The Rise of the Great American Folk Hero
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.
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.
Davy Crockett was a real person. He trapped and hunted the backwoods of Tennessee and Kentucky in the early 1800s, wearing his signature coon-skin hat. During his 1827 campaign for Congress, Crockett used comic exaggerations of life in the frontier to get his points across. Crockett’s status as an American hero was cemented when he died defending the Alamo in 1936. After his death, several short, paperback books were written about Crockett’s life, but they were mostly ridiculous exaggerations and tall tales that were told in a clever and comedic way. These booklets helped to elevate Crockett from a real-life person to a folk hero.
Myths and legends about Paul Bunyon may have started with French-Canadian lumberjacks around the Great Lakes, but his enormous size and power grew tremendously throughout the 1800s. Many of the natural geological features in the United States were said to be created by Paul Bunyon. For example, he scooped out the Great Lakes to give his companion, Babe the Big Blue Ox, fresh drinking water. The vast, treeless prairies of the Great Plains were said to be bare of trees because Paul Bunyon chopped them all down. His footprints created the thousands of lakes that dot Minnesota. Despite his great size and strength, Paul Bunyon was a kind and gentle man who tried to help pioneers and settlers.
The legend of Casey Jones was based on a real person, John Luther Jones, who worked as a telegraph operator in Cayce, Kentucky. When he took a job as a train conductor, Jones had a need for speed. In 1900, he was running his train at full speed when he spied an oncoming train. In the face of danger, Jones had the foresight to use one hand to pull the break and the other hand to pull the warning whistle. Unfortunately, Jones died in the train wreck. A folk song about him, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” introduced his story to the rest of the country. From there, tales of his heroic feats grew wilder and more hair-raising.
The real Johnny Appleseed was a wandering vegetarian animal lover named John Chapman who had a vision of creating apple orchards all across the Ohio River valley in the late 1700s. The barefoot vagabond wandered from town to town with a bag of apple seeds. Johnny Appleseed did not plant all the trees he is credited with, but following his death, stories of his kind and nurturing ways spread around the country.
Pecos Bill was the bravest, strongest cowboy in the wild, wild west. Legends of his daring feats were popular fodder around the old west campfires. Told in the same tall-tale comedy genre as the stories of Paul Bunyon and Davy Crockett, stories of Pecos Bill are clear exaggerations but tell of a man who has been able to tame the wildest parts of the rugged frontier. Pecos Bill learns to ride a bolt of lightning and drive cattle over the Grand Canyon. His exploits demonstrate the American spirit.
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