Paul Bunyan and John Henry

Week 14: American Folklore - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

This is the introduction that appears in the 1922 booklet of Paul Bunyan legends that is used as the source for this week's readings. The booklet was promoted by the Red River Lumber Company, which adopted Paul Bunyan as their trademark. The illustrations that you see here also come from the same booklet, which was written by E.B. Langhead. You will see that Langhead implies that he worked from original sources - "The student of folklore will easily distinguish the material derived from original sources from that written for the purposes of this book." - but it is actually impossible to make any distinction between original sources and material written for the purposes of this book! Langhead admits that he made up the names of all the other characters in the booklet, including Babe the ox (" the names of the supporting characters, including the animals, are inventions by the writer of this version"), and while he claims to have heard stories about "Paul Bunyan" told in the logging camps, there is no other evidence to support this claim.
Historical Note

The Red River Lumber Company takes its name from the Red River of the North, down which the Walkers drove their logs to Winnipeg before the railroads had reached their forest holdings in northern Minnesota. Later on they built a sawmill on the Red River at East Grand Forks, which was followed by the mills at Crookston and Akeley, Minnesota. Their last Minnesota log was cut at Akeley in 1915.

Editorial Note

The first edition of Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox appeared in 1922, with ten thousand copies, followed in the same year with a printing of five thousand. Subsequent editions were printed in 1924, 1927 and 1931. Since the first edition, copies have been sent out only on request.

With this printing, January, 1934, the size of the book has been changed and the supplementary text has been revised. The stories are the same as in the preceding editions, and include material used in small booklets issued by The Red River Lumber Company in 1914 and 1916. So far as we know, this was the first appearance of the Paul Bunyan stories in print.

The student of folklore will easily distinguish the material derived from original sources from that written for the purposes of this book. It should be stated that the names of the supporting characters, including the animals, are inventions by the writer of this version. The oral chroniclers did not, in his hearing, which goes back to 1900, call any of the characters by name except Paul Bunyan himself.

Investigators have failed to establish the source or age of the first Paul Bunyan stories. One of our correspondents, a man of advanced years, wrote us in 1922 that he had heard some of the stories when a boy in his grandfather's logging camps in New York, and that they were supposed to be old at that time. A distinct Paul Bunyan legend has grown up in the oil fields, evidently originating with lumberjacks from the northern and eastern white pine camps who came to work with the drillers.

Paul Bunyan: Scholars Say He is the Only American Myth.

Paul Bunyan is the hero of lumbercamp whoppers that have been handed down for generations. These stories, never heard outside the haunts of the lumberjack until recent years, are now being collected by learned educators and literary authorities who declare that Paul Bunyan is "the only American myth."

The best authorities never recounted Paul Bunyan's exploits in narrative form. They made their statements more impressive by dropping them casually, in an off hand way, as if in reference to actual events of common knowledge. To overawe the greenhorn in the bunk shanty, or the paper-collar stiffs and home guards in the saloons, a group of lumberjacks would remember meeting each other in the camps of Paul Bunyan.

With painful accuracy they established the exact time and place, "on the Big Onion the winter of the blue snow" or "at Shot Gunderson's camp on the Tadpole the year of the sourdough drive." They elaborated on the old themes and new stories were born in lying contests where the heights of extemporaneous invention were reached.

In these conversations the lumberjack often took on the mannerisms of the French Canadian. This was apparently done without special intent and no reason for it can be given except for a similarity in the mock seriousness of their statements and the anti-climax of the bulls that were made, with the braggadocio of the habitant. Some investigators trace the origin of Paul Bunyan to Eastern Canada. Who can say?

Paul Bunyan came to Westwood, California, in 1913 at the suggestion of some of the most prominent loggers and lumbermen in the country. When the Red River Lumber Company announced their plans for opening up their forests of Sugar Pine and California White Pine, friendly advisors shook their heads and said, "Better send for Paul Bunyan."

Apparently here was the job for a Superman, - quality-and-quantity-production on a big scale and great engineering difficulties to be overcome. Why not Paul Bunyan? This is a White Pine job and here in the High Sierras the winter snows lie deep, just like the country where Paul grew up. Here are trees that dwarf the largest "cork pine" of the Lake States and many new stunts were planned for logging, milling and manufacturing a product of supreme quality - just the job for Paul Bunyan.

The Red River people had been cutting White Pine in Minnesota for two generations; the crews that came west with them were old heads and every one knew Paul Bunyan of old. Paul had followed the White Pine from the Atlantic seaboard west to the jumping-off place in Minnesota, why not go the rest of the way?

Paul Bunyan's picture had never been published until he joined Red River and this likeness, first issued in 1914 is now the Red River trademark. It stands for the quality and service you have the right to expect from Paul Bunyan.

When and where did this mythical Hero get his start? Paul Bunyan is known by his mighty works, his antecedents and personal history are lost in doubt. You can prove that Paul logged off North Dakota and grubbed the stumps, not only by the fact that there are no traces of pine forests in that State, but by the testimony of oldtimers who saw it done. On the other hand, Paul's parentage and birth date are unknown. Like Topsy, he jes' growed.

Nobody cared to know his origin until the professors got after him. As long as he stayed around the camps his previous history was treated with the customary consideration and he was asked no questions, but when he broke into college it was all off. Then he had to have ancestors, a birthday and all sorts of vital statistics.

Now Paul is a regular myth and students of folklore make scientific research of "The Paul Bunyan Legend".

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did the Paul Bunyan stories get passed down before they were put into print?
  • where and when were Paul Bunyan stories come?
  • what company adopted Paul Bunyan as their trademark?

Source: The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan as Told in the Camps of the White Pine Lumbermen for Generations During Which Time the Loggers Have Pioneered the Way Through the North Woods From Maine to California Collected from Various Sources and Embellished for Publication. Text and Illustrations By W. B. Laughead. Published for the Amusement of our Friends by The Red River Lumber Company Minneapolis, Westwood, Cal., Chicago, Los Angeles - San Francisco. 1922. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM