some have been retold to the point of becoming widely believed to be true.

There are stories of ghost trains driven by ghostly engineers splitting the night with ghostly whistles. Lost souls roam certain patches of woods looking for lost companions. Other legends tell of traveling peddlers who saved whole towns from destruction. During the railroad building boom legends developed of the superhuman achievements of some track layers. Coastal towns brought tales of legendary pirates and ghost ships, and in the farmlands stories of roaming agrarians grew with the nation. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Johnny Appleseed as a child, few know the truth about him. Paul Bunyan and his legendary Blue Ox, Babe, have been claimed as natives of numerous towns scattered across several states, wherever lumber cutting has been a part of the economy, recent scholarship reveals he may have been based on real persons.

Here are ten legendary American figures, some real, some fictional, and some somewhere in between.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
These statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe stand in Bemidji Minnesota. Wikimedia
10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
A fanciful drawing of Johnny Appleseed. In real life he planted extensive orchards throughout the Ohio country. Wikipedia

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed is usually pictured in tattered coveralls, wearing a pot as a hat. He is remembered as a legendary figure who roamed the country, scattering apple seeds along the way. This picture of an itinerant figure wandering almost aimlessly is the result of decades of urban legends and folk tales, fed today by numerous festivals and celebrations in his name in apple growing regions of the East and Midwest.

In fact Johnny Appleseed was John Chapman, a minister of the Swedenborgian Church, and a noted nurseryman who established well designed orchards in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Canada and Illinois. Chapman served an apprenticeship as a nurseryman in Ohio before he set out on his life of travels, during which he both preached the Swedenborgian religion and built orchards.

Chapman would stay in one location long enough to establish an orchard, fenced to protect it from wild animals and livestock, and sell shares in the crops to settlers and other neighbors. In doing so he became wealthy but most of his wealth was lost in the Panic of 1837. Nonetheless when he died his estate included several valuable orchards, one of which included more than 15,000 trees. Another covered over 1200 acres.

In his later years he concentrated more on preaching, and traveled as an itinerant minister, usually sleeping in barns or as a guest in one of his convert’s houses. He preached extensively to the Native Americans in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Along with his beliefs in the Swedenborgian religion (also called the New Church) he developed a respect for animals to the point that he became a vegetarian. His religious beliefs led him to oppose grafting of apple trees and accepting the fruit only in its wild state. The apple varieties attributed to him are not of his creation.

Chapman died in Fort Wayne, Indiana on March 18, 1845. His gravesite is disputed with several locations in the Fort Wayne area claiming to be his final resting place. Of the many orchards he established in several states none remain. In recent years some historians postulate that Chapman brought apples to the frontier in the form of cider rather than as edible fruit, but recorded documents in numerous locations clearly define many of the orchards he created.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
Some claim to have witnessed John Henry’s race with a steam engine, but in more than one place and time. Wikipedia

John Henry

John Henry is the famous steel driving man of African American folklore, a man who drove steel spikes into rock which were then filled with explosives as part of building railroad tunnels. There are differing versions of the legend of John Henry racing against a steam driven machine and dying in the attempt to outperform it, told in song and folk tales. John Henry may have been based on a real person.

A Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina suggested in the late 1920s that John Henry worked on the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia built by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the 1870s. A witness named Neal Miller claimed to have been a boy at the time when he saw John Henry race the steam engine and win, dying shortly after from exhaustion. The witness’s veracity was supported by members of the community.

Another version of the story claims that John Henry was John William Henry, a convict provided as a leased worker to labor on the Lewis Tunnel, more than forty miles from Big Bend. This version contends that railroad records do not confirm the use of steam machinery at Big Bend, but do state that a steam driver was used in the Lewis Tunnel construction. The ballad also contends that Henry was buried at “the white house” near the railroad tracks, the inference is that the white house is in fact the Virginia Penitentiary, then painted white.

Another story claims that the famous race between man and machine occurred in Alabama, near the Coosa mountain tunnel. Other tunnels in Alabama have been suggested as the site of the race and discounted for various reasons, and claims have been made that the race took place in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.

Whether or not John Henry really lived and defeated a steam engine – demonstrating the superiority of man over machine – is open to debate. The real point of the story is not that he won the race, but that doing so killed him, if he ever lived at all. His name remains as a designation for an indefatigable worker, and is in addition to the folk songs celebrated in books, films, video games, and festivals.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
Pecos Bill is an entirely fictional character who became folklore after the fact. Wikimedia

Pecos Bill

Pecos Bill was at first accepted as folklore based on the tales told by cowboys, hunters, and drifters during the western expansion after the Civil War. In fact the character first appeared in fiction published in The Century Magazine. Its author created the character and the supporting folklore on which the character was supposedly based. Later other writers added additional tales featuring the character, all of which were fictional.

According to the legend, Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes after falling from his family’s wagon. He believed himself to be a coyote until he fortuitously met his brother many years later. Pecos Bill used a lariat made from a rattlesnake, rode a horse which no other man could ride (sometimes opting to ride a cougar instead), and ate dynamite as his favorite food.

Pecos Bill first appeared in film in a Walt Disney live action segment of the feature Melody Time. The segment was narrated by Roy Rogers and originally featured Pecos Bill rolling a cigarette during a tornado and lighting it with a bolt of lightning. When first released for television the cigarette segment was excised from the film.

In the manner of John Henry (and Paul Bunyan) part of the Pecos Bill story was his great size. Pecos Bill was the biggest, and by inference strongest, cowboy of all time. He was strong enough to wrestle grizzly bears and wholly fictional monsters (including the Bear Lake Monster of folklore). Some of these combats would take several days before Pecos Bill prevailed.

Pecos Bill was born of an author’s imagination and cleverly intertwined with folklore to the point where in some imaginations he became folklore himself. He was not based on a real character living or dead, and many of the stories told of him were told in an earlier day by frontiersmen like David Crockett and others.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
Immortalized in song, Casey Jones remains a legendary railroad man and hero. Wikipedia

Casey Jones

The legend of Casey Jones was born in song when an engine wiper named Wallace Saunders who had worked with him told the world his story. Jonathan Luther Jones was a real man, a train engineer who lived near Cayce, Kentucky as a young boy, and took the name of the town for his own, spelled “Casey.” Casey lived in and worked from Jackson, Tennessee, for most of his life, firing steam engines for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad.

Casey worked as fireman and later as a brakeman for the Mobile & Ohio until 1887, when he went to work for the Illinois Central. As a fireman he stoked the firebox for the big steam locomotives. In 1891 he was promoted to engineer. Jones drove mainly freight trains, and he was a stickler for remaining on schedule, to the point that it was said along the routes he drove that people could use his timing to set their watches.

In the days of steam engines many engineers shaped their steam powered whistles to produce unique calls through which they could be identified. Jones developed a whistle which produced a sound similar to the whippoorwill. As did most engineers, Jones would sound his whistle when passing through towns, letting the residents know he was coming through. Jones was not immune to occasionally bending the rules, particularly when he needed to speed in order to remain on schedule, and he developed the reputation of sometimes taking unnecessary risks.

Driving long distance passenger trains was seen as the epitome of the engineer’s profession, and Jones was transferred to Memphis in 1900, driving the Cannonball service on a leg to Canton, Mississippi. On April 30 at just before 1.00 AM, Jones left Memphis. Excessive traffic and other issues placed him behind schedule and Jones was travelling about 75 mph around a blind curve near Vaughn, Mississippi when he encountered a stopped freight on the tracks. Telling his fireman to jump, Jones remained in the engine and tried to reversed the engine to no avail. In the ensuing collision he was killed.

The legend of Casey Jones began immediately after his death when he was credited with remaining on board (he could have jumped as the train slowed to near 35 mph) and thus saving the lives of the passengers, none of whom were seriously injured. The legend grew with Saunders’ song, which more or less accurately tells the tale of what happened that night.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
The seal of the Massachusetts Colony bore the image of a Native American in the 17th century. The attitudes of the colonists towards the Natives were mixed. Wikipedia

Sam Hyde

Sam Hyde (sometimes spelled Hide) is an expression commonly used in New England as a measure of someone’s ability to utter falsehoods, as in “lie like Sam Hyde.” Some believe that he was a real person in colonial Massachusetts, others believe him to be purely apocryphal.

Most tales of Sam Hyde agree that the name was given to a Native American, likely of the Mohegan tribe, who lived several decades before the Revolution. This designation allows for the absence of any records describing the birth of a Sam Hyde or Hide in the Massachusetts colony, when all births (and deaths) were recorded in Parish registers.

Tales of Sam Hyde also support this belief by presenting Hyde’s use of broken English dialect, in the manner of “me good” and his lack of any visible means of support. The racial prejudices of the day also took into account the widely held belief that Indians lied habitually and without any remorse. Finally, the records of Dedham Massachusetts contain reference to a Sam Hide at the age of 105, noted as being a sachem – a leader of a Native tribe or group.

Besides being used as a measuring stick for stretchers of the truth, Hyde is referred to as being quick witted, entertaining, a prankster, and a great lover of cider, which in the pre-revolutionary days of New England refers to an alcoholic beverage today known as hard cider. Many of the tales told about Sam Hyde are based on his use of trickery to obtain cider.

For example, when confronted by one neighbor, whom he had fooled into giving him some cider by telling him there was a recently shot deer under a tree in a meadow (there was no deer) an indignant Hyde demanded if it was good if an Indian told the truth half the time. When informed that it was, Hyde claimed that there had been a meadow and there had been a tree, and even though there was no deer he had told the truth at least twice. Sam Hyde is likely a myth, based on old racial stereotypes and Puritan morality, but one never knows.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
This depiction of the Jersey Devil appeared in the Philadelphia Post after multiple reported sightings in 1909. Wikimedia

The Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil resides in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, where over the last 200 years it has been sighted by numerous residents and visitors to the area, according to the lore. Some legends regarding it are clearly the creation of superstitious minds, while others have been reported by people of sterling reputation and demonstrated clear thinking. US Navy Captain Stephen Decatur reported having seen it, or something like it. Joseph Bonaparte, whose younger brother was Napoleon I of France, was living in the United States in 1820 when he reported encountering the creature on his estate.

It has been described as resembling both a bird and an animal, but neither more in favor of the other. It is generally described as having wings similar to a bat, with an elongated body standing on two legs, and hooves. Some have embellished the description by adding a forked tail.

In 1909 there were a flurry of sightings in the third week of January, not only in the Pine Barrens but throughout the state, neighboring Pennsylvania (where police claimed to have shot at it), Maryland and Delaware. Many of these sightings were later established to be hoaxes. Others have since ascribed them to mass hysteria, fed in part by the sheer number of newspaper reports of sightings during the period.

Some believe that the New Jersey Devil is nothing more than a large bird indigenous to the region called the Sandhill Crane, which can appear, especially in the gloom, with some of the attributes of the described Devil (minus the forked tail, although tail feathers could appear).

There have been several hoaxes regarding the Jersey Devil, including fake footprints, touched-up photographs, and mock-up devils constructed from various animal bodies and combinations. No physical evidence has ever been found which can be definitively linked to the creature, and relatively few sightings have been confirmed by more than one person. Likely a myth which dates to pre-revolutionary days, the Jersey Devil exists on the ice in Newark, when the New Jersey Devils take on NHL opponents.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
Paul Bunyan may have been based in part on Fabian “Saginaw Joe” Fournier, a Canadian lumberjack in Michigan. Wikimedia

Paul Bunyan

For many years it was accepted that Paul Bunyan was an entirely fictional character, created by writers and passed off to the public as being based on folklore, which he was not. More recent study of the character is not so definitive. While the supersized feats of the supersized man are clearly fiction, as is the existence of his legendary Blue Ox, there is now evidence that the character itself could have some basis in the life of a real man, or two men.

Fabian Fournier was a Canada born lumberjack who moved to Michigan after the Civil War where he worked as the foreman for a lumber crew in the area surrounding Bay City. Known as Saginaw Joe, Fournier stood well above average height and many tales regarding his colorful life in the lumbering camps began making the rounds after he was murdered in Bay City.

The Fournier stories were later combined in their many retellings with those of a French-Canadian lumberjack named Paul Bon Jean. Bon Jean is easily anglicized to sound like Bunyan. He participated in the anti-British revolt of 1837 known as the Papineau Rebellion. Much later some of these tales began to appear in print, and when the character named Paul Bunyan was used as an illustration for advertisements for the Red River Lumber Company in Minnesota he became nationally known.

Many of Bunyan’s adventures and activities were of course exaggerations and the huge size of the lumberjack, and that of Babe, were added to the legend later, usually in fictional stories written primarily for the consumption of young adults. Bunyan’s size was fully emphasized by Disney in a 1958 animated musical called Paul Bunyan.

The image of Paul Bunyan, in statues and drawings, is used nationwide as an advertising draw. More than a dozen communities claim to be his birthplace or the place where he spent his career chopping wood. There are dozens of books and short stories relating his many feats, all of which are of course fiction, (in one story he defeats Dracula) but the idea that he may have been loosely based on a real person or persons is drawing more and more attention from sociologists, mythologists, and historians.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
Daniel Boone’s fame rivaled that of George Washington during his lifetime. Library of Congress

Daniel Boone

Contrary to the title song to the 1960s television series Daniel Boone was not a particularly big man. Despite renown as an Indian fighter late in his life he claimed to have only killed one Indian in his lifetime. He is indelibly linked with Kentucky, but he spent more of his life in Missouri, where he died, than he did in the Bluegrass State. He was well known as a hunter, particularly of bear, and speculated heavily in land.

Although often presented as shunning crowded areas, always seeking more “elbow room” he resided mostly in towns and villages. Following his adventures at Boonesborough before and during the American Revolutionary War he settled in Limestone (today’s Maysville), a river port through which goods from and to Kentucky had access to the Ohio River. From there he moved upriver, to what is now Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where he worked as a surveyor. He was three times elected to the Virginia legislature.

Failed land speculation and lax recording of claims and deeds led to heavy indebtedness and eventually to Boone’s departure for Missouri, in what was then Spanish territory. Although Spain required those settling on their territory to be Roman Catholic the rule was ignored in Boone’s case and he became the regional syndic, or judge. When Missouri became part of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase Boone once again lost all of the lands he had acquired under Spain, since there were no recorded deeds describing the parcels.

During his lifetime Boone was a nationally known character, as a peerless hunter, a fearless explorer, and the leader of resistance to the British and their Indian Allies during the Revolutionary War. Boone himself regarded his reputation with bemusement. “With me the world has taken great liberties,” he said shortly before his death, “and yet I have been but a common man.”

Boone’s legendary status began in 1784, long before his death, when stories about him appeared in “The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon” (sic), written by a land speculator hoping to make money selling his lands in Kentucky. The book became popular in Europe; Lord Byron wrote of Boone in his epic Don Juan. His legend hasn’t begun to fade in the nearly two centuries since his death. Much of his life is shrouded in myth, the reality is every bit as amazing.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
An 1834 portrait of Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee, far removed from his buckskin clad image today. Smithsonian

David Crockett

Like Daniel Boone, David Crockett of Tennessee (he despised being called Davy) is a larger than life character whose real life accomplishments are often overcome by his myth. Crockett was another hunter of renown, making his living by killing bear in the wilds of Tennessee and Kentucky while simultaneously attempting to make a success of one farm after another. He never succeeded.

Crockett too was not the Indian fighter that history has made him out to be. He did participate in the Red Stick War against factions of the Creek Indian tribes, mostly as a scout and a courier. His service was with the Tennessee militia, and when the army and his own memory disagreed on the date of his discharge he followed his own estimation, becoming listed as deserter. During the War he served with another famous Tennessean of the era, Andrew Jackson.

Crockett later became a county judge, an elected post for which he ran a campaign which liberally disbursed corn whiskey to voters, and eventually was elected to Congress. At one point during his political career there was serious discussion of him becoming a candidate for President of the United States. Crockett was a largely ineffective congressman and his opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Relocation Bill sealed his political career, after which he famously told his former constituents, “…go to hell, I’m going to Texas.”

Like Boone, Crockett was legendary in his own lifetime, unlike Boone Crockett did all he could to promote himself. When he went to Washington he attended the theater to see a character in a show which was based on himself, he later saw similar portrayals in Philadelphia and New York. He published his autobiography to enhance his fame. After his death at the Alamo his reputation blossomed and then began to fade until by the 1940s he was all but forgotten except in Tennessee.

It was Disney that re-catapulted Crockett to fame in the 1950s and resurrected the many myths about the frontiersman. Crockett’s myth has largely outlived his real life accomplishments and failures, and most Americans today would be amazed to learn that Crockett both owned and traded in slaves during his lifetime, was a reluctant soldier, (he thought the fighting in Texas was over before he went there) and was once considered presidential material.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
The legend of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag is untrue, but she did make many other flags in the Patriot cause. Library of Congress

Betsy Ross

According to an oft repeated story, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag with 13 stars in a circle after convincing General Washington that the stars should have five points, rather than six. This has led to the long-standing belief that Betsy Ross both designed and created the American flag. The problem with this story is that although Betsy Ross was a young seamstress who made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy (each state had their own Navy at the time) there is no evidence that she was involved in the creation of the American flag.

The story connecting her to the Stars and Stripes didn’t even appear until about 1876, when it was written by her grandson. There is no other document or recorded conversation linking Washington and Ross, or linking Ross to the creation of the first flag featuring the constellation of stars. What this myth obscures is the fact the Betsy Ross was one of several seamstresses in Philadelphia who sewed flags for regimental colors and ships, as well as repaired uniforms and tents.

The myth also obscures documented evidence that Betsy Ross worked on the Grand Union Flag, which flew over the Continental Army headquarters and Cambridge during the siege of Boston. The Grand Union Flag combined the 13 red and white stripes with the Union Jack in the canton. It may be that this was the flag to which Ross’s grandson referred when he mentioned her work on the first American flag.

There is no doubt that the young Betsy Ross contributed significantly to the American war effort during the Revolutionary War, including helping to make paper cartridges for muskets and blankets for the troops, as well as signal flags and ensigns for ships.

But the story of Betsy Ross designing and making the first American flag at the behest of George Washington is part of American Folklore.