The historical Mike Fink was allegedly born around 1770/1780 in Fort Pitt, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he began his career in navigation, he became notorious, both for his practical jokes, and for his willingness to fight anyone who was not amused. His 180 pound frame stretched 6′3″ in height, and the muscles required to force a keelboat upstream would have made him a formidable opponent to most. Other accounts claim that he was only 5′9″ in height.
He and his friends were supposed to have amused themselves by shooting cups of whiskey from each other's heads. Other repeating episodes in Fink's legends include a tale where he shoots the scalp lock from the head of an Indian, and a story in which he shoots the protruding heel from the foot of an African-American slave with surgical precision.
Besides imagined feats making part of the legend of Mike Fink, it may have also been woven from two (or more) men with the same name. Mike Fink signed up as one of Ashley's Hundred and formed a part of the band that built Fort Henry. If this man had been the one born at Fort Pitt about 1770, he would have been at least 50 years old. Such an advanced age in that group of men just out of their teens would have been remarked on. (Hugh Glass was called Old Hugh for being in his early 40s.) But no journal mentions Fink's advanced age so it may have been a younger Mike Fink who joined Ashley's group.
Davy Crockett is supposed to have described him as "half horse and half alligator." Fink wore a red feather in his cap to signal his defeat of every strong man up and down the river.
Henry Howe's "Historical Collections of Ohio" contained an 1886 interview with Capt. John Fink, who said that Mike Fink was a relative.
"When I was a lad," John told me, "about ten years of age, our family lived four miles up river from Wheeling, on the river. Mike laid up (landed) his boat near us, though he generally had two boats. This was his last trip, and he went away to the far West; the country here was getting too civilized, and he was disgusted with progress. This was about 1815."
In the management of his business Mike Fink was a rigid disciplinarian; woe to the man who shirked his responsibilities or did not carry his own weight -- literally. He always had his woman along with him, and would allow no other man to speak with her. She was sometimes a subject for his wonderful skill in marksmanship with the rifle. He would have her hold on the top of her head a tin cup filled with whiskey, which he would put a bullet through. Another of his feats was to have her hold it between her knees, as in a vice, and then shoot.
According to the Miami Valley Historical Society (specifically, "Miami Valley Vignettes" by George C. Crout), until 1815, when he moved west, Mike Fink did not operate keel boats on the Ohio but on the Great Miami River from the Ohio River to Fort Loramie, where portage was made to the Maumee River in order to continue going on up to Lake Erie.
He died in the Rocky Mountains on William Ashley's expedition in 1823. Some say it was a drunken argument over what he always called a chère amie - a romantic interest. Timothy Field, in 1829, said that in a drunken stupor, when aiming at a mug of beer from the head of his longtime friend, Carpenter, he shot low; shortly thereafter, his other longtime friend, Talbot, retaliated by killing Fink, using Carpenter's pistol.
The recorded exploits of Mike Fink featured mostly in American broadside ballads, dime novels, and other subliterary texts from before the Civil War era. The first known reference to the character is in an 1821 farce, The Pedlar by Alphonso Wetmore. Here, Fink appears as the stereotypical bully and braggart. He appears frequently in stories involving the Davy Crockett cycle, but Fink lacked Crockett's more admirable traits such as his unique style of backwoods oratory, his statesmanship (including three terms in the U.S. Congress), and heroic death at the Battle of the Alamo.
Over time, the unlikeable features of the character came even more to the forefront, and Fink was portrayed increasingly as a bully who got his comeuppance. After the Civil War, the character began to be neglected; the mood of Americans disinclined them to admire a bumptious and violent folk hero. In the early 20th century there was an attempt to revive his popularity, spearheaded by Colonel Henry Shoemaker, a Pennsylvania folklorist, who collected Mike Fink tales, and saw the character as a local equivalent to Crockett; but Shoemaker's attempt at reviving the character sputtered.
In 1955, Mike Fink (as portrayed by character actor Jeff York) appeared in two episodes of the Disneyland television series opposite the immensely popular Davy Crockett (portrayed by Fess Parker). Elements of the Fink legend were present in Walt Disney's rendition, but the character was played mostly for laughs as a foil for the infallible Crockett. Keel boats bearing Fink's name operated at Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks until they were quietly retired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when one unexpectedly capsized, dumping the guests and castmembers aboard into the river.
In Orson Scott Card's The Tales of Alvin Maker, an alternate history version of Mike Fink appears in every novel after the first. Unlike other significant characters, he has no knack, but, prior to meeting Alvin, he was made invincible by means of a magic tattoo given to him at birth (similar to Achilles). His invulnerability, in the books, is what made him a bully; having no conception of pain, he could not appreciate the effects of his actions (Prentice Alvin). In Alvin Journeyman, he resurfaces, grateful to Alvin for both sparing his life and teaching him the folly of his previous life of violence.
There is also a reference to Mike Fink in the recently released novel, Mississippi Jack by Louis A. Meyer. In it, Fink is outwitted by the main character of the book series. He is portrayed as a large, loud man who constantly boasts about his many feats in life. He is first met while traveling down the Allegheny River and is later seen in Pittsburgh, where he is put in jail for fighting.
He is also mentioned in the 1974 novella "The King's Indian" by John Gardner.