I’ve always thought of oral traditions as a long game of telephone. You know, the game where each person whispers to their neighbor and at the end, you all compare the original statement with the final statement. Then you all laugh like crazy.
In the 19th century U.S., logging was a very big deal. Try to imagine how many trees there were growing naturally before people started moving into those newly cleared areas. The lumberjacks who cut down those trees were out in the middle of nowhere with no TV or smartphones. So after their work was done for the day, they told stories.
Many of those stories were about a legendary lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. It’s unknown if the original stories were based on a real lumberjack and were increasingly exaggerated, or if they were all completely made up from the beginning.
Either way, similar stories were told around lumberjack campfires not just in one area, but spread throughout the northern United States. Again, it is unknown whether the stories were spread due to lumberjacks moving to other areas and carrying the stories with them, or if the same type of exaggerated stories grew organically in all areas.
In all these stories, Bunyan was the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, and the most skilled lumberjack that had ever lived. Some storytellers claimed to have known Paul, or at least to have known someone who knew him. He was like a superhero, but still human.
But that all changed when the folk legend became an advertisement.
In 1914 artist William Laughead (1882-1958) started creating ads for the Red River Lumber Company using Paul Bunyan. That’s when Bunyan became not seven feet tall, but taller than mountains. That’s when he created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe along the ground and his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota with his hoofprints.
Since then, this new mythology of Bunyan has inspired books, poems, statues, the Paul Bunyan Land Amusement Park, cartoons, and even movies.
But if you want the real stories of Paul Bunyan from the lumberjacks, the Paul Bunyan before he was a promotional figure, check out this academic article. “Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack”, written by K. Bernice Stewart and Homer A. Watt was published in the journal Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1916. It’s only 13 pages and easy to read. It was written not long after Laughead started using the Bunyan myth in ads.
He’s a Paul Bunyan we no longer recognize, and it is fascinating to “hear” the stories from actual lumberjacks, just like we were all sitting around a campfire.