The Rise of the Great American Folk Hero

By | January 3, 2019

test article image
Illustration of Davy Crockett killing a bear, circa 1800s. Source: (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Without radio and television to keep them entertained, people of the 1800s told stories. And like the telephone game we all played as kids, each person retelling a story added their own embellishments to it. Most of these stories had to do with brave, independent men and women – some real, some fictional -- who were able to conquer their unknown and dangerous surroundings using only their wit and brawn. Over time, some of the better-loved folk characters became part of our culture and stories and tales about them grew. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorite American folk heroes. 

test article image
Source: (

John Henry

An African-American folktale tells of a baby boy named John Henry who was born with a hammer in his hand. The lad grew fast and strong and had a habit of hammering everything around. So large and robust was the boy that by age ten, he could no longer stand upright in his house. He left home to work on the railroad, hammering steel until his biceps were the size of logs. According to the legend of John Henry, a man showed up with a steam-powered machine that he claimed could hammer the steel railroad spiked faster than any man, including John Henry. The folk hero accepted the challenge. Man and machine battled it out, driving the steel at a furious rate. In the end, John Henry bested the machine, but it took a toll. His massive heart gave out and he died at the finish line, with a hammer in his hand. Although John Henry is a fictional character, we do know that a railroad battle between man and machine did take place, just like the legend says.