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
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.