Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan

Bunyan, Paul, legendary American lumberjack. He was the hero of a series of "tall tales" popular through the timber country from Michigan westward. Bunyan was known for his fantastic strength and gigantic size. He is said to have ruled his gargantuan lumber camp between the winter of the blue snow and the spring that came up from China. His prized possession was Babe the Blue Ox, the distance between whose horns measured 42 ax handles and a plug of tobacco. In southern lumber camps a similar legendary figure is known as Tony Beaver.

See collections of legends by L. Untermeyer (1945) and H. W. Felton (1947); study of the legend by D. G. Hoffman (1952, repr. 1966) and N. Wartik (1989).

Paul Bunyan is a mythological lumberjack who appears in tall tales of American folklore. The character originated in the work of American journalist James MacGillivray. Historically, the character has been popular in the northern region of the United States, around Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.


Lumberjack legends

Bunyan's birth was strange, as are the births of many mythic heroes, as it took 5 storks to carry the infant (ordinarily, one stork could carry several babies and drop them off at their parents' home). When he was old enough to clap and laugh, the vibration broke every window in the house. When he was 7 months old he sawed the legs off of his parents bed in the middle of the night. Paul and Babe dug the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him, and created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of their campfire to put it out.

He is a classic American "big man" who was popular in 19th century America. Further, the Bunyan myths sprang from lumber camp tales, sometimes bawdy ones, to put it mildly. In one such tale, extreme cold forced bears to look for food; one wandered into a lumber camp. It chased the lumberjacks up a tree on which they had a ladder. To keep the bear from climbing after them (despite the fact that bears do not need ladders to climb trees), they kicked down the ladder. This saved them from the bear, but trapped them in the tree. To escape, the lumberjacks urinated in unison and created a frozen pole, which they slid down. Such tall tales, though later watered down, were attributed to a single character, Bunyan, and became the stories known today.

Newspaper myths

The earliest published versions of the myth of Paul Bunyan can be traced back to James MacGillivray, an itinerant newspaper reporter who wrote the first Paul Bunyan article in 1906, and an expanded version of the same article for the Detroit News. He is alleged to have collected stories from lumberjacks, combined them with his own embellishments, and began disseminating the legend with the July 24, 1910, printing of The Round River Drive which included the following, concerning Dutch Jake (another mythical lumberjack of great strength) and the narrator participating in a Bunyan-sponsored contest to cut down the biggest tree in the forest.

"Dutch Jake and me had picked out the biggest tree we could find on the forty, and we'd put three days on the cut with our big saw, what was three crosscuts brazed together, making of teeth. We was getting along fine on the fourth day when lunchtime comes, and we thought we'd best get to the sunny side to eat. So we grabs our grub and starts around that tree.
'We hadn't gone far when we heard a noise. Blamed if there wasn't Bill Carter and Sailor Jack sawin' at the same tree. It looked like a fight at first, but we compromised, meetin' each other at the heart on the seventh day. They'd hacked her to fall to the north, and we'd hacked her to fall to the south, and there that blamed tree stood for a month or more, clean sawed through, but not knowin' which way to drop 'til a windstorm came along and throwed her over."

The popularization of the myth started with William B. Laughead's "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California", one of a series of Bunyan advertising pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company. Some of the pamphlet tales were based on Laughead's recollections of stories he had heard ten years earlier in a Minnesota lumber camp. Others were highly exaggerated tales of his own experiences.

Overall, Paul Bunyan was considered to be a strong brave man who feared nothing including his beloved pet, Babe, the blue ox.

Laughead, through the ad pamphlets, created much of the Bunyan "canon", including the blue ox and Johnny Inkslinger.


Paul Bunyan has dozens of towns vying to be considered his home. Several authors, including James Stevens and D. Laurence Rogers, have traced the tales to the exploits of French Canadian lumberjack Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier, 1845-1875. Fournier worked for the H.M. Loud Company in the Grayling, Michigan area, 1865-1875, where MacGillivray later worked and apparently picked up the stories. The state of Michigan has declared Oscoda, Michigan as the official home of Paul Bunyan because of the earliest documented published stories by MacGillivray. Other towns such as Bemidji, Brainerd, Shelton, and Westwood, Minnesota Bay City, Michigan, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and even Bangor, Maine also claim the title.

Kelliher, Minnesota is the home of Paul Bunyan Memorial Park, which contains a site purporting to be Paul Bunyan's grave. Another legend claims that Rib Mountain in Wausau, Wisconsin, is Bunyan's grave site.

Furthermore, two Boy Scouts of America Order of the Arrow lodges have their original roots tied into the fable of Paul Bunyan. OA Lodge 196, Mesabi, from Hibbing, MN used Paul Bunyan as its lodge totem from 1941-1995. OA Lodge 26, Blue Ox, from Rochester, MN has used the Blue Ox (Babe) exclusively as its lodge totem and on nearly all issues of patches and neckerchiefs since 1927.

Tourist attractions

Recent fiction

  • Stephen King makes reference to a Paul Bunyan statue located in his fictional town of Derry, Maine in the novels It, and Insomnia.
  • Paul Bunyan makes an appearance in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, Paul Bunyan is ridiculed as a fake mythology.
  • A fictional Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd, Minnesota is seen in the Coen brothers' 1996 movie Fargo.
  • He is the subject of an opera by Benjamin Britten called Paul Bunyan, libretto by W. H. Auden (1941).
  • In the comic book The Badger, the title character meets Bunyan and Babe (First Comics # 42, 1998). The story was called "Tall Tale".
  • He is the subject of "Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier" by Larry Hammer.
  • The story is a subject of the Simpsons episode "Simpsons Tall Tales", in which the Simpsons board a train to Delaware and meet a hobo who tells them a selection of "tall tales".
  • In the webcomic "The Adventures of Dr. McNinja", the "Paul Bunyan's disease" causes people to turn into giant lumberjacks.
  • Paul was briefly shown in the 1954 Warner Brothers' only 3-D animated short Lumber Jack-Rabbit. In the cartoon, Bugs Bunny stumbles upon Bunyan's giant carrot patch, which is guarded by Smidgen, a dog.
  • Paul Bunyan is alluded to as the name "The Tall Man With The Big Axe" in the novel Summerland by Michael Chabon.
  • In the 70's TV series Land of the Lost, in the episode "Snowman" from third season, Uncle Jack calls Will "A regular Paul Bunyan" when the boy chops a tree in order to make a bridge over a big cliff
  • Paul Bunyan appears in the one-act play "Mr Charles, currently of Palm Beach" (1998) by Paul Rudnick in the line "A gay woman is not simply Paul Bunyan with a cat."
  • The Woodsman character voiced by James Belushi in the animated film Hoodwinked! (2005) auditions for the part of Paul Bunyan for an advert in the film.
  • Paul Bunyan is mentioned in the lyrics to the Kid Dakota song "Ten Thousand Lakes" from the album "The West Is The Future".
  • Paul Bunyan appears the film Tall Tale: The Adventures of Pecos Bill (portrayed by Oliver Platt) along with John Henry and Pecos Bill
  • In 1958, Disney released an animated short about Paul's life directed by Les Clark.
  • Paul Bunyan is a recurring character in the Vertigo comic book Jack of Fables
  • Paul Bunyan is mentioned in the lyrics of the Magnetic Fields song "Grand Canyon" from the album "69 Love Songs Vol.2".

See also



  • Bélanger, Georges. La collection Les Vieux m'ont conté du père Germain Lemieux, s.j.: Francophonies d'Amérique, Ottawa. Presses de l'Université d'Ottawa, no. 1, 1991, pp. 35-42.
  • Gartenberg, Max (1949). "Paul Bunyan and Little John". Journal of American Folklore 62
  • Germain, Georges-Hébert, Adventurers in the New World: The Saga of the Coureurs des Bois, Montréal: Libre-Expression, 2003.
  • Maltin, Leonard Of Mice and Magic - the History of American Animation. Rev. ed., Plume Books.

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