Was Paul Bunyan based on a real person from Wisconsin or Minnesota?
If you’ve ever driven Highway 51 through Minocqua, it’s hard to miss the giant sign with a flannel-clad lumberjack and blue ox next to his namesake restaurant.
Paul Bunyan dominates the woods of the Upper Midwest. Supposedly a giant man with superhuman strength, his legend was only embellished by his giant blue ox, Babe. But the man, the myth, the legend, who was he?
This is what a reader asked What the Wisconsin? — where Journal Sentinel reporters answer questions about our state, our communities, and the people who live there.
“Was Paul Bunyan a real person or based on a real person? Why is Minnesota particularly obsessed with this legend? the reader wanted to know.
The short answer is no. Although some of his exploits may have been based on true stories, he probably wasn’t based on a real person, despite some sources claiming he was. And while Minnesota is particularly enamored with the lumberjack, his origins are in Wisconsin.
Michael Edmonds, who retired as director of the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2018, was also curious about Paul Bunyan and, in 2005, began digging into the folk hero’s story.
What he uncovered is an archetypal American story: what started as an oral tradition about a folk hero for working-class loggers has become a man of mythical proportions that corporations have sought to capitalize on.
The historian traveled from Massachusetts to Minneapolis in an attempt to trace Bunyan’s origins and in 2009 published “Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan”. The book dispelled some previously published origin stories, including those that traced Maine’s earliest histories to the mid-19th century, and the fact that they were based on a real person.
Who was Paul Bunyan?
First, a reminder about Bunyan.
According to legend, he was a lumberjack who worked in the forests of North America during the heyday of the lumber industry in the mid to late 1800s.
Stories of his exploits were part of the camp culture, with elders seeing how far they could string gullible greenhorns, often making up stories on the spot as others encouraged them.
According to stories collected by Wisconsin folklorist Charles Brown, which were published in pamphlets from 1922 to 1945, Bunyan was 7 feet tall and had a stride of 7 feet. He is credited with everything from the creation of Lake Superior – which he created as a reservoir to ice his logging roads – to the Mississippi River, created when his ox slipped and overturned a reservoir of water.
His ox, Babe, weighed 5 tons and had the strength of nine horses. It was originally white but turned blue after it snowed blue for seven days and lay in snowdrifts.
Bunyan was stripping a log, having Babe pull from one end while he pulled from the other. He and the ox once pulled an entire house and cellar up a hill.
One of the most famous stories is that of the round river. According to Brown’s version, Bunyan and his team once cleared 100 million feet of timber from a single 40-acre that was shaped like a pyramid, with trees growing on either side. Some men have found themselves with one leg shorter than the other from working on a slope all winter. In the spring, the crew floated the logs down the river for two weeks before realizing they had overshot their camp a few times – the river had no outlet and circled around the pyramid .
Was Paul Bunyan real?
According to a few sources, including an article on the History Channel website, Bunyan was an amalgamation of two Canadian lumberjacks – Fabian Fournier, who worked in Michigan after the Civil War, and Bon Jean, a soldier in the Papineau Rebellion from 1837.
But Edmonds refutes these theories. He traces Fournier’s theory to a 1951 letter from James MacGillivray, who wrote some of the earliest published Bunyan stories. MacGillivray claimed to have heard these Bunyan stories from a timber cruiser who worked in the same area as Fournier, and assumed they must be based on the Saginaw, Michigan lumberjack known for his strength and brawling. It was a weak link made even weaker by the fact that MacGillivray wrote elsewhere that he first heard Bunyan’s stories in 1887, when that wooden cruiser was just a teenager and after the first stories were told in Tomahawk.
Bon Jean’s theory was based on a 1925 book by James Stevens, who heard the story of an old Canadian lumberjack. But when two Canadian folklorists attempted to confirm the story, they found no names resembling Bunyan in any of the rebellion records. Moreover, there is no reference to Bunyan in any French-Canadian folklore.
Bon Jean was a French-Canadian folk figure, however, and Edmonds cites another folklorist who believes Canadian lumberjacks brought the name with them to logging camps in the Midwest, where it evolved into the name Bunyan.
Two of the first historians to collect stories of Bunyan in the early 20th century also speculated that he might have been based on a real person, but without much supporting evidence.
K. Bernice Stewart, a University of Wisconsin student whose father had been a timber cruiser in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and her English teacher, Homer A. Watt, collected Bunyan stories from 1914. A 1916 article published in the “Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters” shared their findings. They wrote:
“Whether Paul Bunyan lived or is as legendary as Mrs. Harris of Sairey Gamp, we have yet to find out definitively. All woodcutters, of course, believe, or pretend to believe, that he really lived and was the great pioneer of the timber country; some of the older men even claim to have known him or members of his crew. … He was probably a more skilled and intelligent than average swamper or shacker or lumberjack, whose exploits spawned a series of stories; after his death his fame probably spread from camp to camp, more stories were added to those told about him, and so gradually he became over time an exaggerated type of lumberjack, and the hero of more feats than he could have achieved in his lifetime. »
One of the Bunyan stories that the couple share, in fact, can be traced to a real lumberjack. According to the tale, an illiterate Bunyan ordered supplies by drawing pictures. He once ordered wheels but got cheese instead – a story Edmonds traces to a real Wisconsin lumberjack in the Chippewa Valley.
Stewart and Watt did not investigate the origin of the stories, but Edmonds found the first reliable mention of Bunyan stories at Manson’s logging camp north of Tomahawk in the winter of 1885-1886.
In 1938, a retired logger told Wautoma newspaper publisher HJ Kent how a logging cruiser named Bill Mulhollen had visited the camp that winter and delighted the men with stories of Paul Bunyan.
The story was supported by another account told in Kent, this one from a store clerk who worked along the Tomahawk Road and heard stories of Bunyan there the following winter.
There’s an interesting Wisconsin twist to this origin story. Eugene Shephard, perhaps best known for creating the legendary hodag hoax, also claimed to have invented Paul Bunyan. Edmonds writes that it is possible that Mulhollen heard Bunyan’s stories from Shephard, but since the latter was a “brazen liar who … plagiarized the work of other people … every statement he made in public must be assumed to be false until proven otherwise”.
But Edmonds has no doubt that Shephard was nearby when these stories were first told in that lumber camp, or when they were first printed, and others remembered him telling Bunyan stories.
And there’s an interesting connection between Shephard and that first – and only – story told by Mulhollen, centering on Bunyan hitching up a moose to pull a sled. Shephard did. In 1896, he brought a couple of moose from Canada and trained them to pull his two-wheeled car, then made postcards of the feat, according to Edmonds.
Minnesota’s devotion to Bunyan – which includes claims that his birthplace is in Bemidji, several statues and even a scenic road – may be tied to when Bunyan’s stories made their way into print and public media. popular culture.
In 1904 the Duluth News Tribune published four Bunyan tales – the first to appear in print. Ten years later, the Red River Lumber Co. in Minneapolis published 17 as part of an advertising campaign.
Publicity executive William Laughead wrote these Red River stories based on his own memories of hearing them in logging camps in Minnesota and California, embellished with his own inventions, including naming the beef from Bunyan Babe. Over the next few decades, the company printed more tales which were picked up by other writers and publishers, helping to make Bunyan famous across the country.
Bemidji’s ties to Bunyan date back to 1937, when the community sought to boost tourism and unveiled an 18ft statue of Bunyan and Babe during the town’s winter carnival as a tribute to the logging history of the region.
So while Minnesota can’t claim to be Bunyan’s birthplace, they can at least lay claim to the name Babe.
Wisconsin also has its share of Bunyan tributes, from Cook Shanty restaurants in Minocqua and Wisconsin Dells to the 1890s replica Paul Bunyan Logging Camp at the Wisconsin Logging Museum in Eau Claire, once known as Sawdust City for its multitude mills at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.