America’s Folk Legends

American Artisans, History, People, Traditions
on February 27, 2005

Daniel Boone was splitting chestnut fence rails when a band of Cherokee Indians stopped to capture him. “He talked them into helping him split the last rail first. They grabbed the crack he’d split in the log, and he knocked the wedge out, trapped their fingers, and ran away,’’ says Ronny Smith of Middlesboro, Ky. (pop. 10,384). “It’s probably not true, but it’s a great story.”

Smith, who works at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, located at the junction of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, grew up hearing his father’s yarns about Boone. The stories about the real explorer and frontiersman rivaled tall tales of Pecos Bill lassoing a cyclone in Texas and Paul Bunyan digging the Great Lakes for drinking water.

Truth, fiction or exaggeration, heroes such as Boone, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, John Henry and others captured the imagination of Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Festivals, monuments, outdoor dramas and museums across the country still honor them—from the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed in Leominster, Mass. (pop. 41,303), to the beloved Wallowa Valley of Chief Joseph at Joseph, Ore. (pop. 1,054). Their names entitle highways, forests, schools, parks, towns and other landmarks, while statues and historic markers tell their stories.

Myths for a new nation

When the United States was young, the fledgling nation needed a new mythology, says Simon Bronner, a professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State University.

“Greek and Roman gods and the Knights of the Round Table were not going to cut it in this new land,’’ Bronner says. So frontier heroes like Boone helped define what an American should be, while stories such as George Washington and the cherry tree taught morals.

“An American was someone who was proudly wild and at the same time civilized,’’ Bronner says.

Historic figures inspired larger-than-life fiction. “There are stories about what a great Indian fighter Boone was, but Boone himself said he only killed one or two Indians,’’ says Nelson Dawson, editor of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Boone’s name is everywhere in Kentucky—the state he explored and helped settle—from the Daniel Boone National Forest to Fort Boonesborough State Park, a working replica of Kentucky’s first white settlement, near Richmond, Ky. (pop. 27,152). The frontiersman isn’t forgotten in other states—his family homestead in Birdsboro, Pa. (pop. 5,064), is a museum, and his last permanent home is part of a living history village in Defiance, Mo.

Sports stars, actors and astronauts are the modern counterparts to Boone and other folk heroes. “We’ve explored all the earth, but people like Neil Armstrong were frontier heroes if you consider space as the frontier,’’ Dawson says.

The nation’s first gardener

Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman in 1774, in Leominster, Mass., holds up as a modern hero, too, says Carl Querino, a Fitchburg, Mass. (pop. 39,102), banker who has portrayed the legend during Leominster’s Johnny Appleseed Days Festival, held each September.

“He was a person who made friends with the Indians and pioneers who came West, and he never hurt anyone,’’ Querino says.

Bess Bodnarchuk, director of the Johnny Appleseed Trail, that winds through Massachusetts’ apple country, says popular legends of Appleseed as a seed scatterer with a pot on his head aren’t true. But the “gentle hero” created apple orchards in the wilderness of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania, giving away and selling trees to homesteaders. His legacy is alive and well in those states, too, in towns such as Mifflin, Ohio (pop. 144)—home to the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center and Outdoor Drama.

Steel-drivin’ man

Folks in Talcott, W.Va., are certain “the steel-drivin’ man” John Henry was a former slave who worked on the Great Bend Tunnel railroad tunnel, says John William Dillon, retired postmaster of the community of about 1,500. A statute near Talcott honors Henry, as does an annual July festival, and a 20-acre park—complete with a steam-engine train, amphitheater and museum—is planned.

“He’s a working man’s hero,’’ Dillon says. “He was fighting to save his job and others from technology.”

Scott Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., believes Talcott was the first place where railroad workers sang a song about the legendary steel-driving man. Nelson also found prison records, from 1866 to 1872, that list a free black man and ex-convict named John Henry, who worked at the Lewis Tunnel, near a place called Jerry’s Run on the Appalachian Trail. Nelson believes Henry was among 100 workers who died in an accident at the tunnel.

“Everybody had a version of the song that describes their tunnel,’’ says Nelson, whose forthcoming book is called Finding John Henry. He adds that it is entirely plausible that Henry won a contest against a steam drill, since the drills often broke down.

The message is more important than the origin, Bronner says.

“In these stories,’’ he says, “we exaggerate ourselves and our environment to try to draw out what’s important.”

The tallest tales

Most folklorists and historians credit an advertising campaign by a Red River Logging Co. employee with spreading the fictional tale about a giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. Bunyan’s name and familiar red plaid shirt can be seen everywhere in Bemidji, Minn., the northernmost town on the Paul Bunyan Trail, a paved biking trail that winds through many logging towns.

The 1937 concrete statue of Bunyan with Babe, the Blue Ox, on the town’s waterfront was determined to be the oldest statue of Bunyan by the U.S. Postal Service when it issued the Bunyan stamp in 1996. “Day and night people are standing in front of it to have their picture taken,’’ says Larry Young, an amateur historian in Bemidji (pop. 11,917).

A heroine for our times

Not all American folk heroes were Indian killers, buffalo hunters and loggers; some, like Sacajawea, have gained a place of national prominence for a gentler spirit.

Sacajawea was almost unknown for a century after her amazing feats as an interpreter and guide for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery’s expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1805. But her time has come, says Roseann Abrahamson, the great-great-great niece of the teenage American Indian heroine.

“She went without complaint, carrying a baby on her back. She showed women had the same capabilities as men,’’ Abrahamson says.

“During the centennial of the Corps, she gave women a voice. During the bicentennial, she gave Native Americans a voice,’’ says Abrahamson, who grew up in Salmon, Idaho, near Sacajawea’s birthplace. The town of 3,122 celebrates her legacy at the Sacajawea Interpretive Cultural & Education Center, while statues and markers honoring her can be found throughout North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Her image, with her baby in a cradleboard, also graces a golden U.S. dollar coin.