Birth of a Legend
Cutting to the core of Paul Bunyan's true Great Lakes origins
Sometimes the truth is undeniably boring. Not so with Paul Bunyan.
To get to the truth of America’s favorite folk tale, one must assess the validity of a French-Canadian with two sets of teeth, revisit a mythical Wisconsin beast, and sort through the lies and half-truths of drunken Great Lakes loggers who insisted they’d known or met a giant, heroic lumberjack.
If that still sounds boring, turn the page.
Paul Bunyan was not a real person — at least, it doesn’t seem likely that he was. But that hasn’t stopped numerous American cities from claiming to be the official “birthplace” of a fictional character. In Michigan, cities from Oscoda to Ossineke to St. Ignace claim Paul as a native son, while Bangor, Maine; Bemidji, Minn.; and Brainerd, Minn., also claim, with stout hearts, that Paul is theirs.
So which city is it really? Where does Paul Bunyan — the man, the folk tale, the American symbol of strength and size — really come from?
None of those questions has a short, reliable answer, but in a tall tale with a giant lumberjack and an equally big blue ox at its center, how clear can the truth possibly be?
Fournier or Fiction
Before traipsing into the much-disputed territory of Paul Bunyan’s truest “birthplace,” it is necessary to examine whether Paul, or any version of him, truly did exist.
Unsurprisingly, it’s safe to say that Paul the giant, the superhuman lumberjack who’s credited with creating landmasses from Lake Michigan to the Grand Canyon to Minnesota’s 10,000 Lakes, is, indeed, a work of fiction. But Paul the man, a true-life logger whose exceptional strength and skill may have inspired the Paul of folk tale fame, is thought to have existed by several historians.
According to Michigan author D. Laurence Rogers, the most likely candidate for a true Bunyan model existed in the form of a French-Canadian logger named Fabian “Saginaw Joe” Fournier. Born in Quebec, the notoriously tough and rabble-rousing Fournier moved to Michigan following the Civil War to capitalize on the booming timber industry. At 6 feet tall, Fournier towered over his fellow lumbermen, and his fearsome reputation was compounded by the rumor that he had two sets of teeth.
“He was kind of an awful guy,” Rogers says. “There were a lot of stories telling how legendary he was, how he was a great hero of the woods, but he was also a brawler.”
Fittingly, Fournier met his end when he was killed in a fight in Bay City in 1875. (According to Rogers, rumor has it that Fournier’s jawbone was once on display at the University of Michigan dental school, though this hasn’t been confirmed.)
Rogers and other historians argue that over time, Fournier’s true-life tale merged with that of a French-Canadian soldier named “Bon Jean,” who was believed to have fought in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837. Eventually, the French pronunciation of “Bon Jean” led to the Americanized version of “Bunyan.”
But according to Wisconsin author Michael Edmonds, the Fournier/Bon Jean theory doesn’t add up. In his 2009 book Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan, Edmonds asserts that by the time the Fournier-based story is known to have been told in Michigan, Bunyan stories were already circulating in the lumber camps of Wisconsin. Additionally, no record of a name resembling Bunyan has been found in archives related to the Papineau Rebellion.
For Edmonds’ part, Paul’s birth seems most likely to have been a work of collective fiction by 19th century loggers.
“There was no real Paul Bunyan,” Edmonds says. “I don’t think there was a model for Paul, either. There certainly were heroic lumberjacks, but Bunyan was more the embodiment of loggers’ collective fears and wish fulfillment.”
Edmonds maintains that the first reliable Bunyan stories were told near Tomahawk, Wis., in the winter of 1885-86. But it didn’t take long for the stories to reach Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada as seasonal loggers moved from camp to camp.
Telling the best Paul story often evolved into a competition around the campfire, and in order to lend a touch of authenticity to their tales, storytellers often claimed that they’d worked with Paul or met him during some incredibly harsh winter.
Over time, Paul’s geographical origins became another vague detail in his ever-changing story, and as Paul’s fame grew, storytellers clung to versions they insisted were the original. But no one adhered to his stories more fervently, perhaps, than Wisconsonian timber cruiser Gene Shepard.
As a longtime surveyor and lumberman, Gene Shepard was a recognizable name in the timber industry. In the 1880s, he spent a great deal of time socializing with loggers who worked near his hometown of Rhinelander, Wis., and around the Great Lakes.
“In all the communities where logging was important, (Shepard) was known because he was such a great storyteller and eccentric guy,” Edmonds says. “Wherever you went in the logging world in the late 19th century, people knew who Gene Shepard was.”
Like other men of the woods, Shepard was also a heavy drinker and an elaborate practical joker. In 1896, in perhaps his greatest ruse, he claimed to have captured a live hodag — a mythical Wisconsin beast with the head of a bull or frog, the back of a dinosaur, and a spiky tail. That same year, Shepard displayed his stuffed hodag at the Oneida County Fair and used a system of wires and pulleys to bring it to life. The Smithsonian Institution nearly paid him a visit to authenticate the animal before he was forced to reveal it as a hoax.
Shepard showed the same wisecracking commitment to the Paul Bunyan stories he told to his fellow loggers, claiming that he invented these tales. According to one fellow timber cruiser, who recalled Shepard’s lively storytelling, “As the lumberjacks sat around the bunkhouses evenings, listening to stories, Gene Shepard was their conception of Paul Bunyan.”
Still, Edmonds acknowledges that although Shepard may have claimed ownership more vehemently than other storytellers, that doesn’t mean he invented Paul.
“He could have gotten the idea somewhere else, but I’m pretty confident that, verbally, he was the one out in the woods who made up these stories to tease and amuse loggers with whom he stayed or whom he led as a formative crew,” Edmonds says.
Later, when Bunyan stories first appeared in print, Shepard continued to claim their original authorship, but since the stories were understood to be folklore, their origins remained obscure.
“Anybody can make up folklore,” Edmonds says. “It has no authoritative form.”
To date, the first known mention of Paul Bunyan in print appeared in a brief, unattributed column in the Duluth News Tribune on Aug. 4, 1904. Thus, to the joy of Minnesotans, Paul’s literary birthplace could be said to be Duluth.
But two years later, Paul Bunyan appeared for the first time in fuller form in a series of anecdotes in the Aug. 10, 1906 edition of the Oscoda Press in Oscoda. The article was drafted by lumberjack and Oscoda native James MacGillivray and included trademark elements of Paul Bunyan stories like a pet ox and snow as deep as treetops. Today, Oscoda is recognized as Paul’s official birthplace by the State of Michigan.
Originally, the Oscoda Press only printed 900 copies of the stories, but four years later on July 24, 1910, MacGillivray reprinted the stories in The Detroit News, which introduced the tale of Paul Bunyan to his largest audience yet. From then on, the MacGillivray stories became the heart of the Bunyan canon, and as editors reprinted and added to them to suit their needs, authorship largely became an afterthought.
A Lasting Legacy
In truth, the Paul Bunyan folk tale looms too large in American culture for any one place to claim as its own. Northern Wisconsin may have been the place where the stories were first told, but Oscoda also played a major role in popularizing Paul’s tale, and so have timber towns all over the country.
In the early 1900s, Paul’s story expanded westward when the Minnesota-based Red River Lumber Company adapted him into an advertorial campaign placing his origins in Westwood, Calif.
In 1959, Bangor, Maine, issued an official birth certificate to Paul Bunyan that continues to hang in Bangor’s city hall. (The date of Paul’s birth, is, coincidentally, the same date the city itself was incorporated in 1791.)
In Michigan, Paul is celebrated regularly at Oscoda’s Paul Bunyan Days festival — a September event typical of nationwide Bunyan celebrations that includes a pancake breakfast, chainsaw carving, and a pie-eating contest.
“Paul Bunyan is definitely something that we hold onto as our heritage,” says Oscoda-AuSable Chamber of Commerce Director Rose Fulton. “He’s that larger-than-life lumberjack that goes deep into our roots and our history as a logging area. That’s how our communities were developed.”
Indeed, the purpose of Paul Bunyan, regardless of his true, geographical origins, is to stand as a strong, hardworking, big-hearted symbol of the small, American lumber town that helped fuel the country’s prosperity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
And although Paul’s reality isn’t likely to upstage his symbolic saga, his birth, figurative or otherwise, makes for a bewildering tale in its own right.
“Once you start getting at what the truth of something really was, it’s always fascinating,” Edmonds says. “The truth is always more bizarre than fiction.”
The 2016 Oscoda AuSable Paul Bunyan Days Festival will be held Sept. 23-25.