Thursday, May 18, 2017

PAUL BUNYAN: Fact or Fiction? The Answer May Surprise You! by Sarah J. McNeal

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:


  1. I didn't realize he was based on two men. But I can imagine the crazy tales spun about a large lumberjack. A big thank you to James MacGillivray for penning the legend and preserving it forever.

    1. E., I was surprised to find Paul Bunyan was based upon real men. I thought it was just a myth passed down through time--a tall tale told for enjoyment around a campfire.
      I want to thank you for dropping in and commenting. You must get up at the crack of dawn. ha ha

  2. I certainly never knew most of this post about the myth of Paul Bunyan. Everyone's heard about him and his blue ox Babe, but few knew anything past that--like me.
    I do enjoy a mythical character who might have been patterned after a real man..or two? Interesting.
    I enjoyed this one!

    1. Celia, I didn't know most of this either until I researched it. I wanted to write a post that was light-hearted and fun and I love these old legends and myths from the west. Honestly, I was surprised to learn there was some truth to the legend of Paul Bunyan. I thought it was pure mythology when I started my research. I didn't find anything on Babe the Blue Ox though.
      Thank you so much for all your support, Celia. I can always count on you and it's always wonderful to see what you have to say.

  3. Congrats, Sarah, on an unusual and very entertaining blog. Hadn't thought about that childhood legend in decades! I'm curious to know what brought you to wonder and research 'ol Paul Bunyan? LOL

    1. Cheri, I just enjoy old legends and myths from our history. I am so surprised sometimes to learn they are based on real people or real situations. A while back I wrote about Johnny Appleseed. I thought that was just a legend, too.
      I also like it when other authors blog about fun things and interesting bits.
      I worry about blogs especially for Sweethearts because it has to be old west history. Since I'm a south easterner, I have to struggle sometimes to come up with something interesting or entertaining that the rest of the authors who live out west don't already know. It's a challenge for me, so thanks for finding this blog entertaining. I appreciate you coming by.

  4. Fun post, Sarah! Growing up in Minnesota, I naturally heard and read tall tales about Paul Bunyan and Babe, as well as other legendary characters like Pecos Bill. However, I did not know about the real people the tales are based on. Thanks for sharing your research into these fantastical heroes!

  5. I didn't realize you grew up in Minnesota, Lyn. Brrr...those are some cold winters there.
    I was surprised too, that Paul Bunyan was based are 2 real men.
    Thank you so much for coming. It's always so nice to see you.

  6. We have a Paul Bunyan Shanty restaurant up the road in Minocqua, Wisconsin. It's awesome with the huge statue of Paul and his blue ox out front. I did research here in Tomahawk, WI, and the books here say that he originated in stories told around the campfire here and went on to Minnesota. I found a book with lots of his tales in it and they are awesome. I have a feeling some alcohol of some kind helped exaggerated his reputation. We love the man around here and I have mentioned him in a few of my stories. :) great post.

    1. I'll have to look up Minocqua, Wisconsin. I guess there are many stories from different Midwest states about Paul Bunyan and where he originated.
      I love these old stories. I find it amazing how many of them start off in some real person or situation. Fascinatin'.
      Thank you so much for coming by and adding your kind comments, Paisley.

  7. I liked reading your story. One thing the average man at that time, as defined by Civil War veteran record's was 5'8 (Robert E. Lee was 6'0 feet tall) so that height while not the norm, was not uncommon.

  8. It could be that doing good deeds or showing great courage made a person appear larger than the average.
    I'm unable to thank you by your name for coming because your post is labeled "unknown", but I DO thank you for coming and commenting just the same.


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