“Paul Bunyan”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1941 (Beck)
Keywords: lumbering humorous recitation talltale logger
Found in: US(MW)


Recitation. Singer works Paul Bunyan's camp, where everything is done on a grand scale (e.g. the pancakes are turned with a sidehill plow). Bunyan, needing a river to run his logs, has his huge ox plow the Big Manistee. Bunyan retires when the ox dies.


Paul Bunyan is sometimes derided as a phony folk-hero, and he's certainly been heavily commercialized, but Beck makes clear that these were genuine folk tales.- PJS

This is a complicated question, and I will admit to having doubts -- including questions about Beck's credibility, because he seems to be the only person who actually collected Bunyan poems, and he has no fewer than five different recitations.

The first certain reference to Paul Bunyan is unquestionably literary. Norman K. Risjord, in _A Popular History of Minnesota_, p. 143, reports that "Paul Bunyan was popularized by a Detroit, Michigan, journalist, James McGillivray, who wrote a story for the Detroit _News-Tribune_ on July 24, 1910 about a heroic lumberjack of immense size and strength." Similarly, Walker D. Wyman, _Wisconsin Folklore_, University of Wisconsin Extension (?), 1979, p. 4, says that "The name on Bunyan appears for the first time in 1910 in the _Detroit Evening News,_, in the poem 'Round River Drive' by James McGillivray. Four years later Douglas McMallock rewrote the McGillivray story for the _American Lumberman_." A series of pamphlets and books followed in the 1920s, the most notable being _Paul Bunyan_ by James Stevens (yes, that James Stevens), and eventually a Minnesota lumber company picked him up as a mascot.

There seems to be no evidence whatsoever that any of these stories were collected from loggers or based on lumbermen's tales, except for what Stevens states in his preface. In the second edition of _Paul Bunyan_ (1947; I use the 1975 Western Americana edition), p. ix, Stevens states, "The Paul Bunyan legend had its origin in the Papineau rebellion of 1837. This was a revolt of the French-Canadians against their young English queen. [Victoria, who ascended in 1837.] ... Among [the rebels] was a mighty-muscled, bellicose, bearded giant named Paul Bunyan.... [He] raged among the Queen's troops like Sampson among the Philistines."

Bunyan, of course, is not a French name, but Walter Havinghurt, _Upper Mississippi: A Wilderness Saga_, a volume in the Rivers of America series (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937, 1944), p. 236, says that he was originally "Paul Bonhomme of the Two Mountain Country," and claims the stories were first told in the New Brunswick area. He cites no sources.

The Papineau rebellions were real; Louis J. Papineau struggled for decades to improve the political position of the residents of Quebec. J. Bartlet Brebner, _Canada, A Modern History_ (with a final chapter by Donald C. Masters), University of Michigan Press, 1960, p. 220, notes that there had been bad harvests in 1836 and 1837, and the combination of hunger and rejection of their political demands led to uprisings. But Brebner adds that the "half-dozen skirmishes and pitched battles of November and December were pitiable, tragic affairs in which half-armed farmers faced regulars backed by artillery, and, after their defeats, saw their illages and farmsteads looted and burned by uncontrollable, vengeful volunteers."

There is no mention at all of a second Sampson.

Stevens, interestingly, admits that he got most of his stories from Louis Letourneau and his family, who came from Washington state (Stevens, p. x). There seem to be no evidence of a heroic figure in the records of eastern lumber camps.

Wyman mentions that some of the people he talked to knew of a "big man" named "Joe Mouffreau." Stevens, p. xi, says that the name (which he spells Muphraw) is a variant of Murphy, and claims that he worked in Quebec some time after 1875. Stevens admits that the two legends may have combined, but claims that Paul Bunyan stories were in circulation by 1860. On p. xvii, he states that "I must have known some [of the Bunyan stories] before 1910, but it was not until then that I heard a gifted and experienced bunkhouse bard give a genuine Paul Bunyan service."

One wonders who this bard might have been. I find it highly interesting that Rickaby has no songs about Paul Bunyan. Neither does Doerflinger. Nor Fowke.

Stevens, in his second edition (p. xvi), acknowledges that the Paul Bunyan stories have come under attack, listing Stuart Sherman and Ben Botkin as those doubting their veracity. But he denies that the attacks have been successful.

Agnes M. Larson, in surveying lumbermen for a history of white pine logging published in the 1940s, found that none of them knew about Paul (see William E. Lass, _Minnesota: A History_Norton, 1983, p. 152). Similarly, Wyman apparently had students look for traces of Paul Bunyan among loggers. and found some who thought they had heard of him in lumber camps, but many more claimed never to have heard of him there.

Theodore Blegen's massive tome _Minnesota: A History of the State_, University of Minnesota Press, 1963, written by Minnesota's best historian who was also something of a folklorist, says on page 335, "Paul Bunyan has been presented as a myth, a folk tale, drawn from oral tradition in the lumber camps.... The stories have had wide circulation.... But there is scarcely a shred of evidence that the lumberjacks were familiar with Paul Bunyan, told stories about him, or indeed had ever heard of him.... The present author interviewed a lumberjack of rich experience in the 1920as, Wright T. Orcutt, who had written about lumberjacks and woods lore, and he had never heard a Bunyan story in the woods. And the Forest History Society in its far-ranging investigations of the sources for woods history has unearthed no evidence that Paul Bunyan was the subject of bunkhouse tales."

Jamie Moreira reports that Sandy Ives found no Paul Bunyan tales at all among his New England informants. He also reports on a student collector who had the same experience.

Richard M. Dorson had a very critical appraisal of the legends in his book _American Folklore_; he includes Paul Bunyan as one of his key examples of "fakelore." Duncan Emrich, _Folklore on the American Land_, p. ix, says explicitly that the stories of Paul Bunyan "are not folktales."

A pretty massive collection of authorities; I would be loathe to argue with them.

On the other hand, Bunyan's place in Minnesota's urban folklore seems clear -- you can hear screams all the way to Saint Paul any time anyone messes with a Paul Bunyan monument.

Terri Hardin, editor, _A Treasure of American Folklore_, Barnes & Noble, 1994, p. 296, says "The legends of Paul Bunyan are widely distributed throughout the lumber camps of the North," and claims to have assembled a batch of materials from 1916 -- though the book seems to use only one source, which looks secondary to me.

Beck, collecting primarily in Michigan, gathered enough material to make a Paul Bunyan book, and to have some material left over for other collections. (In this context, it's interesting to note that Gardner and Chickering, who gathered much Michigan logging material, do not seem to have found any Paul Bunyan material.)

Norm Cohen cites the following from Leach's Standard Dictionary of Folklore: "As far as can be determined, the legend originated in Canada during the [nineteenth] century, and was considerably amplified as it spread west and south with the lumber industry, centering in the Lake states and the Northwest. In the course of his migration Paul Bunyan incorporated elements of local heroes like Jigger Jones (Johnson), Joe Mufraw, and Jean Frechette, whom he supplanted."

Cohen himself concluded, "He first appeared in print in stories published by James MacGillivray in 1910, but oral tales from lumbermen in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the Northwest circulated considerably earlier.... Paul was first introduced to a general audience by W.B. Laughead, a Minnesota advertising man, in a series of pamphlets (1914-44) used to publicize the products of the Red River Lumber Company.... James Stevens, also a lumber publicist, mixed tradition and invention in his version of the story, _Paul Bunyan_(1925). Along the way, the Bunyan stories took on the character of lying contests -- who could tell the biggest whopper about the good-natured Paul."

Cohen adds, in a message to the Ballad-L mailing list, "In a letter to Louise Pound (SFQ 7) Laughead states that he began with what he 'remembered from Minnesota logging camps (1900-1908)...then picked up odds and ends from letters received....'"

Although, as noted above, Edith Fowke found no Bunyan songs, Jamie Moreira points to her published report, "In Defence of Paul Bunyan" (New York Folklore 5, 1979, 43-52), which says that there were nineteenth century folktales about him.

Jonathan Lighter reports a speculation of Gershon Legman that Bunyan began as a figure of erotic folklore (which obviously would explain why he wasn't cited in the earlier collections). Legman on p. 227 of _The Horn Book_ says that Bunyan was "an upstart in folklore, but folklore nevertheless" (though without explaining or justifying the statement).

I guess I'll have to leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. - RBW.

Cross references


  1. Beck 96, "Paul Bunyan" (1 text)
  2. Roud #8874
  3. BI, Be096