Man from Nowhere
Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant lumberjack of the Great North Woods, along with his trusted side kick, the anthropomorphic Babe the Blue Ox, have roamed the untamed frontier, working wonders, such as digging the Grand Canyon, and sometimes merely getting into trouble. The tall tales of Paul and his pals are familiar to most Americans. Children and adults are aware of the icon even if they are not always clear on the details of his exploits.
Sometimes folk tales evolve out of the exploits of a real person whose character alone is enough to ensure them a form of immortality. Frontiersmen such as Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett (all real enough) had aspects of their lives twisted and conflated until many of their deeds evolved into tall tales (Davy Crockett, for example, “kilt him a bar [bear], when he was only three”). The exploits of certain Old West characters (Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Billy the Kid, et al) likewise became grist for the folk tale mill, sometimes during their own lifetimes.
Paul Bunyan, however, was not the creation of a pioneer lumberjack’s lonely nights in the big woods, spent drinking whiskey and spinning yarns around a campfire after a hard day’s work. Instead, he was the product of the imaginations of a very cozy group of office workers. In short, Paul Bunyan came to life as an advertising campaign and went culturally backward into American folk lore.
Among such men in the early 1800s was a rowdy French lumberjack named Paul Bonjean. This bearded man allegedly stood around 6’4” tall, a giant by early 19th Century standards. However, tall he was he was nothing more than a drunken rabble-rouser whose sole claim to fame may have been only executed in the interests of self-preservation.
In 1837, lumbermen of the Canadian southeast and in the American frontier forests (including Maine and parts of northern Michigan) became embroiled in a conflict starting in 1837 known as the Papineau Rebellion.
This insurrection was named for French-Canadian Party leader, Louis Jean Papineau (b: 1786). He had been elected to the legislative assembly of Lower Canada (now Quebec) in 1808, becoming its speaker in 1815. Papineau strenuously opposed the British-dominated government of Lower Canada. He also fought in session all attempts to unite Lower Canada with upper Canada. In 1834, he helped draft an extensive series of resolutions, granting greater control over French-Canadian activities in Lower Canada.
Britain was represented by a governor in Canada at the time, and he summarily rejected all the demands presented. This led to hostilities between French-Canadians and the English on Canadian soil. The turmoil increased until a small rebellion was underway. [Papineau himself escaped first to the US in 1839, then to France, where he remained until 1844. After receiving a promise of amnesty, he went back to Canada and served in the Canadian House of Commons from 1848-1854). He died in 1871.]
The loggers armed themselves with axes, mattocks and large wooden forks they had steam bent into hooks. Among the loggers was a bellicose, bearded, mountain of a man named Paul Bunyan.
The more fervent French lumbermen fought the British troops (acting on the authority of Queen Victoria to suppress the Canadian rebellion) wherever and whenever they could. It was during one such skirmish that Paul Bonjean acquitted himself with unusual valor. In an assault near the river in the Two Mountains area near Saint-Eustache, Quebec, the rabble, including loggers, butted heads with the British. With a huge wooden fork (made by bending heated wood) in one hand and a mattock in the other, Bonjean raged wildly among the Queen’s Troops.
His ferocity literally became the stuff of legend. He not only dispatched several British but helped save many of the other loggers. Tales of the bearded big man’s exploits spread upriver, and soon the name of Bonjean became associated with exaggerated Canadian tales of a large logger of heroic stature. These stories also found their way south into the United States, passed along by itinerant loggers.
Paul’s last name merely means “little John” and is likely a nickname itself, one of those contrived monikers with a small dose of irony given his height (much like Al Capp’s outsized cartoon oaf of the comics, “Li’l Abner”). From this, the surname was anglicized from a pun on Paul’s last name – “Boyenne”, is an expletive expressing surprise – into “Bunyan”). As for the big man himself, he reportedly went on to own a lumber company, and apparently died in obscurity.
It wasn’t until 1906 that the first story appeared in print by a former logger, Jack MacGillivray. This short work surfaced in the Press (Oscoda, Michigan) on August 10, 1906. It was based loosely on a tall tale of Paul Bunyan heard by MacGillivray a few years before in a logging camp. The source may very well be exaggerated stories about French-Canadian Fabian “Saginaw Joe” Fournier (1845–1875). Fournier was a lumberjack for a Grayling (Michigan) area company from 1865 until his death; MacGillivray later worked for the same outfit and probably got the story there.
In the story, the loggers led by Paul are floating logs down a river that turns out to be circular. This story was reprinted in a slightly different version in a 1910 edition of the Detroit News-Tribune. Finally, the story (co-authored by MacGillivray and Douglas Malloch), revised in verse form and printed under the title “The Round River Drive”, was published in 1914 in American Lumberman magazine.
In MacGillivray’s work, Paul Bunyan had not yet reached the outlandish proportions of Rabelais’ Gargantua (early 16th Century, from which the word “gargantuan” derives); he is merely a very tall, strong man. He is not exceptional but for his strength and brains. The only outsized things in the tale are Paul’s steer, a large beast weighing 5,000 pounds, and his appetite for brawling and liquor:
He had a punch in either hand
And licked more men and drove more miles
And got more drunk in more new styles
Than any other peavey prince
His star as a folk hero dimmed after these few printed Bunyan stories.
Paul Bunyan would literally become larger than life, however, within a few years of his first story’s appearance thanks to The Red River Lumber Company. This lumber operation, headquartered in Akeley (in Hubbard County) in north-central Minnesota, had its beginnings in the 1860s. In 1884 the company adopted the name Red River Lumber Company, and while retaining a presence in Akeley, Minnesota, also branched out to the American west coast, starting up a huge lumbering operation in Westwood, California (the first tree for the new venture was felled in 1912).
Westwood was a company town, and Red River Lumber’s money fueled a standard of living many Americans did not know. [As early as the 1930s, Westwood had a shopping mall. It also boasted a skating rink and many other amenities. The town was sold in 1944 to the company now known as Sunkist, of orange juice fame. There is currently a Texas lumber company, started in 1992, using the “Red River” name, but it shares no history with the original.]
Among Red River Lumber’s more ingenious moves was to create a mascot, a branded (but never copyrighted) character so complete that the company’s marketing department forged an American folk legend where none existed.Credit: Red River Lumber Company
Lumber buyers of the day preferred pine from the East, and were skittish of the quality of West Coast pinewood. It was Walker’s pitch to Laughead to incorporate the rowdy Paul Bunyan of the logging camp yarns to create a whimsical ad campaign that could promote West Coast wood as just a good as that found in the East.
Laughead wrote and illustrated a solidly executed pamphlet bringing the character to a wider audience, creating an easily indentifiable “face” for Red River Lumber. This first tract appeared in 1914 – Laughead relied on stories he had heard about a decade earlier when he worked in a logging camp in Bemidji, Minnesota.Credit: public domain
The first pamphlet led to a series of advertising circulars produced by Red River Lumber, and as time went on Laughead embellished the series with other logging stories he’d heard, or from his own experiences with the proper amount of bragging and exaggeration thrown in. Finally, the stories were developed from thin air, the products of Laughead’s (and other writers’) imaginings.
It was Laughead who embellished Paul Bunyan’s outsized bovine pal and named him “Babe, the Blue Ox” (Babe had been born during a winter when it was so cold even the snow was blue). The iconic oxen’s horns were spread “40 axe handles and a plug of tobacco” apart. Laughead also created the ultimate clerk in a small and pesky functionary named Johnny Inkslinger whose prodigious calculating and written output required his ink pen be attached to a hose leading to a barrel filled with ink. [In a nod to the niggardliness of industrial America, Johnny Inkslinger managed to cut costs, saving barrels of ink by no longer dotting his “i”s and crossing his “t”s when writing.]
The first pamphlets (released in 1914 and 1916) were moderately successful. Although Red River had trademarked the character, it had not bothered to copyright the tales it published in-house. As a result, two other non-Red River collections of Bunyan stories appeared in 1916 (one featuring stories of Paul from sources in British Columbia as well as a few American states, the other with tales from the American northwest), but it wasn’t until the third installment, released in 1922, that the name “Paul Bunyan” gained a firm place in popular culture. It was shortly after publication of this collection – wildly successful – that The Red River Lumber Company finally hired Laughead as their advertising manager.Credit: Red River Lumber Company
Because the character was in the public domain, never having been copyrighted (and Red River’s pamphlets were given away at no charge) other authors quickly produced Bunyan collections in 1924 and 1925. Like fairy tales over time, these versions were toned down, removing some of the rougher elements to appeal to children. Red River itself sporadically released Bunyan pamphlets up until it went out of business in the mid 1940s.
The groundwork laid by William B. Laughead, though, had an interesting effect on the public. The character was truly (and is) believed by the majority to be a genuine character spawned in Credit: Walt Disney Corporationthe Great North Woods of America. However, Paul Bunyan is neither a true product of the wilderness nor is he American.
At best, he is modeled on one of at least two different French-Canadian lumberjacks (Paul Bonjean, hero of the Papineau Rebellion, may be purely fictional, however). Thus, he is not American. Furthermore, the characters known today (a giant – inCredit: Matt Groening, Fox Corporation some cases described in terms leading to heights of 90 feet or more – and his huge blue ox) were never part of any folk-lore imaginary landscape.
The original Paul Bunyan, as detailed in the earliest backwoods stories, was closer to the hero of Jimmy Dean’s 1961 cross-over Country-music hit single, “Big Bad John”. All of the later texture and outsized adventures and attributes are the creation of advertising men of the early 20th Century. The transformation of Paul Bunyan from a minor character in 19th Century logging camp tales to the juggernaut he became – while leading the public to believe he was a part of American for decades and not a modern creation – is as miraculous as it would be if somehow Pillsbury’s Doughboy or The Jolly Green Giant had achieved such immortality.Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2011
Paul Bunyan perhaps may never have been anything other than an intended marketing tool but he took on a life of his own (outlasting his creators, William B. Laughead and The Red River Lumber Company), and the average American (not knowing any better) believes he is a folk-lore figure. And, just as with many things of dubious origin, the lie is often accepted where the truth is unknown. In short, Paul Bunyan is a paradox, a character that was never truly a part of early folk lore, but whose development led him to become part of it.
And that makes him a folk hero, albeit a fraudulently created one.