Paul Bunyan

"Babe the Blue Ox" redirects here. For the band, see Babe the Blue Ox (band).
Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine
Birthplace Various claimed:
Bangor, Maine[1]
Bemidji, Minnesota
Brainerd, Minnesota
Oscoda, Michigan
Ossineke, Michigan
St. Ignace, Michigan
Full name Paul Bunyan
Gender Male
Occupation Lumberjack
Nationality French Canadian

Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack in American folklore.[2][3] His exploits revolve around the tall tales of his superhuman labors,[4][5] and he is customarily accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. The character originated in the oral tradition of North American loggers,[2][3][4][5] and was later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.[6] He has been the subject of various literary compositions, musical pieces, commercial works, and theatrical productions.[3] His likeness is displayed in several statues across North America.[7][8]


There are many hypotheses about the etymology of the name Paul Bunyan. Much of the commentary focuses on a Franco-Canadian origin for the name. Phonetically Bunyan is similar to the Québécois expression "bon yenne!" expressing surprise or astonishment. The English surname Bunyan is derived from the same root as bunion in the Old French bugne, referring to a large lump or swelling. Several researchers have attempted to trace Paul Bunyan to the character of Bon Jean or Tit Jean of French Canadian folklore.[9]

Early references

Lumberjacks near Bellingham, Washington in c. 1910

Michael Edmonds states in his book Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan that Paul Bunyan stories circulated for at least thirty years before finding their way into print. In contrast to the lengthy narratives abundant in published material, Paul Bunyan "stories" when told in the lumbercamp bunkhouses were presented in short fragments.[5] Some of these stories include motifs from older folktales, such as absurdly severe weather and fearsome critters.[10] Parallels in early printings support the view that at least a handful of Bunyan stories hold a common origin in folklore. The earliest recorded reference to Paul Bunyan is an uncredited 1904 editorial in the Duluth News Tribune which recounts:

His pet joke and the one with which the green horn at the camp is sure to be tried, consists of a series of imaginative tales about the year Paul Bunyan lumbered in North Dakota. The great Paul is represented as getting out countless millions of timber in the year of the "blue snow." The men's shanty in his camp covered a half section, and the mess camp was a stupendous affair. The range on which an army of cookees prepared the beans and "red horse" was so long that when the cook wanted to grease it up for the purpose of baking the wheat cakes in the morning, they strapped two large hams to his feet and started him running up and down a half mile of black glistening stove top.[11]

Each of these elements recurs in later accounts, including logging the Dakotas, a giant camp, the winter of the blue snow, and stove skating. All four anecdotes are mirrored in J. E. Rockwell's "Some Lumberjack Myths" six years later,[12] and James MacGillivray wrote on the subject of stove skating in "Round River" four years before that.[13] MacGillivray's account, somewhat extended, reappeared in The American Lumberman in 1910. The American Lumberman followed up with a few sporadic editorials, such as "Paul Bunyan's Oxen," "In Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty," and "Chronicle of Life and Works of Mr. Paul Bunyan." Rockwell's earlier story was one of the few to allude to Paul Bunyan's Brobdignagian stature and introduce his big blue ox, prior to Laughead's commercialization of Paul Bunyan, although W .D. Harrigan did refer to a giant pink ox in "Paul Bunyan's Oxen," circa 1914.[14] In all the articles, Paul Bunyan is praised as a logger of great physical strength and unrivaled skill.

In advertising and promotion

Paul Bunyan (49 foot) and Babe the Blue Ox (35 foot) statues at Trees of Mystery. Note the size of the visitors at Babe's hoof.

William B. Laughead, an independent adman, was the first to utilize Paul Bunyan for commercial use in a series of campaigns for the Red River Lumber Company. His first endeavor was a pamphlet entitled "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California," but it did not prove effective. It was not until "Tales about Paul Bunyan, Vol. II" appeared that the campaign gained momentum.[3] Embellishing older exploits and adding some of his own, Laughead's revamped Paul Bunyan did not stay faithful to the original folktales. Among other things, Laughead gave the name "Babe" to the blue ox, increased Paul Bunyan's height to impossible proportions, and created the first pictorial representation of Bunyan.[15] This has led to significant confusion regarding the validity of Paul Bunyan as a genuine folkloric character.[2] Nevertheless, the Laughead pamphlets are regarded as one of the most popular collections, often appearing in a single, unabridged volume entitled: The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. The Red River ad campaign ingrained Paul Bunyan as a nationally recognized figure, and it also affirmed his massive marketing appeal. Throughout the better part of the century, Paul Bunyan's name and image continued to be utilized in promoting various products, cities, and services. Across North America, giant statues of Paul Bunyan were erected to promote local businesses and tourism. A significant portion of these were produced from the 1960s through the 1970s by the company International Fiberglass as part of their "Muffler Men" series of giant fiberglass sculptures.[8]

Scholarly research

K. Bernice Stewart, a student at the University of Wisconsin, was working contemporaneously with Laughead to gather Paul Bunyan stories from woodsmen in the Midwest. Stewart was able to make a scholarly anthology of original anecdotes through a series of interviews.[6] These were published as "Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack" in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and coauthored by her English professor Homer A. Watt. The research relates traditional narratives, some in multiple versions, and goes on to conclude that many probably existed in some part before they were set to revolve around Bunyan as a central character. Stewart argued in her analysis that Paul Bunyan belongs to a class of traveler's tales.[4]

“Bunyan was a powerful giant, seven feet tall and with a stride of seven feet. He was famous throughout the lumbering districts for his great physical strength.”

K. Bernice Stewart & Homer A. Watt, "Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack"

Charles E. Brown was the curator of the Museum of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and secretary of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society. He was another principal researcher who recorded early Paul Bunyan stories from lumberjacks.[16] He published these anecdotes in short pamphlet format for the use of students of folklore. Much of his research was financed through the government-funded Wisconsin Writers' Program.[5]

In 2007, Michael Edmonds of the Wisconsin Historical Society began a thorough reinvestigation of the Paul Bunyan tradition, publishing his findings in Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan. Edmonds concluded that Paul Bunyan had origins in the oral traditions of woodsmen working in Wisconsin camps during the turn of the 20th century, but such stories were heavily embellished and popularized by commercial interests.

Children's adaptations

A still from the 1959 cartoon "Paul Bunyan." Typical among juvenile accounts, the cartoon features Paul Bunyan batting cannonballs in the American Revolutionary War, sinking pirate ships, and building the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Running at variance to his origins in folklore, the character of Paul Bunyan has become a fixture for juvenile audiences since his debut in print. Typical among such adaptations is the further embellishment of stories pulled directly from William B. Laughead's pamphlet, and with very few elements from oral tradition adapted into them. Nearly all of the literature is presented in long narrative format, exaggerates Paul Bunyan's height to colossal proportions, and follows him from infancy to adulthood.

Some of the more enduring collections of stories include Paul Bunyan by James Stevens, Paul Bunyan Swings His Axe by Dell J. McCormick, Paul Bunyan by Esther Shephard, Paul Bunyan and His Great Blue Ox by Wallace Wadsworth, and The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan by William Laughead.

Legends of Paul Bunyan (1947) was the first book published by the prolific tall tale writer Harold Felton.[17]

In 1958 Walt Disney Studios produced Paul Bunyan as an animated short musical. The feature starred Thurl Ravenscroft, perhaps best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger for the Kellogg Company, and was nominated for Best Animated Short by the Academy Awards.

Debated authenticity

Overlap of Early Paul Bunyan Printings
Duluth News[11] Rockwell[12] MacGillivray[13] Harrigan[14] Stewart & Watt[4] Laughead[15]
Stove Skating Green tick Green tick Green tick Green tick Green tick Green tick
Pea Soup Lake Red X yellow tick[lower-alpha 1] Green tick Red X Green tick Green tick
Giant Camp Green tick Green tick Red X Green tick Red X Green tick
Gigantism Red X Green tick Red X Red X Green tick yellow tick[lower-alpha 2]
Winter of the Blue Snow Green tick Green tick Red X Red X Green tick Green tick
Blue Ox Red X Green tick Red X yellow tick[lower-alpha 3] Green tick Green tick
Logging the Dakotas Green tick Green tick Red X Red X Red X Green tick
Creating Geography Red X Red X Red X Red X Red X Green tick
  1. In Rockwell's version it was beans and not peas that were spilled in the lake.
  2. Rather than simply being really tall, Paul Bunyan's height is increased beyond all possible human capacity.
  3. In Harrigan's account Paul Bunyon [sic] is said to have a pink ox named, "Old Brinny."

Commentators such as Carleton C. Ames, Marshall Fitwick, and particularly Richard Dorson cite Paul Bunyan as an example of "fakelore," a literary invention passed off as an older folktale. They point out that the majority of books about Paul Bunyan are composed almost entirely of elements with no basis in folklore, especially those targeted at juvenile audiences. Modern commercial writers are credited with setting Paul Bunyan on his rise to a nationally recognized figure, but this ignores the historical roots of the character in logging camps and forest industries.[7]

At the same time, several authors have come forward to propose alternative origins for Paul Bunyan. D. Laurence Rogers and others have suggested a possible connection between Paul Bunyan tales and the exploits of French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian Fournier (1845 – 1875). From 1865 to 1875, Fournier worked for the H. M. Loud Company in the Grayling, Michigan area.[5] James Stevens in his 1925 book Paul Bunyan makes another unverified claim that Paul Bunyan was a soldier in the Papineau Rebellion named Paul Bon Jean,[18] and this is occasionally repeated in other accounts.

Stewart and Watt acknowledge that they have not yet succeeded in definitively finding out whether Bunyan actually lived or was wholly mythical. They have noted, however, that some of the older lumberjacks whom they interviewed claimed to have known him or members of his crew, and the supposed location of his grave was actually pointed out in northern Minnesota.[4] In this regard, it should be noted that Bunyan's extreme gigantism was a later invention, and that early stories either do not mention it or, as in the Stewart and Watt paper, refer to him as being about seven feet tall.

Included in this section is a comparison chart between early Paul Bunyan references, the Stewart and Watt paper, and the Laughead advertisement.

See also


  1. Smith, Benjamin (January 19, 2012). "6 Towns That Claim Paul Bunyan as Their Own (and What They Should Be Bragging About Instead)". Mental Floss. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 Sharpe, Lenwood S (April 22, 2014), Paul Bunyan: His Story, Thrill Land, retrieved April 25, 2014
  3. 1 2 3 4 Wisconsin Historical Society (n.d.), Paul Bunyan, retrieved May 25, 2014
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Stewart, K. B.; Watt, Homer A. (1916), Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 18/II, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, pp. 639–651, retrieved April 30, 2014
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Edmonds, Michale (2009), Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan, Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society
  6. 1 2 Wisconsin Historical Society (July 29, 2007), The Peculiar Birth of Paul Bunyan, archived from the original on October 10, 2013, retrieved November 22, 2011
  7. 1 2 Hartly, John P. (2007), Legendary Landscapes: A Cultural Geography of the Paul Bunyan and Blue Ox Phenomena of the Northwoods, Kansas State University, retrieved May 5, 2014
  8. 1 2 Roadside America Team (2005), A Catalog of Bunyans: Roadside statues and other tributes to the Great Tree-Biter, Paul Bunyan,, retrieved June 28, 2011
  9. Gartenberg, Max (1949), "Paul Bunyan and Little John", The Journal of American Folklore, American Folklore Society, 62/246: 416–422, JSTOR 536582
  10. Cox, William T. (1910). Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. With illustrations by Coert Du Bois and Latin classifications by George B. Sudworth. Washington, DC: Judd & Detweiler Inc. OCLC 551649247. Retrieved November 23, 2015.
  11. 1 2 Anonymous (August 4, 1904), "Caught on the Run", Duluth News Tribune, Duluth, Missouri, retrieved May 6, 2014
  12. 1 2 Rockwell, J. E. (February 1910), "Some Lumberjack Myths", The Outer’s Book, pp. 157–160, retrieved May 6, 2014
  13. 1 2 MacGillivray, James (August 10, 1906), "Round River", The Press, Oscoda, Michigan, retrieved May 6, 2014
  14. 1 2 Harrigan, W. D. (June 13, 1914), "Paul Bunyan's Oxen", American Lumberman, p. 30, retrieved May 6, 2014
  15. 1 2 Laughead, William B. (1922), The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan, Minneapolis: Red River Lumber Co., retrieved May 6, 2014
  16. Brown, Charles E. (1921–1945), Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown, Madison, WI, retrieved May 2, 2014
  17. Harold W. Felton, Papers, archive description at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries (retrieved October 11, 2015)
  18. Stevens, James; Lewis, Allen (1925), Paul Bunyan, New York: A. A. Knopf
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