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The Interesting History of Paul Bunyan

Statue of the legendary character Paul Bunyan
Jane Rix/Shutterstock

The story of the big guy named Paul Bunyan has been around for ages and has graced many children’s books. Like most folklore, the stories about this giant man vary, from differing heights to whether or not the tales of him have any basis in fact or on a real person.

Who Is Paul Bunyan?

Paul Bunyan is a mythological lumberjack who, according to legends, created the lakes and rivers, the Grand Canyon, and even the Back Hills. The United States, according to the tales about Paul, looks the way it does, with mountains, craters, and winding rivers, because of Paul’s adventures.

Tales of Paul weren’t reserved only for the United States. The lumbering lumberjack was also famous in Canada.

Paul wasn’t alone in the tales told of him. He had an Ox named Babe, and his bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger. Johnny is said to have invented the first ink pen, as the tale goes, by attaching a barrel of ink to a hose.

Paul and his friends are fictional characters whose tall tales are told around campfires and may have been more popular when lumberjacking was still a large business. The stories made for a good laugh, most of the time, like how Paul’s kitchen was ten miles long. Other stories tell of how the giant man helped save the day, like when he dealt with a log jam on the Wisconsin River.

How far back the tales of Paul Bunyan go back, it’s hard to say precisely. In the beginning, the stories of the giant lumberjack were oral history, not recorded on paper for posterity. This may explain why some accounts say he was six feet tall; others say he was seven feet tall, and the many statues around the United States of the towering man measure up to 40 feet in height).

In the first half of Disney’s short on Paul, you see that this particular tale of the giant shows him as being much, much larger than everyone else. How big he was doesn’t matter much when he’s a character in American folklore, right?

Paul Bunyan in Literature

The first time many of us hear about Paul Bunyon is through storybooks. Tales in print of the massive man date back to at least the early 1900s.

The first known story about Paul Bunyan was a story called “The Round River Drive.” It was written by James MacGillivray, and published in a newspaper in Northern Michigan. MacGillivray’s tales of Paul wouldn’t stop there—In 1912 who wrote a poem with another person that was published in
American Lumberman magazine, earning Paul Bunyan his first national exposure. Then the first drawings of the tall lumberjack were commissioned two years later for Minnesota’s Red River Lumber Company, becoming their mascot and a household name.

Tall tales of Paul began to take shape later in books. Including in1924, with Esther Shepherd’s book, simply titled, ‘Paul Bunyan.’ This book tells twenty-one tales about the “legendary logger.” For kids of all ages (including adults), that’s a great book, but you can also find a plethora of younger children’s books filled with colorful photos that tell tales of Paul, including that five giant storks carried him to his mom.

Not only can you find books full of Paul’s exploits, but there is a book that talks about where the stories originated. That book is The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan by W.B. Laughead.

Could Paul Bunyan Be Base on a Real Person?

Referred to as fake-lore by some, some think that the tales of Paul Bunyan weren’t oral history at all, and created in modern times for mere entertainment. On the other end of that spectrum, some folks believe that the Paul Bunyan of folklore is based on a real man (or a couple of men).

There has been speculation that Paul Bunyan’s stories come from the antics of Fabian Fournier, also known as Saginaw Joe. He was a French-Canadian lumberjack who worked for H. M. Loud Company near Grayling, Michigan, from 1865 to 1875. Saginaw Joe worked in logging camps all over Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and likely in his home country of Canada.

Saginaw Joe’s life was sensationalized, even without the guise of Paul Bunyan. Stories say that he was taller than the average man at the time and that he had two complete sets of teeth, which allowed him to bite through wooden rails.

Saginaw Joe wasn’t the only French-Canadian lumberman to become part of the Paul Bunyan legends. Bon Jean, a soldier in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, also found himself under speculation as being the extraordinary Paul of tall tales. Some folks believe that it is Bon Jean’s name that evolved into the name Bunyan.

Paul Bunyan’s Legacy

Whether or not children are still reading about Paul Bunyan in grade school, the looming lumberjack has an important place in American history, including many giant statues all over the U.S. Here are some places you can check out giant Paul Bunyan’s, and maybe even a Babe the blue ox:

  • Portland, Oregon, is home to a Paul Bunyan Statue standing 31-foot-tall. It is made of concrete and metal and has been there since it was constructed in1959 as a way to commemorate the centennial of Oregon’s statehood.
  • Bangor, Maine, is also home to a Paul Bunyan Statue standing 31-foot-tall. Also constructed in 1959, this statue commemorates the fact that Bangor is the reputed birthplace of the giant lumberjack.
  • One of many Paul Bunyan statues that folks claim to be the largest, there is a kneeling Paul Bunyan located in Akeley, Minnesota. Built in 1949, it weighs over 4.5 tons.
  • Klamath, California’s Trees of Mystery tourist destination is home to a 49-foot-tall Paul Bunyan alongside Babe the Blue Ox.
  • The 1940s statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue ox, located in Ossineke, Michigan, weren’t always at the location they reside at now, though that’s where they started. They once were part of a lookout and petting zoo attraction in Spruce.

The stories about Paul Bunyan are fun and interesting, even if they couldn’t possibly be factual.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »