Tomorrow is Paul Bunyan Day! There are a surprising number of people who think Paul Bunyan was a real person. It’s surprising because Paul Bunyan was supposedly seven feet tall, had a stride of seven feet, and was credited with the creation of the Grand Canyon. Yes, a seven-foot-tall man created the Grand Canyon. Naturally.
Most people, thankfully, understand that Paul Bunyan was, in fact, a famous folk hero, meaning he was the protagonist in several classic tall tales. The fictional protagonist, that is. Just making sure we’re all on the same page. Paul Bunyan was not a real person. Are we good? Good.
Paul Bunyan quickly became a symbol of strength and might. In these tall tales, he and his companions, Babe the Blue Ox and Johnny Inkslinger, traveled the country performing various logging-related feats. For example, Paul Bunyan and his team scooped out the Great Lakes, cleared the United States for farming, trained ants to do logging work — totally a real person — and, thanks to his ox’s footprints, created Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. All in a day’s work, right?
So, who created this insanely accomplished young man? According to most, French Canadians are credited with Paul Bunyan’s existence, but Americans picked up on the stories quickly, passing them down from generation to generation by word of mouth. They were also used by veteran lumberjacks, who would tell the stories to new recruits in order to intimidate, entertain, or even just test gullibility.
The folk tales first appeared in print on August 4, 1904 in the Duluth Evening News and were later used in promotional brochures issued by the Red River Lumber Company of Minneapolis in 1914, 1916, and 1922. It wasn’t until author James Stevens came along that the tales moved away from the logging theme and became catered more toward children. The most authentic of the tales, however, were formed between 1914 and 1916 and were collected by K. Bernice Stewart and Homer A. Watt and were published in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters.
And while logging has certainly declined since the time of the original Paul Bunyan, the legend has remained intact. So intact that we’re celebrating Paul Bunyan Day.