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.