Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox
Most of us have heard of Paul Bunyan from our childhoods. There was that delightful Disney movie about the giant lumberjack and Babe his blue ox and how they made the Rocky Mountains when they wrestled with each other one day. Just like a baseball player sliding into home base, they slide and pushed until they kicked up some dirt. That dirt piled up until they created those big ol’ mountains from their play. It was said one drag of the mighty lumberjack’s massive ax created the Grand Canyon, while the giant footprints of his trusty companion, Babe the Blue Ox, filled with water and became Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.
But here is my question: was Paul Bunyan an exaggerated version of some real man that grew into a legend, or was Paul just a myth someone made up in their head and told often enough around the loggers’ campfires to imprint in the minds of others. He certainly makes for good story telling especially after a hard day’s work.Let’s just start at the beginning of this imaginative story. Legend has it that Paul Bunyan was delivered to his parents in Bangor, Maine by five storks (since he was already too big for one stork to handle). At some point he traveled to the west into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond accompanied by his gigantic companion, Babe, the blue ox. All along the way they had fantastic adventures, made some mountains and created some lakes among other things. Pretty unbelievable I would say.
However, some historians believe Bunyan may have been an actual lumberjack named Fabian Fournier, a French-Canadian timberman who moved south and got a job as foreman of a logging crew in Michigan after the Civil War. At a time when most men were barely five feet tall, Fournier had a six foot frame with huge hands. Fournier went by the nickname “Saginaw Joe.” It was believed he had two complete sets of teeth, which he used to bite off hunks of wooden rails, and in his spare time enjoyed drinking and brawling. One November night in 1875, Fournier was murdered in a notoriously rowdy lumber town of Bay City, Michigan. His death, and the sensational trial of his alleged killer (who was acquitted), fueled tales of Saginaw Joe’s rough-and-tumble life—and his lumbering prowess—in logging camps in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and many others.
The Statues of Paul Bunyan & Babe, the blue ox, in Bemidji, Minnesota
Over time, Fournier’s legend merged with that of another French-Canadian lumberman, Bon Jean. Jean had played a prominent role in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, when loggers and other working men in St. Eustache, Canada, revolted against the British regime of the newly crowned Queen Victoria. The French pronunciation of Jean’s full name is believed to have evolved into the surname Bunyan.
Like any gathering of fishermen or hunters, the stories grew a little with each retelling. A mythical logging camp was created for Paul as well as a host of loggers to work in the camp. Paul became an inventor, an orator and even a diplomat, all rolled into one. It seemed the more impossible the job became, the more it became a job for Paul Bunyan—the logger who could do it all!
By the late 1880's and early 1890's, the Paul Bunyan Tales had spread to most of the logging camps in North America. Paul had finally reached legendary status, at least in the logging camps. Yet among the general public, Paul Bunyan was almost unheard of.
The first Paul Bunyan story, “Round River,” made it into print in 1906, penned by journalist James MacGillivray for a local newspaper in Oscoda, Michigan. In 1912, MacGillivray collaborated with a poet on a Bunyan-themed poem for American Lumberman magazine, earning Paul Bunyan his first national exposure. Two years later, an ad campaign for Minnesota’s Red River Lumber Company featured the first illustrations of the larger-than-life lumberjack. Combined with pamphlets spinning the tales of his exploits, his prominent appearance as Red River’s mascot would help turn Paul Bunyan into a household name—and an enduring American icon.
Disney's Paul Bunyan and Babe
Walt Disney further heightened Paul Bunyan’s fame when he made the animated movie about him back when I was a child. Even now, there is a statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue ox that stands in Bemidji, Minnesota built in 1937. When my sister did a travel nurse assignment there some years ago, she brought back gifts she bought there. My gift was Christmas ornaments of Paul and Babe.
Whether Paul Bunyan was real or not, I think it’s wonderful to have these legendary characters from our culture who can perform fantastic feats with bravery and kindness.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: