Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack in American folklore who has long been the hero of the American logging camps. His exploits, which revolved around the tall tales of his superhuman labors, were told by the fires of bunkhouses in the northern camps from Wisconsin to Maine, from Minnesota to Oregon, to Washington and California for decades.
Customarily accompanied by Babe, the Blue Ox, his character originated in the oral traditions of North American loggers, and at one time, all lumberjacks believed or pretended to believe, that this great man really lived and was the pioneer in the lumber country. Some of the older men even claimed to have known him or members of his crew. His supposed grave is even marked in Kelliher, Minnesota. Perhaps he was a “real” man who worked as a swamper, shacker or lumberjack more skillful and more clever than average, about whose exploits grew.
After his death, his fame probably spread from camp to camp, more tales were added to those told about him, and thus, gradually, he became, in time, an exaggerated type of the lumberjack, and the hero of more exploits than he could possibly have carried out in his lifetime.
Where these tales originated is unknown, but, they were passed down from one generation of lumbermen to another for years dating well back into the early days of lumbering in the northeast. The Lumberjacks, in their slow migration westward, carried the tales freely from camp to camp into all of the lumbering states of the North and into the forests of Canada.
Bunyan stories were usually told in the evening around the fires in the bunk-houses with many of the older narrators speaking in a French-Canadian dialect, and the stories were often full of the technical jargon of the woods. Usually, the stories were told to arouse the wonder of the tenderfoot or simply as contributions in a contest in yarning. They were often of a grotesque and fabulous type, and they were all, more or less, closely related to the exploits of Bunyan and his lumbering crew. “That happened,” said the narrator, “the year I went up for Paul Bunyan. Of course, you have all heard of Paul.” And so the tale began. It was then matched by a bigger yarn, and the series grew.
Often the scene of the exploits narrated was quite fictitious, like the Round River, which was in section thirty-seven, of the Big Onion River, three weeks this side of Quebec. Often, too, the lumberjacks told of events that they said occurred on another lumbering stream than the one they are working on; thus, the men of the Flambeau camps told of the deeds of Paul Bunyan on the Wisconsin River or on the Chippewa River. Sometimes the story-tellers would take Bunyan abroad and would tell of his doings, for example, among the big trees of Oregon, or they would tell of what happened when Paul was a boy on his father’s farm. Usually, however, the tales were supposed to have occurred in the “good” days of lumbering, some forty or fifty years back when the country was new, and in localities not far from the camps in which the yarns were told.
Paul Bunyan was a powerful giant, said to have been seven feet tall and with a stride of seven feet. He was famous throughout the lumbering districts for his physical strength and for the ingenuity with which he met difficult situations. He was so powerful that no man could successfully oppose him, and his ability to get drunk was proverbial. So great was his lung capacity that he called his men to dinner by blowing through a hollow tree a blast so strong that it blew down the timber on a tract of 60 acres, and when he spoke, the limbs sometimes fell from the trees. To keep his pipe filled, required the entire time of a swamper with a scoop shovel. In the gentle art of writing, Bunyan had, however, no skill. He kept his men’s time by cutting notches in a stick of wood, and he ordered supplies for camp by drawing pictures of what he wanted. On one occasion only did his ingenuity fail; he ordered grindstones and got cheeses. “Oh,” says Paul, “I forgot to put the holes in my grindstones.”
No undertaking was too great for Paul. Lumberjacks said that he was the man who logged the timber off North Dakota. He also scooped out the hole for Lake Superior. This he used for a reservoir as he was needing water to ice his logging roads. The Mississippi River was caused by the overturning of a water tank when his ox slipped. Over the years, his legend grew to include his cousin, Tony Beaver, who cut tall timber in the forests of the South; and his brother, Pecos Bill, who reigned over the cow camps and cattle trails from Texas to beyond the Canada boundary. Kemp Morgan, a waif whom Paul adopted, dug all of the important oil wells in Texas and Oklahoma.
Bunyan was assisted in his lumbering exploits by a wonderful blue ox, a creature that had the strength of nine horses and that weighed, according to some accounts, 5000 pounds, and according to others, twice that. The ox measured from tip to tip of his horns just seven feet, exactly his master’s height. Other accounts declared that the ox was seven feet—or seven ax-handles—between his eyes, and fourteen feet between his horns. Originally he was pure white, but, one winter in the woods it snowed blue snow for seven days and Bunyan’s ox from lying out in the snow all winter became and remained a brilliant blue. Many of the Bunyan legends were connected with the feats performed by the ox. Bunyan’s method of peeling a log was as follows: He would hitch the ox to one end of the log, grasp the bark at the other end with his powerful arms, give a sharp command to the animal, and, presto, out would come the log as clean as a whistle. On one occasion Paul dragged a whole house up a hill with the help of his ox, and then, returning, he dragged the cellar up after the house. Occasionally, as might have been expected from so huge a creature, the ox got into mischief about camp. One night, for example, he broke loose and ate up two hundred feet of tow-line.
One favorite tale connected with the blue ox was that of the buckskin harness. One day old Forty Jones of Bunyan’s crew killed 200 deer by the simple process of tripping a key-log which supported a pile of logs on a hillside above the place where the animals came to drink. The skins were made into a harness for the blue ox. Some days later, while the cook was hauling a log in for firewood, it began to rain, the buckskin began to stretch, and by the time the ox reached camp the log was out of sight around a bend in the road with the tugs stretching back endlessly after it. The cook tied the ox and went to dinner. While he was eating, the sun came out boiling hot, dried the buckskin harness, and hauled the log into camp.
One tale told by a lumberjack stated: When Paul Bunyan was driving a large bunch of logs down the Wisconsin River, the logs suddenly jammed in the Dells. The logs were piled 200 feet high at the head and were backed up for one mile upriver. Paul was at the rear of the jam with the Blue Oxen and while he was coming to the front, the crew was trying to break the jam but they couldn’t budge it. When Paul arrived at the head with the ox he told them to stand back. He then put the ox in the old wise in front of the jam. Then, standing on the bank, shot the ox with a 303 Savage Rifle. The ox thought it was flies and began to switch his tail. The tail commenced to go around in a circle and up stream and, do you know, that ox switching his tail forced that stream to flow backward and eventually the jam floated back also. He took the ox out of the stream and let the stream and logs go on their way.
Most of the exploits of Paul Bunyan centered at Round River. Here, Bunyan and his crew labored all one winter to clear the pine from a single forty. This was a most peculiar forty in that it was shaped like a pyramid with a heavy timber growth on all sides. The attention of skeptics who refused to believe in the existence of the pyramid forty was certain to be called by the story-teller to a lumberman with a short leg, a member, the listener was solemnly assured, of Bunyan’s crew, who got his short leg from working all winter on one side of the pyramid, and who thus earned the nickname of “Rockin’ Horse.” From this single forty, Bunyan’s crew cleared one hundred million feet of pine, and in the spring they started it down the river. Then began the difficulty, for it was not until they had passed their old camp several times that they realized that the river was round and had no outlet whatever. According to another version this logging occurred on a lake with no outlet.
His logging crew on the Big Onion River, “the winter of the blue snow”, in about 1862 or 1865, was so large that the men were divided into three gangs. Of these, one was always going to work, one was always at work, and the third was always coming home from work. The cooking arrangements for so many men were naturally on an immense scale. Seven men with seven wheel-barrows were kept busy wheeling the prune-stones away from camp. The chipmunks ate these and grew as big as tigers. The cook-stove was so extensive that three forties had to be cleared bare each week to keep up a fire, and an entire cord of wood was needed to start a blaze. One day, as soon as the cook had put a loaf of bread into the oven he started to walk around the stove in order to remove the loaf from the other side, but, long before he reached his destination the bread had burned to a crisp. Such loaves were, of course, gigantic, —so big, in fact, that after the crew had eaten the insides out of them, the hollow crusts were used for bunk-houses, or, according to a less imaginative account, for bunks. One legend reported that the loaves were not baked in a stove at all, but, in a ravine or dried riverbed with heat provided by blazing slashings along the sides. Paul had much trouble with his cooks. He was always having to hire new ones. One got lost between the potato bin and the flour bin and nearly starved to death before he was found. The horn which Paul or the cook used to call the men to dinner was so big that it once blew down ten acres.
The next time the cook blew it straight up and that caused a cyclone. The dining room was so large that when a man told a yarn at one end it grew so big by the time it reached the other that it had to be shoveled out. Doughnuts were carried from the kitchen by two men on poles which they carried on their shoulders. Sometimes they were rolled down the length of the tables, the men catching them as they went by. Big Ole, the blacksmith, cut the holes in them with a punch and sledge. Big Ole was Paul’s blacksmith at the Big Onion camp. He was a very powerful man and when he struck his anvil the ring of the metal, it could be heard in the next county. He alone could shoe Babe, the ox, single handed. Once he carried two of his shoe’s for a mile and sunk knee deep in the solid rock at every step. Every time the ox was shod a new iron mine had to be opened up.
Such a stove as Bunyan’s demanded, of course, a pancake griddle of monstrous size. As a matter of fact, Bunyan’s cook, Joe Mufferon, used the entire top of the stove for a griddle and greased it every morning by strapping hams to the feet of his assistant cooks and obliging them to skate about on it for an hour or so. Of this famous tale, there were several versions. According to one, the cook mixed his batter in a sort of concrete-mixer on the roof of the cook-shanty and spread it upon the stove by means of a connecting hose. A version from Oregon shows the influence of local conditions upon the Bunyan tales; from this version, we learn that 200 Japanese cooks with bacon-rinds or bear-steak strapped to their feet skated upon the stove before the cook spread his batter. In a Minnesota version, Bunyan employs his 24 daughters for the same menial task. By mistake one day the nearsighted cook put into the batter several fingers of blasting-powder instead of baking-powder, and when the mixture was spread upon the griddle, the cooks made a very rapid ascent through the cook-shanty roof and never returned to camp.
Paul Bunyan’s ingenuity in keeping his men supplied with food and drink appears best in the pea-soup lake story, of which, there were several versions, and in the wondrous tale of the camp distillery. Near the Round River camp was a hot spring, into which the tote-teamster, returning one day from town with a load of peas, dumped the whole load by accident. Most men would have regarded the peas as a dead loss, but not so Paul. He promptly added the proper amount of pepper and salt to the mixture and had enough hot pea-soup to last the crew all winter. When his men were working too far away from camp to return to dinner, he got the soup to them by freezing it upon the ends of sticks and sending it in that shape. According to another version, Paul deliberately made the pea-soup; he dumped the peas into a small lake and heated the mess by firing the slashings around the shore. In a Wisconsin-ized version of the Michigan tale, the peas have become, for some reason, beans. A much-exaggerated version of this story comes from northern Wisconsin. According to this account, the tote-teamster was driving across a frozen lake when a sudden thaw overtook him. The teamster saved himself, but the ox was drowned. Bunyan dammed up the lake, fired the slashings around the shore, and then, opening the dam, sluiced down the river to his laboring crew an abundance of excellent hot pea-soup with ox-tail flavor.
The legend of the establishment of the camp distillery was one of the most entertaining of the Bunyan tales. Paul had trouble in keeping any liquor in camp because the men sent to town for it drank it all up on the way back. The following is Mr. Douglas Malloch’s versified account of how he solved the difficulty:
“One day the bull-cook parin’ spuds
He hears a sizzlin’ in the suds
And finds the peelin’s, strange to say,
Are all fermentin’ where they lay.
Now Sour-face Murphy in the door
Was standin’. And the face he wore
Convinced the first assistant cook
That Murphy soured ’em with his look.
And when he had the peelin’s drained
A quart of Irish booze remained.
The bull-cook tells the tale to Paul
And Paul takes Murphy off the haul
And gives him, very willingly,
A job as camp distillery.”
Some of the tales of the camp exploits concern members of Paul Bunyan’s crew rather than the hero himself. One of the men, for example, had two sets of teeth, and, walking in his sleep one night, he encountered the grind-stone and chewed it to bits before he was fully aroused to what he was doing. In the adventure of another member of the crew, is the familiar tale of the man who jumped across the river in three jumps. The crew sometimes showed ingenuity on their own account as when they rolled boulders down the steep sides of the pyramid forty, and running after them ground their axes to a razor edge against the revolving stones. Big Joe Mufferon, the boss cook was a very talented man. With his caulked boots he could kick his initials into a ceiling eight feet high with one foot and wipe them out as fast as he kicked them in with the other. Next to Paul himself Shot Gunderson was the best log spinner in the camp. Taking a 75 foot log he could spin it so fast with his feet that the log slid out of the bark and he walked ashore on the bubbles. Paul’s camp clerk was Johnny Inkslinger, a very efficient man. He kept the time of the crews, paid the men, purchased supplies, tended the camp stove, and performed many other duties that fall to the lot of a camp clerk. The first winter that he was so employed he hit on the plan of leaving off the dots from the i’s and the crosses from the t’s, and thus saved Paul nine barrels of ink on the payroll alone. In his spare moments Johnny surveyed the whole United States. It was he who invented the fountain pen by attaching a hose to a barrel of ink.
Lucy was Paul’s cow, she supplied what milk and butter there was in his camps. One winter when there was a shortage of pasture Lucy started to eat spruce and balsam boughs. Then the men used her milk as cough syrup. The butter that was made from it was so tough that Paul used it to grease his tote roads. This enabled him to haul logs all summer. Paul had a little hunting dog called Elmer. One night lie thought that he heard a rat in the shanty. He flung an axe and cut his favorite dog in two. But, then he got up and .stitched the dog together again. This was done in the dark and he got the hind end of the dog the wrong way with the legs pointing up instead of down. When Elmer got well he was one of the smartest dogs in the north woods. He could catch any animal in the bush. He would run on one pair of legs until he was tired, then turn over and use the other pair.
When Paul was cutting big timber in the St. Croix River region his men were harassed by the mosquitoes. These were so large and strong that they carried away and devoured many a juicy lumberjack. Paul would have lost all of his crew had not someone told him of a race of big bumblebees down in the Gulf Country. He sent Jim Liverpool down to get some of them. Jim jumped all of the big and little rivers on the way and returned in record time. The bumblebees and the mosquitoes began to fight each other and many bloody battles occurred. After a time the two declared a truce. They became friends and intermarried. The offspring were far worse than either parent. They were armed with stingers at both ends. But Paul had finished his work and moved his camp to Minnesota.
Connected very frequently with the Bunyan tales were accounts of fabulous animals that haunted the camp. There was the bird who laid square eggs so that they would not roll down hill, and hatched them in the snow. Then there was the side-hill dodger, a curious animal naturally adapted to life on a hill by virtue of the circumstance that it has two short legs on the up-hill side. Of this creature, it was said that by mistake, the female dodger once laid her eggs wrong end around, with the terrible result that the little dodgers, hatching out with their short legs down hill, rolled into the river and drowned. The pinnacle grouse are birds with only one wing, adapted by this defect for flight in one direction about the top of a conical hill. There was little doubt that these animal stories existed outside the Bunyan cycle, and were simply appended to the central group of tales.
The story of Bunyan’s method of paying off his crew at the end of the season shows the hero’s craftiness. Discovering in the spring that he had no money on hand, Bunyan suddenly rushed into camp shouting that they had been cutting government pine and were all to be arrested. Each man thereupon seized what camp property lay nearest his hand and made off, no two men taking the same direction. Thus Bunyan cleared his camp without paying his men a cent for their labor.
Not all of the Bunyan stories were concerned with Bunyan’s life in the Round River or the Big Onion camps. There were several accounts of his exploits far from the forests of the north-central states. It was said that when he was once dredging out the Columbia River, he broke the dredge, and, sticking it into his pocket, walked to the nearest blacksmith shop in South Dakota, had it repaired, and returned to the Oregon camp before dark. Besides his blue ox, Bunyan had, according to some versions, so many oxen that their yokes, piled up, made twenty cords of wood. One day he drove all of these animals through a hollow tree which had fallen across a great ravine. When he reached the other side, he found that several of the oxen had disappeared, and, returning, he discovered that they had strayed into a hollow limb. Occasionally one would hear some account of Paul Bunyan’s boyhood exploits on his father’s farm. It was said that, on one occasion, he and his father went out to gather a huge watermelon which was growing on a side-hill above a railroad track. They carelessly forgot to prop the melon up before they severed the stem with a cross-cut saw, and as a result, it broke loose, rolled downhill, burst open on striking the rails, and washed out 200 feet of track.
Paul Bunyan’s folklore character originated in the oral tradition of North American loggers and was later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company. Throughout the better part of the century, Paul Bunyan’s name and image continued to be utilized in promoting various products, cities, and services. He has also been the subject of various literary compositions, musical pieces, commercial works, and theatrical productions. Today his likeness is displayed in several oversized statues across the country. A significant portion of these were produced from the 1960s thru the 1970s by the company International Fiberglass as part of their “Muffler Men” series of giant, fiberglass sculptures.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2017.
Primarily adapted from several versions of American Folk Lore – Paul Bunyan Tales, written in several editions by Charles E. Brown of the State Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Stewart, K. Bernice and Watt, Homer A.; Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, Volume 18, Part 2, Madison, WI, 1916