20 Various Tales from American Folklore

20 Various Tales from American Folklore

Larry Holzwarth - September 16, 2018

American folklore actually predates the United States, with personages and places achieving legendary or mythic status before the 1775 “shot heard round the world”, itself later part of folklore. Events, songs, Native American tales, myths, and local legends are all part of America’s native folklore, which grows with the years. Some are based on real people, places, and events, and some are simply creations of fertile minds, passed down through the generations until the patina of time makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. The truth of much of American history has been blurred with local folklore to become hidden within the mists of time.

The American push westward is replete with tales of characters, some of whom were real, and some of whom composites of several real characters. Many, such as Tennessee’s David Crockett, amply added to their local reputations by self-serving tall tales of their exploits. It was Crockett who bestowed upon himself the sobriquet, “King of the Wild Frontier”. Another, a gardener and nurseryman of humble character, became known throughout much of the country as Johnny Appleseed. Molly Pitcher emerged as a legendary character in several revolutionary war battles, under different names, rather than just the one associated with the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
The tale of Molly Pitcher bringing water to the troops and then joining the crew of her injured husband’s cannon is repeated in several Revolutionary War battles. Wikimedia

Here are twenty examples of American folklore, their sources, and their links with reality.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
This monument covered half of Plymouth Rock for over fifty years before the granite was returned to its original location. Wikimedia

1. The landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock

Of all the folklore surrounding the Pilgrims’ arrival in what became Massachusetts, none is more indelibly ingrained in America’s collective memory as their landing at Plymouth Rock. In truth, the Pilgrims first went ashore near Provincetown, and upon arriving at the site of the eventual Plymouth colony almost certainly did not use Plymouth Rock as the point at which they came ashore. The Dedham Granite boulder would have been a dangerous point to approach in a wooden boat being tossed by the incoming waves; no experienced mariner of the day would have steered for it when there were more suitable landing sites nearby. The boulder was not mentioned in any of the writings of the colony for its first 121 years of existence.

When it was, by Thomas Faunce, it was with the assertion that his father had told him that the rock had been the original landing spot. Faunce was 94 years of age at the time, and his father had not been one of the Mayflower passengers. He had arrived three years later on the ship Anne. The rock has since been split, chipped away, parts of it moved, and later returned to its original position, with 1620 carved into its upper portion. As early as 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville commented regarding the veneration with which it was held by Americans. Despite Plymouth Rock being possessed of questionable provenance regarding its being the landing place of the Pilgrims in 1620, in American folklore it holds a place forever linked with the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and the birth of what became New England.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
The legend of Ponce de Leon’s futile search for the Fountain of Youth was created by his detractors after his death. Wikimedia

2. Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Leon, who made his first journey to the New World with Christopher Columbus on the latter explorer’s second voyage, is linked in American folklore as exploring Florida and other Spanish claims in a vain search for the mythical Fountain of Youth, which he learned of from the natives. De Leon made several voyages of discovery among the islands of the American coastline and the Caribbean, and led several expeditions on land, though there is no mention in any of his logs, letters, or reports of a Fountain of Youth, nor his seeking it out. Instead, his efforts were directed toward colonization, gold, and conversion of the natives he encountered to Christianity, which in the case of Spain meant Roman Catholicism. Not until he was dead was he linked to the Fountain of Youth.

Gonzalo De Oviedo was the first to report of de Leon’s strange search after the latter died, when he could no longer deny it, and claimed that the explorer had been seeking the Fountain as a cure for his sexual impotence. The evidence presented by the existence of the late explorer’s several children was ignored. Later writers, including Americans, took up the tale of the search, despite the complete lack of any evidence. The tourist industry added to the story, with statues of the explorer and various waterways and springs claiming to have been visited by Ponce de Leon on his futile search. The Florida Fountain of Youth Archaelogical Park claims to be the oldest tourist attraction in the state, with guest books dating to the mid-nineteenth century, exploiting the folklore of Ponce de Leon.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
The site of Major Robert Rogers’ legendary slide down 400 feet of snow covered rock to frozen Lake George is now known as Rogers’ Rock. Wikimedia

3. The legend of Robert Rogers’ 400-foot slide

During the French and Indian War in North America, a company, which was later expanded into several companies, of American rangers was formed to battle the French coureurs du bois and their Indian allies. Based on at Fort William Henry, and later on Rogers’ Island near Fort Edward, the rangers carried out raids and reconnaissance expeditions against the French and Indians and their patrols on Lake George and other waterways, as well as in the deep woods of what later became upstate New York and Canada. One of their tactics when hard pressed in battle was to split into small groups to evade capture and certain torture by their enemies. Rogers’ Rangers operated throughout the winter, unlike the European armies which went into winter quarters when the area was covered in snow.

In March 1758 Rogers led an unusually large party of Rangers on a mission in which they encountered a strong French and Indian party which gave battle. The Rangers had been traveling the still snow covered terrain on snowshoes, and the fight became known as the Second Battle on Horseshoes (the first having involved the Rangers the year before), which soon began to turn against the Rangers. After taking heavy casualties Rogers ordered his remaining men to disperse, and according to local legend Rogers himself escaped by sliding down a 400 foot granite mountainside to the frozen surface of Lake George below, where he strapped on the ice skates that the Rangers carried during winter operations, and skated off to safety. Whether or not the exploit was real is unknown, but the site is known today as Rogers’ Rock, or Rogers Slide in local lore.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
George Washington never through a dollar across a river, but he was a physically powerful athlete throughout his life. Wikimedia

4. George Washington and the dollar thrown across a river

There are many tales of George Washington which are part of American folklore, some of which having some basis in truth, while others are complete fabrications. The often told myth of the young man chopping down his father’s favorite cherry tree was apparently an invention of Parson Mason Locke Weems in the first published biography of the former president, but it is still retold and the image of the young child with an axe and an angry father still appears in the United States in February. Another often told story is of the president, demonstrating admirable strength, throwing a silver dollar across a river, either the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm or the Potomac, either at Alexandria or Mount Vernon.

The dollar story probably never happened, but the demonstration of arm strength did, in a slightly different manner. While Washington was in retirement a popular game among young men at Mount Vernon was the overhead throwing of a heavy iron bar, with the winner being he who threw the furthest. Young men were so engaged when Washington arrived, and according to the visitor he was showing the estate, dismounted, took the bar, and heaved it considerably further than any of the younger men had been able to manage, without even removing his coat. Washington thanked the young men for allowing him a toss, and with his visitor went on about his business.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
David Crockett of Tennessee was claimed as a friend by Mike Fink, who called himself the King of the River. Wikimedia

5. Mike Fink, the King of the River

Oversized men figure prominently in American folklore, with some mythic and others based, albeit loosely, on real persons. John Henry and Paul Bunyan are two examples of likely combinations of stories about several individuals, while others such as Mike Fink are exaggerations of the adventures of one. Mike Fink enjoyed a brief burst of national fame in the 1950s when Disney featured him as a character in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, portrayed by Jeff York. Following the Crockett craze of that decade, Fink again faded into relative obscurity except along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where his name and legends about his life remain in several of the small towns and river ports which line the banks. Tales about Fink are often misattributed to him, being part of the adventures of other rivermen.

Mile Fink was a large man for his day, described as over 6′ 3″ and weighing close to 200 pounds at a time when average height was just under 5′ 8″ and most men weighed about 150 pounds. He was a regimented businessman, and most often he moved cargoes up the Great Miami River from near Cincinnati to its headwaters, where it was then portaged to the Great Lakes. Usually depicted as a braggart and a bully, with a taste for liquor and fisticuffs, stories about Fink can be found from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, though he is probably best known along the Ohio between Manchester and Louisville. There are several different versions of what happened to him and where he eventually died, all claiming to be factual, though without supporting evidence.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Captain Stormalong fought a lifelong battle against the Kraken, and was interred in Davy Jones’ Locker. Wikimedia

6. Captain Stormalong was said to be thirty feet tall

Captain Stormalong was a giant who was said to have been found on a Cape Cod beach as a baby, already eighteen feet tall. Having quickly outgrown Cape Cod he moved to Boston and became a sailor, though his enormous size required him to build his own ship, which was equipped with hinged topmasts to prevent it from scraping the moon. Originally appearing in sea shanties and tall tales passed along by New England seamen, Stormalong was a lifelong enemy of the Kraken, a multi-tentacled sea monster which pulled ships to their doom. In the early twentieth century, several of the tales of the giant sailor were collected in magazines and pamphlets, for the entertainment of children, mostly in New England. In many ways Stormalong was a seagoing Pecos Bill.

His ship was said to have once become stuck in the English Channel, too large to negotiate the passage between England and France, and liberal applications of soap to the sides of the hull allowed him to slip through. It was the grinding of his ship along Dover’s Gray Cliffs which made them white. He once lost control in the Caribbean and the prow of his ship struck Panama, splitting the isthmus and creating the canal. Stormalong breakfasted on sharks, rescued other vessels during hurricanes and gales by picking them up and carrying them on the decks of his ship, and equipped his vessel with horses so that his crew could ride from stem to stern. One of the tales about the giant captain is that he rests in Davy Jones’ locker, somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
A terrified Ichaboid Crane flees from the Headless Horseman in Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Wikimedia

7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle

When American writer Washington Irving was a boy in the early nineteenth century he made several trips up the Hudson River to the Catskills region of New York, originally settled by the Dutch during the days of the New Amsterdam colony, as fur trading posts. These journeys exposed him to the local lore regarding two characters featured prominently in American folklore, Rip Van Winkle, and the legendary Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Irving wrote both stories, and others based on the Dutch tales, embellishing them for his American audience, but they were already part of local lore before he committed them to the printed page. They have remained so ever since.

The legend of the lost crew of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon playing at nine-pins in the mountains was a popular Dutch folk tale in the region, to which Irving added the character of Rip Van Winkle and his twenty-year nap, set against the backdrop of early American history. A headless horsemen had been a character of folklore in many cultures, including on the European continent and in Great Britain and Ireland before Irving adopted the concept for his tale of the former Hessian soldier encountered by the terrified Ichabod Crane. Both the tale of Rip Van Winkle and that of the Headless Horseman are exploited by the tourist industry in upstate New York, and remain popular subjects on television and film into the twenty-first century.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
John Henry was a steel driving man who worked himself to death on the railroad, according to his legend. Wikimedia

8. John Henry was a steel driving man

Another oversized man of great strength was railroad legend John Henry, who entered American folklore during the great railroad boom and may have been based on one or more real persons. John Henry could drive steel faster than any other mortal, and raced against a steam powered pile driver, beating the machine but dying of exhaustion at the moment of victory. The steel was not for the placing of rails, but for the drilling of holes in the rock which would then be filled with black powder, for the purpose of cutting the tunnels in the Appalachians through which the railroads would travel. Several sites claim to be the location of the race between John Henry and the machine, including in Virginia and Alabama, and several men have been suggested as being the basis for the African American steel driving man.

Although there have been several men identified as possibly the basis of John Henry and several sites claimed to have been where his legend was born, there is little evidence that the story has any basis in fact, other than several railroad workers, including convict labor, who bore the name or a similar one. The tale first appeared as a folk song of the type sung by laborers while at work, similar to the sea shanties sung by sailors as they went about their duties. Later, ballads romanticizing the tale told in the hammer songs appeared, and the legend of John Henry appeared in magazines and pamphlets, often for children. Whether and where John Henry lived and died is the subject of scholarly disagreement, but there is no doubt that he is a major part of American folklore.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Potato Creek Johnny was a denizen of Deadwood who became a tourist attraction of his own making in the 1930s. Wikimedia

9. Potato Creek Johnny of the Black Hills of South Dakota

Deadwood has plenty of American folklore associated with the town in one way or another, including legendary names known nationally such as Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Seth Bullock, George Custer, Calamity Jane, and others. But there is more to the local lore besides the stories of characters which have been told and retold in books, magazines, films, and television. Among them is the story of a diminutive Welshman (4′ 4″ tall) named John Perrett, who became known and remains known in the area of Deadwood Gulch as Potato Creek Johnny, after the creek in which he reportedly found one of the largest gold nuggets ever found anywhere. The finding gave him notoriety and celebrity, which he exploited tirelessly.

Many locals disputed the find since by the time Perrett reached the mining camp most of the gold had been extracted from the waterways and was being mined from underground. Locals insisted that he had melted several smaller nuggets together to create the appearance that he was a successful prospector. He grew his beard to be long and scraggly, dressed as a prospector would, and sold the large nugget to a local businessman. Both the nugget and Johnny became tourist attractions to visitors to the town in the 1930s and 1940s. He would entertain visitors with tales often made up as he went along while allowing them to watch him pan for gold. Potato Creek Johnny died in 1943, and as befits a Deadwood legend was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, where Hickok and Calamity Jane were also interred.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
This illustration of A Visit From St. Nicholas shows Santa Claus travelling along the ground, perhaps because he is missing four reindeer. Wikimedia

10. Santa Claus evolved from Dutch legends in the mind of Clement C. Moore

The modern American Santa Claus, his sleigh and reindeer, and his unusual means of entering homes during his night of work emerged from the Dutch folklore of Sinterklaas. The poem A Visit from St. Nicholas was published in 1823 in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, and though it was published anonymously it was quickly attributed to Clement C. Moore. Moore did not submit the poem, it was delivered to the paper by a friend, because Moore did not want his serious literary reputation harmed by writing the obviously for children poem. Many of the attributes of the modern Santa Claus, including an arrival on the night of Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, are derived from the poem.

At the time of the poem’s appearance, the celebration of Christmas Day as the main winter holiday, replacing New Year’s Day, was somewhat controversial, with many protestant denominations considering the celebration of Christmas to be a Catholic event being taken over by the Roman Catholic Church. German Catholic congregations were growing in many American cities as the first wave of German immigration came to America. The Americanized version of Moore’s Santa Claus quickly became a part of American folklore, joined by the eight reindeer, which were borrowed from the Dutch. In the poem, Santa is identified as a “jolly old elf”, the first such depiction of the gentlemen. The poem remains one of the most popular in the English language.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Francis Marion – the Swamp Fox – offers to share his meal, likely potatoes and vinegar, with a British prisoner. Wikimedia

11. The Swamp Fox of the American Revolutionary War

Throughout the Carolina low country visitors find references to Francis Marion and the Swamp Fox. They are one and the same. Francis Marion was an officer of the South Carolina militia who escaped from the British when they captured Charleston and created a band of irregulars to harass British communications, supplies, and patrols during the American Revolutionary War. Alone or with other irregular bands, the constant sniping and raids had a detrimental effect on British morale, already at a low point due to the malarial climate and blazing heat. It was Marion’s prime adversary among the British, Banastre Tarleton, who gave the American the name the Swamp Fox.

The Swamp Fox and his men were never located in their camps deep within the Carolina swamps, from which they would strike with frightening speed before vanishing from pursuit. Marion became legendary for his habit of drinking vinegar, a practice he believed protected him from diseases so often associated with the swamps. His career of harassing the British was a relatively short one, but wildly successful in making him a legend. As recently as the year 2000, reports appeared in the British press describing Marion as not a guerrilla fighter but a terrorist, who made war on both the British and the Loyalist militia, taking no prisoners, and burning private property. Marion’s own estate in South Carolina was burned during the war by British sympathizers.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
The myth of Betsy Ross and the first American flag entered the country’s folklore around the time of the centennial in 1876. Library of Congress

12. Betsy Ross and the American Flag

During the preparations for the celebration of the centennial of the United States of America in 1876, the story first appeared of Betsy Ross creating the American flag at the request of George Washington. Ross entered American folklore as having sewn the famed flag which placed the stars representing the colonies on a blue field in a circular pattern. It had long been a part of the oral family tradition, handed down to each succeeding generation, but there was no empirical evidence to support it, and it has since been discounted by historians as a fabrication created at a time when the contributions by women to the formation of the United States were being touted by women’s suffragists and their supporters. It remains a part of American folklore.

Ross did contribute to the American Revolutionary War effort, and she did do so as, among other things, a seamstress. She was one of several Philadelphia seamstresses who contributed to the creation of the Grand Union flag, which was first raised by Washington when he assumed command of the Continental Army at Cambridge in 1775. A descendant of Ross, William Canby, declared that Ross made the first flag of the United States, but the information he provided dated the event a full year before the Congress established the design of the flag in 1777. The story of Betsy Ross is an example of an exaggerated family tradition gaining traction as history when it belongs in the realm of folklore, while the true creation of the Stars and Stripes remains obscured by its assertions.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Jim Bowie is usually depicted dying in his sickbed at the Alamo, though in reality there are conflicting reports about how he died. Wikimedia

13. James Bowie and the defense of the Alamo

James Bowie, often referred to as Jim Bowie, was an American smuggler, slave trader, frontiersman, and land speculator who remains famous as the designer of the famed Bowie knife. He wasn’t, the knife was designed and first made by his brother Rezin, according to Rezin’s own claims and the support of family members who witnessed him do it. By the 1830s Bowie, who had formerly worked with the pirate Jean Lafitte smuggling and dealing with stolen goods in Louisiana, relocated to Texas, took the requisite oath of allegiance to the Mexican government, and established himself near San Antonio de Bexar. Bowie married the daughter of his business partner, who was also vice-governor, and by 1833 was living comfortably with his wife and two children. His wife and both children died later that year, during an epidemic of cholera.

Bowie was in command of some of the Texas Volunteers in the Alamo in February 1836, while William Barrett Travis was in command of the members of the garrison dispatched by the Army of Texas, and another contingent of volunteers from Tennessee was led by David Crockett. All three men died and are venerated in Texas, but Crockett and Bowie were already folk heroes before they died, and their fame exceeds that of Travis today, Bowie for his knife and Crockett for his reputation with a rifle. Bowie became more famous when fanciful tales of his adventures began to appear in print in the 1850s, written by his brother. The Bowie legend as a gallant soldier who died heroically supplanted the known facts of his life by the time of the Civil War, and he remains a folk hero in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas in the twenty-first century.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Sam Patch’s last jump, from a book of tales of American heroes from the early twentieth century. Wikimedia

14. Sam Patch, the Yankee Leaper, became legendary for jumping waterfalls

Sam Patch was born sometime around 1807, and was raised in the mill town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where southern cotton was spun into fiber. As a child laborer he entertained his fellows by accepting dares to jump off ever increasing heights. The mill dam became a favorite launch point, into the water below. In his twenties, while working at another mill in New Jersey, he began to advertise his jumps and collect a fee from the fans who gathered to watch. He jumped from Passaic Falls in September 1827, a drop of seventy feet, to the delight of the crowd which paid to attend. The following year he jumped from Hoboken Falls, and when in New York he would leap into the water from the masts of ships. In 1829 he jumped from a platform erected for the purpose into the water beneath Niagara Falls.

The crowd which watched the Niagara Falls jump was depleted by inclement weather, and the by then famous Patch decided to schedule another jump, stressing that he had already successfully pulled off the stunt in his advertising. Before he did he jumped into the Genesee River at Rochester, New York. When that stunt too led to disappointing receipts he scheduled another, a week later, on Friday, November 13, 1829. He jumped from a platform 125 feet above the base of the falls, landed awkwardly, and his body was found early in the following spring frozen in an ice floe. Such was his fame that President Andrew Jackson named a favorite horse Sam Patch in his honor, and his name is still celebrated at the sites of his jumps today.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Abner Doubleday, was long credited with writing the rules baseball, though the game existed long before he was born. Library of Congress

15. The game of baseball is a large part of American folklore

The game of baseball is both part of American folklore and a source of folklore of its own. A long established myth has the game being invented by Abner Doubleday, who served in the Union army during the American Civil War. In truth a form of baseball, called by that name, was played in New England in the days immediately following the American Revolution, attested to by the records of the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Barnstorming teams became professional and leagues began to form in the 1860s, and baseball became the national pastime during the Gilded Age, a position it solidified during the boom days of the Roaring Twenties. A fictional player by the name of Casey became well known as the subject of a poem, and the song Take Me Out To The Ballgame was a Tin Pan Alley hit.

During the Second World War, American GIs suspicious of the legitimacy of encountered men unknown to them would routinely ask questions regarding baseball, as it was assumed that no American male could possibly not know the rudiments of the game or the names of its stars. Baseball and its derivatives; kickball, softball, stickball, wiffleball, and many more, including the simple game of catch, dominated American parks and fields, alleys and sandlots, backyards and cul de sacs, throughout the years of the baby boomers and the growth of America’s suburbs. It became such a large part of American folklore that though many Americans don’t know the name of their own congressman, very few do not recognize the name of Babe Ruth.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
American folklore heroes Paul Bunyan and John Henry prepare to take on the Axis in 1942. National Archives

16. Did the term “bunk” come from the lumberjack’s bunkshanty?

A bunkshanty was a shed, or shanty, in which lumberjacks in the American north woods, many of them French-Canadians, slept at night in rows of bunkbeds. It was in these sheds that the tales of Paul Bunyan and his great blue ox Babe, on whom Paul was reputed to have rode, were repeated, with additional embellishments added in each retelling. Paul’s bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, who used a pen manufactured from a hose and a barrel of ink, was said to have invented bookkeeping, just as his boss had invented logging. The stories tossed about in the evenings prior to sleep became the legends which remain a large part of the Northwest’s folklore, and its tourist industry.

During the late nineteenth century the term bunk began to be used as a response to something which was clearly nonsense, a declamatory against something which was obviously unbelievable in a literal sense. In that usage the tales of Paul Bunyan and his contemporaries, which originated in the bunkshanties of the lumber camps, would clearly be considered to be bunk. The origin of the term and where it first came into use is disputed by etymologists, but it could have readily been used by disdainful loggers when a particular tale exceeded the already well stretched bounds of belief and reason.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Train wrecks were common and deadly at the turn of the twentieth century, and Casey Jones became a legend by sacrificing his own life to save those of his passengers. Wikimedia

17. Casey Jones and the train wreck

Jonathan Luther Jones was a former baseball player from Cayce, Kentucky, who worked as first a fireman, then a wiper, and finally an engineer for several railroads in the American Midwest and South. He was well known during his lifetime, recognized by the towns through which his trains passed from the distinctive blasts of his whistle. Most railroad engineers developed their own whistle calls, which were used to signal family and friends as they went about their work. Jones was a Missourian by birth, but the time he spent growing up in Cayce led to him being called Casey by all who knew him. He had several instances when he was cited by his employers, mostly for speeding, but his overall record was free of accidents involving injuries to passengers.

On the night of April 30, 1900, Jones was running behind schedule when the train he was driving crashed into the back of a freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi. Jones’s actions slowed his train sufficiently to save his passengers, but at the expense of his own life in the ensuing crash. Starting with the local headlines announcing his death he began to acquire heroic status, which was soon amplified when the song The Ballad of Casey Jones was released. In later years, other musicians including Pete Seeger and the band the Grateful Dead released songs about Jones. The engineer has been lauded in art, books, theater, film, and television and became an inseparable part of the folklore of the American railroads, the symbol of the locomotive engineer.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
The Dodge City Peace Commission in 1883. Bat Masterson is in the back row second from the right. Wyatt Earp is seated second from the left. Wikimedia

18. Guns in the Old West

Cowboys, criminals, lawmen, and practically everyone being armed as they went about their business in the towns and cities of the American west is part of America’s folklore. The gunfights in the streets, as depicted in the dime novels of the day and the films of a later age, are believed to be common, as armed men defended themselves against potential harm. What the folklore fails to take into account is that the battle at the OK Corral in Tombstone, and the gunfights involving Wild Bill Hickok in Abilene and other towns are notable because they were relatively rare. Nearly all towns of the west established gun laws and laws against the concealed carry of deadly weapons. Visitors were required to disarm at a hotel or at the town jail. Many of Hickok’s fights took place because someone refused to surrender his gun.

The first town ordinance enacted by Dodge City, Kansas, was a law prohibiting the carrying and discharging of firearms within the town, other than by lawfully deputized peace officers. Officially the Earps and Doc Holliday were attempting to disarm the Clantons and their allies at the OK Corral, but longstanding grudges assured that a gun battle was inevitable. Tombstone’s gun laws in the 1880s were more restrictive than they were at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as was the case in most other of the towns of the Old West. In Abilene, bartenders were prohibited from serving alcohol to anyone carrying a weapon openly, and the image of a bar lined with standing cowboys, drinking whiskey while wearing holstered guns, is part of American folklore.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn – composite characters based on boys known by Clemens during his own childhood – became part of American folklore. Wikimedia

19. Samuel Clemens and the Mississippi

Much of American folklore came from the imagination of Samuel Clemens and two of his works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His tales of drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft, hiding on river islands, playing in caves, and the characters encountered were vivid adaptions of his own experiences, and though written for adults became childhood favorites. Mark Twain was a former river pilot, taking his pen name for a measurement of the river’s depth, and did much to memorialize the river and its minions. Twain also introduced the United States to a contest which continues to be held annually in Calaveras County and elsewhere, at which frogs attempt to outdistance each other by jumping.

Twain became part of American folklore himself throughout his long and productive life, embellishing his achievements and reputation with lecture tours and readings of his books. His image of appearing dressed in white, with his bushy hair in disarray, was part of his fame. He affected the speech and accent of his native Missouri in public, though in private his speech was more formal and his accent unnoticeable to most. By the end of his life Twain was friends with both Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison (who filmed him, the only known film image of the writer), and Twain himself was awarded three patents for his own inventions. But it is as the creator of Tom Sawyer and his friends for which he is remembered, part of the folklore of the United States.

20 Various Tales from American Folklore
Judge Roy Bean established himself as the law west of the Pecos, and as a lasting part of American folklore. Wikimedia

20. The law west of the Pecos

Judge Roy Bean is known in American folklore as a hanging judge, eager to pronounce guilt and move on to the execution at his saloon and courthouse in a tent city which he named Vinegaroon. Bean occasionally consulted a law book, the Revised Statutes of the State of Texas 1879 Edition, but for the most part he relied on his own common sense and the reports delivered to him by Texas Rangers and other peace officers. His jurors were not allowed to present themselves as unable to arrive at a verdict. Bean selected the jury himself, and during recesses they were required to purchase a drink from his saloon. He was officially appointed as Justice of the Peace for the district in August 1882, over a month after hearing his first case.

Depicted in the media of film and television as a hanging judge, Bean only sentenced two men to that fate during his tenure on the bench. He once dismissed a case because after consulting his law book he announced that he could not find a law which specifically prohibited killing a Chinese. Bean also conducted divorces and pocketed the fees, since under Texas law he was not allowed to grant divorces and if he sent the fees to the higher court he was liable to being disciplined. He also performed weddings, ending the ceremony by announcing, “…and may God have mercy on your soul”. Bean later became a boxing promoter and gained national fame before dying in his sleep in 1903.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Pilgrims and the Rock”. Francis Russell, American Heritage Magazine. October 1962

“The Myth of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth”. Jesse Greenspan, History. A & E Television Networks. April 2, 2013. Online

“War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier”. John F. Ross. 2011

“George Washington was a Famously Powerful Athlete”. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Mike Fink: The Last of the Boatmen”. Timothy Field, University of Virginia American Studies. 1829. Online

“Shanties from the Seven Seas”. Edited by Stan Hugill, 1994

“The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving”. Andrew Burstein. 2008

“The John Henry Who Might Have Been”. Allan Kozinn, The New York Times. November 22, 2009

“Potato Creek Johnny”. The Black Hills Visitor. Online

“The Case of the Christmas Poem”. Joe Nickell, Manuscripts. Fall, 2002

“The Swamp Fox”. Amy Crawford, Smithsonian Magazine. June 30, 2007

“The Legend and Truth of Betsy Ross”. Gene Langley, The Christian Science Monitor. June 14, 2002

“Exploring the Alamo Legends”. Wallace O. Charlton. 1992

“The Wonderful Leaps of Sam Patch”. Richard M. Dorson, American Heritage Magazine. December 1966

“Paul Bunyan and Tony Beaver Tales”. Charles Edward Brown. 1930

“Pittsfield uncovers earliest written reference to game”. Associated Press. ESPN. May 12, 2004

“Bunk-Shanty Ballads and Tales”. James Stevens. Oregon Historical Quarterly.

“Gun Control Is as Old as the Old West”. Matt Jancer, Smithsonian Magazine. February 5, 2018

“My Mark Twain”. William Dean Howells. 1997

“The Planting of Judge Roy Bean”. Mark Boardman, True West Magazine. May 3, 2017