Is Paul Bunyan a fraud?

May 10, 2002

Dear Cecil:

Everyone has heard the great American folk legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox. But I have heard that Paul Bunyan is nothing more than the invention of a lumber company--a corporate logo no more mythological than Mr. Clean or the Pillsbury Doughboy. I've tried searching this on the Internet, and I've found some sites that claim that the Red River Lumber Company did indeed create the character, whereas others say the company just took the legend and used it in their ads. You seem to be the man who knows his stuff, and I figure if anyone can come up with a definitive answer to this question it's you.

The Paul Bunyan tales have been described as "fakelore"--"a slender vein of oral anecdote" embellished by copywriters for low commercial ends. That's putting it a little harshly; the stories are a cut above the usual promotional puffery. Still, there's no denying the truth: Most of the Paul Bunyan yarns, commonly thought of as tall tales spun by loggers during winter evenings in the north woods, were actually the work of inspired hacks.

The first Paul Bunyan story to appear in print was "The Round River Drive" (research kindly contributed by Straight Dope Science Advisory Board member bibliophage). In it Paul and the other lumberjacks try to float logs to the sawmill, only to realize after the scenery starts to repeat itself that the river they're using is circular. In 1910 the Detroit News-Tribune published a version of this tale by James MacGillivray, who'd heard it while working at a lumber camp in Michigan a few years earlier. MacGillivray coauthored a versified version that appeared in American Lumberman magazine in 1914.

That same year William B. Laughead wrote and illustrated Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California, the first in a series of Paul Bunyan advertising pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company. The firm was headquartered in Minneapolis but by then had moved most of its logging operations to the west coast. Some of the stories in the pamphlet were based on Bunyan tales Laughead had heard a decade earlier in a lumber camp near Bemidji, Minnesota. A few were based on other logging yarns or Laughead's own experiences, presumably exaggerated. Laughead is credited with naming Babe the blue ox and Johnny Inkslinger, the clerk who has an ink hose connected to his pen.

The first two Paul Bunyan pamphlets in 1914 and 1916 enjoyed only modest success, but the third in 1922 was a hit and brought the giant lumberjack international fame. Additional Bunyan pamphlets appeared sporadically until the company went out of business in the 1940s. Red River trademarked a Paul Bunyan image described as looking like "Shirley Temple with a mustache." But neither it nor Laughead ever copyrighted the stories, which were distributed for free.

Other writers also contributed Bunyan stories. Two collections appeared in 1916, one presenting tales gathered from loggers in five states and British Columbia, the other stories from Oregon. Esther Shephard published a collection in 1924; James Stevens released another in 1925, when Bunyan and Babe were at the height of their fame. Stevens's stories are among the best known in the genre but probably the least faithful to the oral tradition. One big change: what were surely ribald tales in the original telling had morphed by the mid-1920s into stories for kids.

Scholars have long debated the authenticity of the Bunyan tales. In his 1940 article "Paul Bunyan, Myth or Hoax?" Carleton C. Ames argued that there was little evidence the stories were widely told among loggers before appearing in print. However, interviews with retired lumberjacks turned up good evidence that Paul Bunyan stories had circulated at logging camps in the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s and '90s and possibly earlier. The name Bunyan may derive from Bon Jean, a trickster in French Canadian folklore also known as Ti Jean or Petit Jean. But that seems doubtful--for one thing, Petit Jean is petite.

What does seem clear is that much of the Paul Bunyan legend was invented by writers who were paid to do so. That may offend the sensibilities of some folklore experts. But speaking on behalf of the underpaid scribblers of the world, I say good for them.

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