Paul Bunyan

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Paul Bunyan in Akeley, Minnesota.

Paul Bunyan is a lumberjack figure in North American folklore and tradition. One of the most famous and popular North American folklore heroes, he is usually described as a giant as well as a lumberjack of unusual skill, and is often accompanied in stories by his animal companion, Babe the Blue Ox. The red-and-black "buffalo plaid" shirt he wears is actually a MacGregor tartan.[1]

The character originated in folktales circulated among lumberjacks in the Northeastern United States of America and eastern Canada, first appearing in print in a story published by Northern Michigan journalist James MacGillivray in 1906. The stories then found widespread popularity after being reworked by William Laughead for a logging company's advertising campaign beginning in 1914. The 1922 edition of Laughead's tales inspired many others, and the character thereafter became widely known across the United States and Canada. As Bunyan's popularity came only after the stories appeared in print, some commentators consider him an inauthentic "fakelore" character.[2]


The National Register of Historic Places-listed Paul Bunyan Statue in Portland, Oregon.

According to writer James Stevens in his 1925 book Paul Bunyan, French Canadians gave birth to the tales during the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, when they revolted against the young English Queen.[3]

Much of the Paul Bunyan legend, and specifically the idea of Bunyan as a giant lumberjack with a giant blue ox sidekick, was created in the 20th century for an advertising campaign. Although it is claimed in some sources that "there is no documentary evidence of any Paul Bunyan story being told before James MacGillivray's story 'The Round River Drive,' published in 1910," [4] MacGillivray had published some stories in the Oscoda, Michigan, Press on August 10, 1906, and Governor of Michigan Jennifer M. Granholm proclaimed the centennial of that date as "Paul Bunyan Day".[5]

MacGillivray's story does not suggest that Paul Bunyan was a giant and contains no mention of a blue ox companion.[6] But J.E. Rockwell had written about lumberjack tales of Paul Bunyan, and mentioned the (unnamed) blue ox in the February 1910 issue of the magazine The Outer's Book. According to one tale noted by Rockwell, Bunyan was "eight feet tall and weighed 300 pounds."[7] Historian Carleton C. Ames (whose son Aldrich Ames would later become a notorious spy)[8] claimed in a 1940 article[4] that Paul Bunyan was a 20th-century invention rather than a 19th-century lumber camp folk hero.[9] William Laughead, an advertising copywriter who had once worked in lumber camps, took the stories of an old lumberjack and reworked them into the modern character. He sold his character to the Red River Lumber Company, which published "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California" in 1916 as an advertising pamphlet.[10] Among other things, Laughead gave the name "Babe" to the blue ox, originated the idea that Paul Bunyan and Babe were of enormous size, and created the first pictorial representation of Bunyan. Authors Richard Dorson and Marshall Fitwick cite Paul Bunyan as an example of "fakelore", or a modern story passed off as an older folktale.[11][12]


Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine

Bunyan's birth was somewhat unusual, as are the births of many mythic heroes, as it took five storks to carry the infant (ordinarily, one stork could carry several babies and drop them off at their parents' homes). When he was old enough to clap and laugh, the vibration broke every window in the house. When he was seven months old, he sawed the legs off his parents' bed in the middle of the night.[13] Paul and his companion Babe the Blue Ox dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. He created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of his campfire to put it out.

Babe the Blue Ox, Bunyan's companion, was a massive creature with exceptional strength.[14] Most imagery of Bunyan shows Babe the Blue Ox as of proportionate size (meaning massive compared to typical oxen). Among other subjects, a myth about the formation of Great Lakes was centered around Babe: Paul Bunyan needed to create a watering hole large enough for Babe to drink from.[10] There are also stories that Minnesota's 10,000 lakes were formed by Paul and Babe's footprints while they wandered blindly in a deep blizzard. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were said to have given Babe to Paul, because they were all woodsy pioneer types.

Paul Bunyan has dozens of towns vying to be considered his home. Several authors, including James Stevens and D. Laurence Rogers, have traced the tales to the exploits of French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier (1845–1875). From 1865 to 1875 Fournier worked for the H. M. Loud Company in the Grayling, Michigan area, where MacGillivray later worked and apparently picked up the stories.

The state of Michigan declared Oscoda, Michigan, as the official home of Paul Bunyan because it had the earliest documented published stories by MacGillivray. Other towns such as Bemidji, Brainerd, Shelton, and Westwood; Bay City; Wahoo; Eau Claire; and even Bangor also claim the title.

Kelliher, Minnesota, is the home of Paul Bunyan Memorial Park, which contains a site purporting to be Paul Bunyan's grave. Another legend claims that Rib Mountain in Wausau, Wisconsin, is Bunyan's grave site.

The Paul Bunyan Council of the Boy Scouts of America was active in Midland, Michigan, from 1951 to 1971 and two Order of the Arrow lodges have their original roots tied into the fable of Paul Bunyan. OA Lodge 196, Mesabi, from Hibbing, Minnesota, used Paul Bunyan as its lodge totem from 1941 to 1995. OA Lodge 26, Blue Ox, from Rochester, Minnesota, has used the Blue Ox (Babe) exclusively as its lodge totem and on nearly all patches and neckerchiefs since 1927.

Popular culture[edit]

The Paul Bunyan statue features briefly in the Coen Brothers classic film Fargo

Tourist attractions[edit]

30-foot (9 m) tall statue of Babe the Blue Ox at Trees of Mystery, Klamath, California.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "Buffalo Plaid's 100-year old Mysteries Finally Solved".
  2. ^ Legendary landscapes: A cultural ... - John Patrick Harty, Kansas State University. Department of Geography - Google Books. 1939-03-23. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  3. ^ "Legends of Paul Bunyan". 2008-06-28. Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  4. ^ a b Cecil Adams (2002-05-10). "Cecil Adams column". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  5. ^ "Office of the Governor of Michigan". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  6. ^ "The Round River Drive", original MacGillivray story
  7. ^ "Some Lumberjack Myths", by J. E. Rockwell, The Outer’s Book (February 1910), pp157-160
  8. ^ "Spy Museum biography". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  9. ^ "Ames article" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  10. ^ a b "Complete Laughead pamphlet". 1924-06-30. Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  11. ^ Fitwick, Marshall. Probing popular culture on and off the Internet. Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-7890-2133-1, ISBN 978-0-7890-2133-5, p. 114-118
  12. ^ Dorson, Richard. American Folklore. University of Chicago Press, 1977, ISBN 0-226-15859-4, ISBN 978-0-226-15859-4, p. 216-226
  13. ^ Stoutenburg, Adrien, American Tall Tales, Puffin Books, New York, 1976
  14. ^ Story posted by schlsa on July 6, 2010 05:15 PM (2010-07-06). "Babe the Blue Ox: From Paul Bunyan at". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  15. ^ "Klamath tourist attraction loses its head - Times-Standard Online". Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  16. ^ "Oscoda Press on Paul Bunyan designation". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  17. ^ "Roadside attractions, Ossineke, Michigan Babe and Paul Bunyan". 2005-05-22. Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  18. ^ "Center for Puppetry Arts - Performances". Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  19. ^ Dave Hoekstra (June 4, 2012). "Hot dog merchant who brought giant Paul Bunyan statue to Route 66 dead at 89". Chicago Sun-Times. 

External links[edit]