Some of the most popular and well known myths in America come from the American frontier. When pioneers of the west trail blazed their way to the western edges of the continent, they left a legacy of strange stories and fantastic tales that have become ingrained into American culture. When people think of the wild west, they still picture amazing figures of superhero gunslingers and bigger than life heroes and heroines that captivate the imagination and amuse audiences of all ages.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good story? Many of the stories of the American frontier were based in part on real life people and happenings. Lonely cowboys and pioneering families living in the isolated mid west and west often invented stories around the news of people and places of the times to amuse themselves in an otherwise isolated and sometimes rather bleak existence. These American myths or Tall tales became so popular that they spread throughout American culture, sometimes even being reported as real news by the yellow journalism of the age.
When people think of the American frontier, such images come to mind as Wild Bill Hickok, Paul Bunnon and his great blue ox, Billy the Kid, Davy Crocket, John Henry and Pecos Bill to name a few. Tales of extraordinary people performing amazing feats of strength and courage, overcoming insurmountable odds and taming the wild west. While most of these tales involved superhuman men performing superhuman feats, women weren’t left out in these exaggerated stories of human perseverance and stamina. Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Sal Fink come to mind.
With the invention of the American railroad and its spread westward which sent an influx of settlers to the frontier came other stories. The railroad was an awe inspiring thing to see to the people of the frontier. This is reflected in the many myths and legends that surround railways, stations and tracks, even to this day. The railroads brought people from many walks of life together mixing cultures and traditions, creating a brand new hodgepodge of mythology involving elements from many cultures.
Railroads were also dangerous places to work and live nearby. Fear and disastrous events led to even more widespread tales of amazing feats of human accomplishment as well as spine chilling retelling of tragedies in the form of ghost stories. Even today in towns across the nation eerie stories of lost loves and unfortunate rail workers haunt railway stations from the days of the frontier.
Stories of the frontier not only reflected the prevailing political ideas of the times but also told of everyday situations faced by ordinary people on the frontier. What made these stories so popular was the ability for the audience to relate to the characters of the stories. A lumberjack, a scout, a railroad worker, a fur trader, a cowboy. These were all average professions on the frontier. Outlaws became modern day Robin Hoods and renegade cowboys became the knights in shining armor of lore, protecting the public from such fierce enemies as wild Indians and greedy railroad tycoons.
Myths from the American frontier involve many different story types including tall tales, folk tales, ghost stories and cultural stories from the mesh of cultures and peoples that developed the American west. Dominate features of American frontier myths seem to include mainly white men and women, though there are a few traditional stories that center around peoples of other ethnicities. It is important to remember that while the time period reflects that Caucasian people were the ones who “tamed the west”, many, many cultures and ethnicities contributed to the development of the west into the unique culture that it is now. The Native American Indian civilizations were often pictured as negative images in tales of the frontier. African American and Asian Americans as well as women’s contributions were often ignored and these people were often depicted as the protagonist of the story. While this is hardly the case, this stereotypical view of none whites in the frontier persists today.
Tales of the American frontier are known for their short and antedotical style of telling. Often akin to fables, these stories tend to relate a moral or value lesson of some kind in the telling. Some popular stories brought the main characters of several stories together. These could probably be viewed by literary scholars as the first “serial” stories of the American frontier. Yellow journalism perpetuated these myths in their retelling as news articles in the Eastern states. People eagerly awaited the next episode retelling the antics of Billy the Kid or the newest fantastic feat of Paul Bunnon. The popularity of these stories arose from the fact that many of the people depicted in these stories were real persons. Exaggerations of feats of daring led to the retelling of the stories over and over again. They reflect the heart of the nation at a time when exploration was at its peak and when America was a young nation, just realizing it’s potential.
Some well known myths of the American frontier include:
Paul Bunyon: The giant lumberjack who invented logging, created the smog on the west coast with his giant tobacco pipe, invented the double decker ice cream cone, and created Minnesota’s land of 10,000 lakes with his and his pet blue ox Babe’s footprints. There is no verifiable proof that Paul Bunyon was real but a few researchers claim he was possibly a french canadian logger.
John Henry: the railroad worker referred to as the steel driving man who beat a steam driller at being the fastest to drive railroad stakes into the ground at the furthest depth. It is not known for sure if John Henry was a real person, but he is celebrated as such and several authors have presented compelling evidence that he was indeed a real person.
Pecos Bill : “The greatest cowboy of all time” a rough and wild wrangling cowboy from Texas who taught himself to swim at the age of two, was raised by wild coyotes, invented the branding iron and the lasso. His stories are believed to have been invented by the journalist who wrote about him. He used a snake named Shake as a lasso and rode a horse called Widow Maker which no other man alive could ride. His favorite meal was dynomite, he sometimes rode a mountain lion and he even lassoed a tornado once. The love of his life was Slue foot Sue who rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande. After shooting all the stars out of the sky except one, The Lone Star (which is how Texas got its nick name) he proposed to Sue. He lost her when she insisted on riding Widow Maker who in a jealous fit, threw her from the saddle. Landing on her Bustle, she bounced into the air and landed on the moon. Pecos Bill supposedly laughed himself to death after running into a young man in a tavern decked out in all alligator attire who claimed to be a great cowboy. Pecos thought the idea so ridiculous he laughed until he died.
Davy Crockett: a real person who performed such amazing feats as killing a bear at age three, known as the “king of the wild frontier”. Davy Crockett was a real person who is immortalized in history books everywhere as a frontiersman, a soldier and a politician who died at the famous siege of the Alamo in Texas.
Johnny Appleseed: a real person who spent his life traveling the frontier and planting apple seeds. Born John Chapman, he was a missionary who was also one of the first known American ecologist. Known for his love of nature, he traveled the midwest planting apple nurseries.
Billy the Kid: a real person and a notorious outlaw, elevated to the status of hero for his gun slinging antics in the Lincoln county wars and personified as a modern day robin hood by yellow journalists of the time period.
Mike Fink: known as “the toughest boatman on the Mississippi River.” Mike Fink was a semi-famous keelboatman who ran boats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi River. Dubbed the King of the Boatmen, he was known for notorious practical jokes, being a nearly unbeatable brawler and having exemplary strength to which a number of fantastical feats was attributed. He was a keen eyed marksman and served as an Indian scout during his teen years. His exploits were often related in conjunction with those of Davy Crockett.
Calamity Jane: a rootin, tootin, true wild west woman with a sure fire aim and the strength of ten men. She was known as a daring frontierswoman and an Indian fighter. Her real name was Martha Jane Cannary, and she was well known as an associate of Wild Bill HIckok and a member of Buffalo Bill’s wild west show in her later days.