What makes a hero famous? They may be great, strong, clever, but they have to accomplish something to be known. In times of peace and calm, there is nothing hero-worthy to accomplish. In times of strife and struggle, the best of us come forward, becoming legends.
Such a time occurred in the 1800s, in the previously unexplored lands. The wild frontier challenged the American people. Yet, through perseverance and sheer effort, nature was conquered. In order to create the frontier spirit, various folk heroes were born in our imaginations in order to embody the vitality of frontier life.
One such hero, who still lives on in legend, is Paul Bunyan. This gigantic man, who could chop down whole forests with a sweep of his axe, is one aspect of the frontier spirit. Constantly working on harvesting lumber for the new settlers, this tireless worker never stopped widening the frontier. Nature may have been wild and large, seemingly unconquerable, but this tale of a man bigger than nature gave hope to the settlers. Man was bigger and stronger than his opponents, and he would persevere.
While most babies are delivered to their parents by a regular stork, common legend states that 17 extremely large storks to deliver our hero, and they were tired afterwards. Not only was he born large, but he grew very quickly as well. In a few weeks, he was large enough to destroy entire forests when moving around while asleep. The east was simply too small for our giant friend, and he had to leave towards the large unknown, the western United States. This illustrates the spirit of the new settlers; this is similar to the Europeans who came before them, who decided to leave the old land, which was crowded with limited prospects, into the new world.
All heroes need a friend to help them in their various tasks and, despite his large size, Paul Bunyan was no exception. Our hero was a logger, a great one. He could chop down whole forests in a single blow. However, carrying back a whole forest to the lumber camp is no easy task. In comes Babe the Blue Ox.
One cold winter day, Paul Bunyan found a tiny ox in the snow, that due to the cold, was blue. Paul, feeling pity for the poor creature, took it home, next to the warm fire. This act made Babe the life long companion of Paul. Soon enough, due to his proximity to the giant, Babe grew huge as well. His large size helped Paul pull the logs, and in additon, was able to straighten the crooked roads that lead from one camp to another. In fact, legend says that, after straightening a road, miles of it were left over and used to connect to new lumber camps.
Why We Imagine Him
Paul Bunyan's size might astound our imaginations, but what he did changed our lives. In the harsh frontier, Paul Bunyan's constant struggles to provide wood for civilization gave the frontier hope. When great feats of nature were seen, from the many lakes in Michagan to the Grand Canyon, human beings were astounded and disappointed in their own inferiority. By believing that these natural phenomenon were caused by Paul Bunyan and his giant ox, these great things were thought to be human made. While nature was great, man was greater, and the frontier would persevere.
However, not all heroes conquered the frontier with force. Johnny Appleseed, or John Chapman (his proper name), settled the frontier by growing trees, not chopping them down. His hard efforts helped provide essential vitamins and liquids in the harsh frontier. Our common myths state that he wandered the frontier, befriending settlers, Native Americans, and animals along the way. While travelling, he randomly scattered apple seeds, letting food and hope grow for the settlers. What is not as commonly known is that he was a shrewd businessman. He grew orchards all over the frontier, wandering orchard to orchard, and donated his profits.
John Chapman was born on September 26th, 1774 in Massachusetts, right before the American Revolution. At the age of 23, he ventured out west, and planted his first orchard near the Allegheny River, near Warren, Pennsylvania. From there, he attempted to predict where the settlers would head next. After asking around for prospective locations, he headed there, along with a canoe full of apple seeds. He planted an orchard, and by the time the settlers arrived, the trees were a few years old. John Chapman would sell the trees for a low price, and slowly began to establish his business. He would spend some of the earnings, but would give the rest to the church and the needy. As his business grew bigger, he recruited a few local settlers to tend for the orchards. In the end, John Chapman died a wealthy man, with many orchards spread across the frontier.
John Chapman was a sight of strangeness to the settlers who welcomed him into their homes as well. Stories say that he wore a sack for clothes, sticking his arms and legs through holes. For a hat to cover him from the elements, a tin pot served Chapman well. Another chararacteristic that astonished the settlers was Chapman's shoes, or lack of them. Sun or rain, summer or winter, Chapman traveled barefoot. The children he saw were amused by Chapman touching hot coals with his heavily calloused feet without flinching.
In addition to his looks, his habits were an anomaly to the frontier as well. Unlike most of the settlers, who depended on meat from game to survive, Chapman was a strict vegetarian. He attempted to be kind to animals, even saving a wolf from a trap. After nursing the wolf back to help, Chapman gained a lifelong companion.
Not only was he a friend of animals, but he befriended the Native Americans as well. Unlike the classic stories of Americans and Native Americans viciously killing each other, Chapman traveled back and forth in peace between the two peoples. In fact, he placed blame on the settlers for the hostilites based on the mistreatment of Native Americans. However, during the War of 1812, when the Native Americans allied with Britain in order to attack American settlers, Chapman sided on the side of the settlers. One account states that he ran 30 miles in order to warn Americans of a planned massacre. As a result, John Chapman saved countless lives.
Why We Remember Him
From the business side of views, John Chapman was an entrepreneur that saw an opportunity when it presented himself. However, we do not elevate John Chapman to heroic standards for just making a lot of money. By travelling the frontier, he was known to all. He was a welcome sight for the services he provided. Not only did he give apples, he was a source of entertainment for the settlers. Chapman was well travelled, and seeing him gave a feeling of joy to the hard working settlers who could not devote time to travel. Even during his lifetime, Chapman's nickname, "Johnny Appleseed", was known thoughout the frontier. A legend in his own time, he continues to live in our imaginations today.
Paul Bunyan helped get materials for settling the frontier. Johnny Appleseed helped provide nurishment for the settlers. However, the west was still a wild land. it was filled with various threats, from wild animals, to harsh conditions. Pecos Bill helped settle the western frontier via various inventions and pure stubborness.
As common legend goes, Pecos Bill's family was traveling west to start a new life. As the wagon hit a bump in the road, Pecos Bill fell off, unnoticed by his family. While most babies would die in the harsh conditions, Pecos Bill was found by a group of coyotes. They raised him as their own, and Pecos grew up believing he was a coyote and all that comes with it. He spent many days simply howling and wandering the west. Eventually, he was found by his brother, who was a cowboy by now. After some convincing, Pecos finally believed that he was a human. He left the coyotes, and traveled with his brother to civilization to become a cowboy.
When Pecos Bill became a cowboy, the west was still wild. Being a cowboy was hard work, and herding the cattle was a tremendous task. Applying some ingeniouty, he made the life of a cowboy easier. He is credited for inventing the lasso, and being able to capture a whole herd at one time.
Pecos Bill was a great rider. He could ride anything he set his mind to. However, there was one thing that was a challenge to him. There was a particularly ferocious tornado that was storming around Kansas, creating a mess. Pecos Bill simply grabbed it and hopped on. The tornado tried to throw him off, but Pecos held on tight. They traveled around the west, with the tornado going this way and that. Eventually, they hit the ocean and the tornado disappeared, dropping Pecos the ground.
Pecos Bill married many women while roaming the Wild West. However, there was only one who caught his heart. Slue-Foot Sue. He first saw her riding a giant catfish down the turbid waters of the Rio Grande. They fell in love on sight, and married shortly afterwards.
One of the first requests Sue had for Bill was to allow her to ride Bill's horse, Widow-Maker. There was a reason for this name, and sadly, there would be another widow soon. Widow-Maker was not an easy horse to ride, and he kept bucking in an attempt to throw Sue off. Eventually, she was thrown high into the air. She was wearing a wide skirt with a hoop. When she hit the ground, she bounced right up, like a Superball. She kept bouncing and bouncing. After a few days, without any food, and no sign of her stopping, Sue was starving. Pecos Bill, despite the grief it caused him, had to shoot her to stop her from suffering.
Why We Imagine Him
While Pecos Bill doesn't appear to share any characteristics with Paul Bunyan, they were imagined for the same reasons. The frontier was harsh and cruel to the cowboys, but man could conquer nature. The numerous inventions helped the cowboys survive the frontier, and made their lives easier. Again, nature threatened to overcome man, but man survived, becoming great.