Paul Bunyan Beginnings, the Research

Rod Nelson

James Stevens, in his 1925-copyrighted book entitled, Paul Bunyan, shares with us a heavily researched introduction to the origination of the Paul Bunyan tales. Previous to his publication, James MacGillivray, a reporter for the Detroit News, had collected the tales orally. MacGillivray published them in July 1910, as a book he called, The Round River Drive.

Here are some highlights from Mr. Stevens’ introduction:

The Paul Bunyan legend had its origin in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837. This was a revolt of the French-Canadians against their young English queen. Loggers armed with mattocks, axes and wooden forks stormed into battle. Among them was a mighty muscled, bellicose, bearded giant named Paul Bunyon (notice the spelling). He came out of the rebellion with great fame among his own kind. His slaughters earned him the grandeur of legend.

He later operated a logging camp, becoming its camp boss. In these camps the nightlife was centered around a shanty stove where songs and tales abounded. Their own lives and heroes became the subjects. The camp boss had to have exceptional power and courage to enforce his will on the camp. Because of his efforts in the rebellion, there became no more famous camp chief in Canada than Paul Bunyon.

Part of Stevens’ research involved talking with old French-Canadian loggers. One 90 year old (as of the 1920’s), a Mr. Berneche, stated, “My uncle know that Paul Bunyon carry five hundred pounds on portage.

That is truth. He was very big, strong man, you understand; he fight like hell, he work like hell, and he pack like hell. Never was another man like Paul Bunyon. That’s right.”

And so it’s not hard to imagine the loggers honestly exaggerating the logging feats of this war hero. As well, the challenge may have easily become to “improve on” the first stories. Paul changed his name to Bunyan (notice spelling) when he crossed into American logging camps.

Other evidence supports this view of the origin of the stories. He appears in the Red River Lumber Company’s collection of Paul Bunyan stories. This collection can now be seen at the University of Minnesota as part of the Children’s Literature Research Collection. Another part of this interesting collection is the James Stevens manuscripts as well.

But it became the American loggers who made Paul Bunyan a true hero of the camp nights’ entertainment. The Paul Bunyan camp settings, minor heroes, feats, all grew from these evening sessions. By 1860 he had become a genuine legendary hero.

Another name of the time is Len Day. He had one of the largest lumber concerns in Minneapolis in the 1860’s. In 1873, it is recalled, that Day, at age 85, was still active with the lure of the drive and camp life. Many nights the loggers gathered in the cookhouse to hear the old camp bard lay out another section, or chapter, about Paul’s feats to the eagerly awaiting ears.

Day had actually heard the stories in their beginnings back in the 1840’s when he lived in New Brunswick. These anecdotes served as a theme for gorgeous yarns when a knowing and gifted camp storyteller was inspired to use them.

The tall tale telling game seems to have become more of a ‘how to believably enhance or outdo’ the last storyteller. Each may have tried to catch the listener off-guard with some new detail or quick explanation that would register in the brain some many seconds later. This probably provided the moans or cheers of the evening – once the realization of “being had” took place.
Since these early days the tales have been told and retold, written and rewritten, enhanced and re-enhanced.

In this section of the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association’s Web site we invite you to do some of your own writing. We love receiving your ‘recollections’ or ‘understandings’ regarding Paul and his amazing feats and friends. Your ‘accountings’ may be added to the online tall tale collection below. And that is NOT a tall tale!