From embroidered accounts about real people like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, or Jim Bowie, to the size of that fish your dad caught that one time, exaggeration and hyperbole are a great American tradition. But the best tall tales are about men and women whose superhuman exploits made them icons of the American frontier spirit.
Whether he was real or not (a matter of some contention), the story tells of John Henry, a freed slave working as a steeldriver.* He was the best of the best, strong and hardworking. Then along comes some dude with a steam-driven drill thing, claiming his drill could drill faster and better than any man alive.
Naturally, John Henry wasn’t going to let that slide, so a competition was staged. John Henry grabbed a pair of 20-pound hammers and got to work. In less than an hour, he’d drilled two seven-foot holes, for a total of 14 feet to the machine’s 10.
Unfortunately, it turns out that beating the hell out of a mountain with dual-wielded 20-pound hammers is more than any man can handle. Within seconds of being declared the winner, John Henry died on the spot.
* “Steeldriving” is basically hammering a drill into the side of a mountain; explosives are stuffed in the resulting holes and eventually you’ve got a tunnel.
Martha Jane Canary was a real person, but the stories of her exploits may not be. Legend has it she was an impressive shot, expert tracker and scout, and hobnobbed with the celebrities of the day, such as Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer.
How much of that is true and how much comes out of her well-documented tendency toward self-aggrandizement, we’ll never know. But her name is still remembered over 100 years after her death, and it’s synonymous with the rough and tumble, hard-living life of a pioneer of the Old West.
Not an Old West-type campfire story, but we couldn’t resist including this character. First documented in a 1931 Scribner’s Magazine article, Joe Magarac is sort of a patron saint of Pittsburgh steelworkers, and is himself made out of steel.
Given that “magarac” is a Serbo-Croatian word for “jackass,” it seems likely someone was pulling a fast one on Owen Francis, the article’s author. That didn’t stop the character from being adopted by the steelworkers and becoming part of the area’s culture. Often seen bending steel rails in his bare hands, Magarac makes appearances in facades, statuary and amusement park rides throughout the Monongahela Valley.
Heading back to the West, we next find no less a personage than Pecos Bill, a cowboy said to have “tamed the West.” He was raised by coyotes, used a rattlesnake as a lasso, and rode a horse variously called “Lightning” or “the Widow-Maker.” He’s said to enjoy snacking on dynamite and his exploits include lassoing a twister.
Unique amongst these characters, Pecos Bill is as much defined by his love life as his daring adventures. The object of his affections: Slue-Foot Sue. She could ride and shoot with the best of them. They met on the Rio Grande, where Sue was riding on a giant catfish. It was love at first sight.
On their wedding day, Sue decided she wanted to try riding Widow-Maker, not knowing that the horse was deeply jealous of her. Widow-Maker bucked her off so hard that she hit her head on the moon. That’s the sort of thing that puts a strain on a marriage.
Perhaps the most famous — and fantastical — of all is Paul Bunyan. Bunyan is described as being a giant lumberjack of great physical strength, skill, and appetite. His constant companion is a similarly gargantuan blue ox named Babe, because once you’ve violated the Square/Cube Law, pretty much anything goes.
Although the character existed as a folk tale spread through logging camps, Bunyan’s true fame came about through an advertising campaign in the early 1900s. Used as a spokescritter of sorts for the Red River Lumber Company, they issued pamphlets detailing his various exploits. Basically, Paul Bunyan was the original Most Interesting Man in the World.
The characters survived Red River’s demise, gaining a life of their own from Maine to Washington State in the form of statuary, cartoons, comic books, and more.
Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.