July 22, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

American Folklore and Tall Tales

6 min read
Paul Bunyan and Babe

Paul Bunyan and Babe

American folklore and tall tales don’t always include just men and women of larger-than-life size or humans that accomplish a feat that only a god could; often, these folklore heroes get mixed-up with animals. Looking at America’s folklore on a large-scale, a majority of our folklore legends frequently interacted with animals.

Paul Bunyan and Babe
Paul Bunyan and Babe

Why animals? I will tell you why—because animals can’t talk! In searching through the history of American tall tales, the wild stories of these great men and women often have few witnesses. And let’s face it, what is a story concerning only one breathing creature?—Boring! So if you have to interact with something or someone, ensure that it can’t tell its side of the story and discredit you in any way.

If you really want to make a story believable, have another human vouch for you. And who better to corroborate your tall tale than another larger-than-life character. For every Pecos Bill and Davy Crockett, they came equipped with their leading ladies (also with their own tall tales) to back them up.

But let’s look back at animals. Some of these legends—I like to think of them as history’s version of a modern Chuck Norris—had animal companions. Paul Bunyan, a child so large in size, required five storks to bring him home to his parents. In fact, his childhood is surrounded by the mention of animals. The following is an excerpt from AmericanFolklore.net.

Now I hear tell that Paul Bunyan was born in Bangor, Maine. It took five giant storks to deliver Paul to his parents. As a newborn, Paul Bunyan could hollar so loud he scared all the fish out of the rivers and streams. All the local frogs started wearing earmuffs so they wouldn’t go deaf when Paul screamed for his breakfast. His parents had to milk two dozen cows morning and night to keep his milk bottle full and his mother had to feed him ten barrels of porridge every two hours to keep his stomach from rumbling and knocking the house down.

See!—storks, fish, frogs, and cows! It is no wonder that he would later be joined by Babe, the giant, blue ox. Who better to have an oversized, blue ox as a life-long companion?

Now, I bet you would hardly believe your eyes it if you saw a beautiful redhead riding a giant catfish down the river, wouldn’t you? Not the case…apparently this was acceptable, everyday behavior for Pecos Bill to witness. Tall tale legend himself, Pecos Bill, saw the catfish-riding Slue Foot Sue riding that fish—like she did best—and immediately fell in love. Here is one of those instances where getting another legend to corroborate your story comes handy. If you don’t know him, Pecos Bill was another folklore prodigy raised, from a child, around animals.

Oh you might not see the humor there; I meant literally raised, from a child, around animals.

Slue Foot Sue Riding her Catfish
Slue Foot Sue Riding her Catfish

Yes, Pecos Bill was literally raised by coyotes. He was taken in as a child and raised by a coyote family, until he was a young adult. From there his animal interactions would involve besting a fifteen-foot snake (which would become his whip) and overpowering a cougar (which he would ride, like a horse). I guess at some point he grew weary of the cougar and upgraded for Widow-Maker. Widow-Maker—like Paul Bunyan’s Babe—would become his tried and true friend. Of course Widow-Maker would also be the hardest horse to ride in the world. No one could ride Widow-Maker. So like Babe, Widow-Maker himself was a folklore celebrity. Unfortunately for Slue Foot Sue, Widow-Maker bucked so hard that when she tried to ride him, he bucked her to the moon. Story has it that she bounced from the moon, back to Earth, over and over for at least three days. That is, of course, until Pecos Bill put her out of her misery…quite heartbreaking.

There was another lady who had a brush with nature, a time or two, but was dealt a better hand than Slue Foot Sue; Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind. She once gathered up rattlesnakes from their nest and turned them into a lasso. She needed this lasso to save Davy Crockett. Who else, naturally?

Wait a minute. Is this another couple of American folklore legends hanging out? Yes….Yes, it is. Hmmm—If you ask me it seems very, very convenient and suspicious.

Once Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind stole the heart of Davy Crockett they were wedded and had a child. When Davy had to go to Congress, in Washington D.C., who do you think took care of their child? Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind did. When a gang of alligators attacked the missus and her baby, you better believe she bested that gang—all by herself, of course. And who better to substantiate her story than King of the Wild Frontier himself, Davy Crockett. For he, himself, wore a coon-skin cap and killed a bear when he was only three years old. But Davy was not just continually involved with animals, he was one. His own words, not mine. He introduced himself as “half horse, half alligator, and a little touch of snapping turtle”. Not only was he not man, but unless Davy Crockett was standing in the middle of a black hole, he had the power to overcome mathematical impossibilities.

With all the American tall tale heroes turning snakes into whips and lassos, and killing bears at the age of three, I am surprised that there are not more animals on the Endangered Species List. While there were those that used animals to show their strength and the magnitude of their accomplishments, there was one in particular who embraced animals in his tales. He told stories of his involvement with animals to show his caring side and loving compassion. Johnny Appleseed, the man who traveled the United States and planted apple trees, was indeed an animal lover. The following is from Nature Center Magazine.

There are many stories of his kindness to all creatures. It is said that one night he had a campfire to keep his site warm as he slept. He saw that mosquitoes were flying into the smoke for warmth and being killed. Johnny Appleseed promptly put out the fire, disregarding his own comfort to make sure the little bugs were safe.

Johnny Appleseed made his camp on a cold winter night. He either crawled into a hollowed log or lit the log on fire to help him fend off the cold. Then he discovered a mother bear and two cubs were sleeping in it. He quietly crawled out of the log or put out the fire. Either way he slept in the snow.

Davy Crockett and Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind
Davy Crockett and Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind

If you are familiar with my blog, then you are familiar with my Heroification in History post. This is not what I am doing here. While Davy Crockett may have received a lot of unnecessary praise (provided by Disney) for his work in America, as long as everyone knows his story as tall tales, I have no qualms leaving it be. While I jest about our folklore legends, these stories are represented as tall tales, not historical truths. If you aren’t familiar with American folklore, do take some time to check them out. These stories, while humorous and entertaining, do have important morals and are worth learning.

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