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

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

Larry Holzwarth - December 5, 2017

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.

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