American tall tales

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Paul Bunyan about to eat a young woman
Gather 'round the campfire
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Urban legends
Fiction over fact
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How it didn't happen

American tall tales are a genre of folklore from North America and particularly the frontier during western expansion of the USA. They vary from stories about legendary or fictional individuals to tales of monsters and hazards. Some are based loosely on real people or events while others appear to have been created out of whole cloth: some are the creation of individual authors while others just appeared somewhere unknown, first told as campfire tales or oral legends. As the tales became popular, some writers created fakelore, original stories that resembled older tall tales.[1]

The tales typically relate to the westward growth of the USA, covering topics from war and exploration to railroad engineering and farming. Many involve superhuman feats of strength or endurance. Many offer simplistic or whitewashed accounts of American history and controversial events such as the Native American genocides and Texas Revolution, offering a pseudohistory of the American west where white people are heroes and conquer the land through their bravery, skill, and extraordinary deeds. There is overlap with other 19th century fictions and legends, such as the stories of Washington Irving,Wikipedia and with the myth of the wild west, which involves fictionalised versions of historical figures like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Some are important in other ways, such as John Henry, who provided an early African American role model (even though his historicity is disputed), or working class and immigrant heroes like east European steelworker Joe Magarac.


Johnny Appleseed[edit]

Johnny Appleseed in 1862

Johnny Appleseed, who travelled through America planting apples wherever he went, was based on a real figure, John Chapman (1774-1845), a Swedenborgian missionary and promoter of the merits of apples. The real Johnny Appleseed introduced apple trees to much of the Midwest, and from that comes a legend about a stranger planting apples.

He is often pictured as "a barefoot wanderer in tattered clothing, armed with a sack of apples and a tin pot for a hat", something of a vagrant, almost an outlaw.[2] However while popular tradition has him as a simple, almost foolish figure, wandering around planting apples wherever he went, in reality he had a shrewd business venture going: if you planted a certain number of trees on an area of frontier land, then assuming it didn't belong to any other white person, you could claim it. As a result, Chapman was able to set up a number of orchards and sell them to settlers; he died in 1845 owning 1200 acres of land.[3] Therefore, he was firmly a part of the system of manifest destiny expanding the US westward.

Another more pleasant aspect of truth vs myth is that, contrary to the impression you might have, he wasn't planting apples for eating, but apples for making the alcoholic drink of hard cider. Sadly, many of his trees were chopped down in the Prohibition era to prevent them being turned into sweet, sweet hooch.[3][2]

Paul Bunyan[edit]

A legendary giant lumberjack, who seems to have originated in folk stories. Some of the tales were put together by the author William B. Laughead in 1916, although the earliest published account is said to be by James MacGillivray in "The Round River Drive" in Detroit News-Tribune, July 24, 1910.[4] Laughead and other contemporaries appear to have invented some of Bunyan's best-known details whole-cloth, giving the stories an element of fakelore. A French-Canadian origin is suggested (perhaps "bon Jean"). According to legend, Bunyan was beaten to death with a fish by a Native American for chopping down too many trees. Various sites claim to have his grave: it is said to be in Kelliher, Minnesota, which gives his dates as 1794 to 1893. Others claim he is buried at Rib Mountain, Wassau, Minnesota.[5][6]

The stories of his exploits involved a whole cast of figures including Babe the blue ox (whom Bunyan rescued from the snow where he was so cold he went blue), Cordwood Pete (his younger brother), and Sport the Reversible Dog (Paul Bunyan inadvertently cut Sport in half with an ax and tried to sew him back together, but he was accidentally stitched with his hindlegs pointing upwards and forelegs downwards). There are a lot of statues of Paul and Babe around the Midwest and western states. Tales involve various superhuman endeavors, hard tasks, bad weather, Bunyan's enormous size and appetite even as a child, etc.; for instance, one tale says he was trying to move logs along a twisty road, so he tied one end of the road to a tree and the other to Babe, and Babe pulled the road until it was straight.[7] Most of these are harmless tales of bravery and strength, with a similar delight in twisting physics to resemble that found in old Warner Brothers cartoons. But they do reflect an idea of conquering and subduing the land through physical force, the same idea as found in Western films and stories.[8]

While most sources suggest Bunyan was purely fictional, there are claims he was based on a real person. One candidate is Fabian "Joe" Fournier, a logger from Quebec who moved to the US Midwest and was killed in 1875 in a brawl.[9] But the stories are so obviously untrue, the hunt for a real Bunyan is futile. At best, a real individual such as Fournier might have inspired the character.

John Henry[edit]

John Henry was an African American railroad worker, known for his enormous work rate. The chief legend describes his contest against a steam hammer drilling holes to plant explosives and tunnel through a hill, which Henry won but the exertion killed him; the historical basis for this isn't clear and multiple sites claim to be the true location of his tunneling feat. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson suggests it was through the Allegheny Mountains for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.[10][11]

Pecos Bill[edit]

A legendary cowboy, with his horse Widow-Maker (or Lightning) and sweetheart Slue-Foot Sue. He was supposedly raised by coyotes and performed feats such as lassoing a twister and shooting stars out of the sky. Edward O'Reilly appears to have created Pecos Bill in newspaper stories published from 1917; they were collected as Saga of Pecos Bill (1923), making it an example of fakelore.[12][13]

Bowleg Bill[edit]

A cowboy who goes to sea, apparently an original invention of author Jeremiah Digges in Bowleg Bill, The Sea-Going Cowboy (1938) done in the style of earlier American folklore.[14] The story has later been retold by Harold Felton, and others.[15]

Sleepy Hollow[edit]

Washington Irving's 1820 short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", set in the eastern US near Tarrytown, New York, has become part of American folklore (with numerous adaptations into other media) and is sometimes included in tall tales anthologies. Its story about a ghostly horseman and midnight ride is probably influenced by earlier works such as Robert Burns's "Tam O'Shanter" (1790) and Gottfried August Bürger's "The Wild Huntsman" (1796), but not by actual events.[16] Irving actually made up the legend and town of Sleepy Hollow - you can visit Sleepy Hollow today but it has only existed as a town in New York state since 1996, when North Tarrytown (Irving's hometown) changed its name to Sleepy Hollow for the tourist dollars.[17]

Jim Bowie[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Jim Bowie

James "Jim" Bowie was a historical figure involved in the Texas War of Independence, dying at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. After his death, various romantic tales of his deeds sprang up, beginning with his brother John Jones Bowie's memoir "Early Life in the Southwest—The Bowies", published in DeBow's Review in October 1852. The 1946 novel Tempered Blade was adapted into a CBS TV series The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1956-58.[18] Many legends have appeared about him. In one, he owned a silver mine in Texas but with his death the secret was lost (there are no silver mines in Texas).[19] This seems to fall into the subgenre of prospectors' campfire tales of imaginary wealth (see e.g. Mount Shasta).

Davy Crockett[edit]

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, was in real life a successful politician who sat for Tennessee in the US House of Representatives as well as a soldier who died at the Alamo, but even in his lifetime he was the subject of tales of frontier heroism and derring-do, which doubtless did his political career no harm. Later there was a Disney show Davy Crockett (1954-55) and a lot of books and films.[20] MythBusters investigated some of the claims about him, finding that it was possible for him to shoot a bullet at an ax from a distance of 40 yards and split the bullet on the ax blade.[21][22] There is also a legend that he wasn't killed at the Alamo but was captured and later executed; there doesn't seem to be much evidence for this, and it doesn't really make much difference.[23][24]


Real-life American person Calamity Jane
  • Johnny Blood (Johnny "Blood" McNallyWikipedia), an American football player in the 1920s and 30s
  • Daniel Boone,Wikipedia a genuine frontiersman
  • Mike Fink,Wikipedia a riverboatsman on the Ohio and Mississippi who legendarily loved a fight, possibly based on a real person
  • Peter Francisco,Wikipedia the "Virginia Giant", a hero of the American War of Independence
  • Calamity Jane,Wikipedia a historical frontierswoman and later performer in western shows
  • Jigger Johnson,Wikipedia a trapper and forester with many early 20th century antics
  • Casey Jones,Wikipedia a historical railroad worker who died in 1900 trying to stop a runaway train; many other legends of bravery were later attached to him
  • Stagger Lee,Wikipedia based on the real life African American criminal "Stag" Lee Shelton,Wikipedia said to have sold his soul to the Devil for a magical hat, to have started the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and, after his death, to have usurped Satan and become the new ruler of hell
  • Nat Love,Wikipedia a historical African-American cowboy in the late 19th century
  • Sam Patch,Wikipedia "The Jersey Jumper", a stunt performer who died aged just 22 in 1829 after jumping from a great height into the Genesee River
  • Molly Pitcher,Wikipedia a folkloric heroine of the War of Independence whose legend is constructed from the deeds of multiple actual people[25]
  • Tony Beaver,Wikipedia a legendary woodsman connected in some tales with Paul Bunyan
  • Febold Feboldson,Wikipedia a Swedish-American fakelore hero apparently created by writer Wayne Caroll and modeled after Bunyan and others
  • Johnny Kaw,Wikipedia a mythical early settler of Kansas not entirely unlike Jebediah Springfield
  • Joe Magarac,Wikipedia a legendary Pennsylvania steelworker, possibly fakelore modeled after Bunyan and others[26][27][28]
  • Alfred Bulltop Stormalong,Wikipedia a giant Massachusetts sailor with a very big boat[29]

Related genres[edit]


The classic American tall tale can be compared with many other types of folklore.

  • Cryptozoology: they overlap with tales of nonexistent frontier fauna, including the cryptozoology of the hoop snake, jackalope, Bigfoot, lake monsters, Hodag, The White Lady, etc.
  • Canada: there are Canadian versions including the French-Canadian lumberjack Big Joe Mufferaw and cowboy Johnny Chinook.[30][31] A French-Canadian source is suggested for figures such as Paul Bunyan.
  • Cowboy stories and horse opera: the legends of figures such as Billy the Kid (aka Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney), Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker), and others were based on genuine lawmen and outlaws in the "wild west", but almost immediately they were fictionalised into sensational stories, and soon adapted into film and television with little regard for the truth. Although more circumscribed in time and space, they share a similar interest in physical strength, brawling, bravery, and subduing the land through force.
  • Other popular accounts of American history: acts of heroism such as the ride of Paul Revere; legends about George Washington's childhood; and other tales relating to the War of Independence. The tall tale tends to focus on the west or midwest, while older narratives of the War of Independence focus on the east coast and are generally of earlier origin, although there is overlap.
  • Urban legends, which are typically much newer, although again there is some overlap in the early 20th century, but urban legends focus if not on urban life then on a fully Americanized world of highways and automobiles, not wilderness and horses.
  • Prospectors' and treasure-hunters' tales: there are many legends of uncountable wealth hidden somewhere in North America: Mount Shasta, El DoradoWikipedia the city of gold, the Lost Ship of the DesertWikipedia with its cargo of gold, and more mundane tales of now-lost gold and silver mines.

Literary and audiovisual sources[edit]

Paul Bunyan's ox Babe, possibly life size?

Some seem to have arisen as the original creations of writers:

  • Edward O'Reilly's Pecos Bill stories.
  • The Cremation of Sam McGee (1907) by Robert W. Service, about a prospector in the Yukon, Canada.[32]
  • Washington Irving, whose "Rip Van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) provide earlier examples of American stories which have passed into folklore. Sleepy Hollow in particular is often mistaken for a genuine folk tale although Irving made it up influenced by earlier European and American stories.
  • Mark Twain, the Missourian humorist, created many popular tales that have passed into folklore or the common imagination, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Some of his stories drew on tales he heard in the midwest, including "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", and thus perhaps count as genuine folklore.
  • Jeremiah Digges, Bowleg Bill, The Sea-Going Cowboy (1938), an example of fakelore in the style of Pecos Bill and other tales. Digges was the pen name of Josef Berger, who wrote speeches for Harry Truman and other prominent Democrats.

Others were taken from traditional tales or folklore but popularised by fictional works, often anthologies:

  • William B. Laughead collected Paul Bunyan stories for a 1916 advertising pamphlet for Red River Lumber Company.
  • Melody Time (1948), a Walt Disney film contains segments about Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill.[33][34]
  • Harold Felton was a folklorist who wrote children's books based on many tales from the late 1940s, including Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Bowleg Bill.[15]
  • Tall Tales & Legends (1985-86), a television series presented by Shelley Duvall. Not all the tales fit into the subject matter of Tall Tales, but it includes retellings of Pecos Bill, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, and Sleepy Hollow. It also includes not entirely accurate tales about real-life performer Annie Oakley and explorer Ponce de Leon, and other stories "Casey at the Bat" and "Darlin' Clementine".[35]
  • Tall Tale (1995), sometimes subtitled The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, a film that tells of a young man raised on tall tales, who encounters Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Calamity Jane - or is it only a dream?[36]
  • "Simpsons Tall Tales" (2001), an episode of The Simpsons,[37] which featured short stories based on Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In other episodes, the show parodied many other frontier tales and traditions through characters such as legendary frontiersman and town founder Jebediah Springfield (born Hans Sprungfeld).[38]


  1. 9 Legends of American Folklore, How Stuff Works
  2. 2.0 2.1 The truth about Johnny Appleseed and hard cider, Dawn Mitchell, Indianapolis Star, Published 4:03 PM EDT Oct 25, 2018
  3. 3.0 3.1 9 Facts That Tell the True Story of Johnny Appleseed, Mental Floss
  4. Paul Bunyan, Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. Paul Bunyan, Legends of America
  6. Paul Bunyan’s Gravesite, Kelliher, MN, Highway Highlights, March 2013
  7. 'Paul Bunyan,' An American Folk Tale, American Stories, Learning English
  8. The Psychology of the Western: How the American Psyche Plays Out on Screen, William Indick, McFarland, 2008
  9. Was there a real Paul Bunyan?, How Stuff Works
  10. Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man, William Grimes, New York Times, Oct 18, 2006
  11. Was there a real John Henry?, How Stuff Works
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Pecos Bill.
  13. "Pecos Bill: An Appraisal", Brent Ashabranner, Western Folklore, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan., 1952), pp. 20-24
  14. See the Wikipedia article on Bowleg Bill.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Review: Bowleg Bill by Harold W Felton, Kirkus Reviews, 1957
  16. See the Wikipedia article on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
  17. I Went To The Real Sleepy Hollow Town And Learned 7 Surprising Truths About The Spooky Legend, Gwendolyn Plummer, Little Things
  18. See the Wikipedia article on James Bowie.
  19. Legend and Tall Tales, Linda Broday, Oct 16, 2016
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Davy Crockett.
  21. "Episode 118: Swimming in Syrup", MythBusters, May 6, 2009
  22. MythBusters Episode 118: Swimming in Syrup,
  23. San Antonio Mythbusters, AOL, Oct 26, 2010
  24. Did Davy Crockett Die in Battle at the Alamo?, Thought Co
  25. Molly Pitcher, Historic Valley Forge
  26. See the Wikipedia article on Joe Magarac.
  27. Joe Magarac: Man of Steel Edward McClelland, Belt Magazine, May 18, 2018
  28. "Deconstructing and Reconstructing Pittsburgh's Man of Steel: Reading Joe Magarac against the Context of the 20th-Century Steel Industry", Jennifer Gilley and Stephen Burnett, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 442 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 392-408
  29. Old Stormalong, S.E. Schlosser, American Folklore, August 2010
  30. See the Wikipedia article on Big Joe Mufferaw.
  31. Made-in-Canada Humour: Literary, folk and popular culture, Beverly J. Rasporich, John Benjamins, 2015
  32. See the Wikipedia article on The Cremation of Sam McGee.
  33. See the Wikipedia article on Melody Time.
  34. Disney's Newest Cartoon Array, 'Melody Time,' Opens at Astor -- Seven Scenes Featured, Bosley Crowther, New York Times, May 28, 1948
  35. Tall Tales & Legends, IMDb
  36. Tall Tale (1995), IMDb
  37. See the Wikipedia article on Simpsons Tall Tales.
  38. See the Wikipedia article on Lisa the Iconoclast.