Tall Tale Heroes of the American Frontier

A Pathfinder

United States of America Scott 3085 : "American Folk Heroes"
1996 Stamp Design © 1995, United States Postal Service


Introduction and Scope

Although the tall tale did not originate in North America, it has come to be regarded as a uniquely American genre of literature. Characterized by exaggeration, expansiveness and humor, tall tales and their heroes can be viewed as a reflection of the exaggerated scale of a vast frontier and of the rugged pioneers that faced and overcame its challenges.

Various functions of the tall tale have been suggested by critics and historians. Among these is the tall tale as a humorous means of coping with the hardships and violence encountered by the pioneers in their new land. Tall tales have also been perceived as an attempt at creating a national identity for a very young country by constructing a “history” through such folk heroes as Davy Crockett, Gib Morgan, John Henry and Pecos Bill — American counterparts to the folk heroes of the Old World.

Their origins are as varied as the geographic regions that produced them; some, like John Henry and Johnny Appleseed are based on actual persons. Davy Crockett first told tales about himself and later had tales written about him by political journalists in an attempt to win votes for him at the time of his congressional campaign. Other tall tale heroes are complete fabrications, or “fakelore” as opposed to folklore: Paul Bunyan was created by the Red River lumber company as a promotional scheme which led to imitation of this popular hero in characters such as Pecos Bill, the cowboy, Joe Magarac, the steelworker, and Febold Feboldson, prairie strongman.

Despite various origins and intended purposes, these tall tales have resulted in creating a cultural identity for groups that share a common occupation, locality or ethnic background.

This pathfinder is an introduction to tall tale heroes of the American frontier as well as to the history and criticism of the genre. It is intended as a resource for librarians and teachers who wish to introduce specific tales, heroes and legends to children, and also points to historical and critical works, making it useful to high school students, undergraduates or anyone with an interest in this subject. The materials included in this pathfinder are located at the Royal B. Davis Library and the School of Information and Library Science Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Chapel Hill Public Library and on the World Wide Web.

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Subject Headings

Use these Library of Congress subject headings to aid your search.

Tall Tales
Tall Tales -- History and criticism
Tall Tales -- United States
Tales -- Encyclopedias
Tales -- United States
Tales -- West
Legends -- West
Folklore -- United States
Folklore -- Encyclopedias
Folklore -- United States -- Bibliography
Heroes- Folklore -- Encyclopedias
Bunyan, Paul (Legendary character) --juvenile literature*
Bunyan, Paul (Legendary character)*

*Headings for any individual tall tale character will follow this format.

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Browsing Areas

Davis Library and SILS Library use the Library of Congress classification. The juvenile books at SILS Library are classified according to Dewey Decimal as are the materials at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Materials on tall tales, specific characters or the genre can be found in the following locations:

Chapel Hill Public Library:

Children’s Collection

Main Collection

Davis Library:

4th Floor Stacks
GR105 to GR109

7th Floor Stacks
PS 451 to PS 461

GR35 to GR109

SILS Library:

Juvenile Collection

GR72 .S76

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Frequently Mentioned Texts

American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne

●Here’s Audacity! American Legendary Heroes by Frank Shay

Larger than Life: The Adventures of American Legendary Heroes by Robert D. San Souci

The Parade of Heroes: Legendary Figures of American Lore by Tristram Potter Coffin and Hennig Cohen

●Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes by Walter Blair

The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature by Carolyn Brown

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Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

These sources provide introductory information on individual legends and the genre of the tall tale.

GR105 .34 .A94 2000 Davis Reference
Axelrod, Alan, and Harry Oster. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.

Resembling an encyclopedia more than a dictionary, the substantial entries and illustrations make this an ideal choice for locating information on tall tales and individual heroes. Entries for “tall tale”, “fakelore” and many individual characters are included and contain “see also” references and suggestions for further reading.

GR101 .A54 1996 Davis Reference
Brunvand, Jan Harold, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

This illustrated encyclopedia includes many relevant entries for the subject of tall tales and for most of the tall tale heroes and terms associated with this genre (fakelore, tall tale). Some related subjects also include information on particular legends, such as Gib Morgan who is mentioned in the article "Oilworkers".

GR72.S76 1997 SILS Reference
Leeming, David Adams, ed. Storytelling Encyclopedia: Historical, Cultural, and Multiethnic Approaches to Oral Traditions around the World. Phoenix Arizona: Oryx Press, 1997.

Focusing on the oral tradition of tales and characters, this alphabetically arranged source includes entries for specific tales and heroes as well as an essay, “American Tall Tales”, that explores the development of tales that were created for a specific purpose and then passed off as “traditional” – Paul Bunyan, Old Stormalong, and Febold Feboldson. Page numbers for relevant entries are: tall tales (165, 443-444), Daniel Boone (85-86), Paul Bunyan (91-92), Davy Crockett (126-27), Mike Fink (176-177) and Johnny Appleseed (253-254).

GR35 .S4 2001 Davis Reference
Seal, Graham. Encyclopedia of Folk Heroes. Santa Barbara, California: ABC CLIO, 2001.

This source contains a “representative selection of legendary, historical, and magical heroes” and groups entries into categories such as “Occupational Heroes” (Paul Bunyan, John Henry). It also includes two indexes - heroic types and culture - as well as a section on “Qualities of Folk Heroism” which describes those qualities embodied in some of the well-known types of folk heroes and figures.

GR109 .S53 2001 Davis Reference
Slatta, Richard W. The Mythical West: An Encyclopedia of Legend, Lore, and Popular Culture. Santa Barbara, California: ABC CLIO, 2001.

This source attempts to “disentangle and distinguish between western fact and myth” and includes background and historical information on heroes in Western tall tales such as Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed, and Davy Crockett – legendary heroes with factual origins. It’s useful in gaining an understanding of how these myths/legends developed and why some totally fictional heroes were created.

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Picture Books

These picture books are chosen for their humorous, spirited retellings and are excellent choices for introducing these characters to younger readers.

J398.22 Kel Chapel Hill Public Library Children’s Collection
Kellogg, Steven. Pecos Bill. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1986.
---. Paul Bunyan. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1984.
---. Mike Fink. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1992.

Steven Kellogg’s unique visual interpretations of these retellings add to the enjoyment of these three tales and make them an excellent choice for introducing these legends to children.

J398.2 Lester SILS Library Juvenile Collection
Lester, Julius; pictures by Jerry Pinkney. John Henry. New York: Dial Books, 1994.

Based on the events described in the Black folk ballad “John Henry”, this retelling includes a brief historical note on John Henry and the tunnel in the Allegheny Mountains. The narrator’s language and tone are familiar and casual, as if the tale was being orally presented, and John Henry’s unusual accomplishments as a steel driver, beginnings, physical traits, and overall strength are exaggerated and more closely resemble the “tall” characteristics traditionally associated with tall tale heroes.

J 398.22 Met  Chapel Hill Public Library Children’s Collection
Metaxas, Eric; illustrated by Don Vanderbeek. Stormalong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

This is a hilariously illustrated account of the legendary New England sea captain, Alfred Bulltop Stormalong.

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Collected Tales

Unlike the original versions of some tall tales which often depict violence toward animals and Native Americans, the heroes in these entertaining collections are presented as kinder and very likeable characters, making these books suitable choices for all ages.

J398.2 Osborne SILS Library Juvenile Collection
Osborne, Mary Pope; wood engravings by Michael McCurdy. American Tall Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

In this humorous and entertaining collection, the author’s intent is to proffer retellings which minimize the violent and negative traits of the characters in these tales. These retellings present characters from a more humane and compassionate perspective in a genre in which extravagance and physical abilities are emphasized at the expense and exploitation of the natural environment. Different geographic regions and occupations in the development of this country (railroad steel driving, logging, volunteer firefighters and pioneer settlers) are represented by the chosen tales and characters.

J398.22 San Souci SILS Library Juvenile Collection
San Souci, Robert D; illustrated by Andrew Glass. Larger than Life: The Adventures of American Legendary Heroes. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

This collection intended for young readers includes short tales of four legendary American heroes and one heroine – Slue-Foot Sue. The versions of the tales in this collection have gentler endings: Slue-foot Sue eventually returns to earth instead of bouncing ever higher on her wedding dress bustle after having been thrown by Pecos Bill’s horse. In the tale of Paul Bunyan some attention is given to the environmental concerns this tale may raise: the hero feels remorse at the sight of the barren destruction of the forest land his logging has caused.

J398.21 San Souci SILS Library Juvenile Collection
San Souci, Robert D.; illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Cut From the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale. New York: Philomel, 1993.

In this work, the author gathers tales of “bigger than life” American heroines from various cultural traditions. Two stories in this collection provide accounts of tall tale heroines, Annie Christmas and Sal Fink, which provide a counterbalance to the predominantly male heroes traditionally found in classic tall tales of the American frontier.

J398.21 Walker SILS Library Juvenile Collection
Walker, Paul Robert; illustrated by James Bernardin. Big Men, Big Country: A Collection of American Tall Tales. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1993.

The nine tales in this collection introduce some of the better-known legendary tall tale characters of the American frontier from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each tale is appended with a short section providing brief factual or biographical information on characters with real life origins, the historical development of a character or story, and books, oral tales, magazines or other sources on which a tale is based. The author’s note is a useful source of information on the development and importance of this genre within the context of the American frontier and as a reflection of the values of the American frontier. The author emphasizes the noblest qualities of the characters in the tales which are as true to the earliest versions as possible, but modified when necessary in order to make them “bigger and better”.


The following sources are collections of tales of several tall tale heroes or the collected exploits of a particular hero. Some of these reflect the values prevalent during the period in which they were created along with the disparaging attitudes toward women and minorities that often accompanied these values.

PS461.F4 B4 1959 Davis Library 7th Floor Stacks
Beath, Paul R. Febold Feboldson: Tall Tales from the Great Plains. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1959.

This collection of fourteen tall tales surrounding the Swedish pioneer of the Great Plains is an entertaining introduction to this legend and presents the lighter side of pioneer life on the plains. In the foreword, the author explores the historical basis for these tales – the life of Olof Bergstrom a Swedish pioneer of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nebraska.

PS 451.B55 Davis Library 7th Floor Stacks
Blair, Walter; illustrated by Sgt. Glen Rounds. Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes. New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1944.

This entertaining collection is written in the form of a “history” that details the adventures of many of our best known tall tale heroes and their roles in the discovery and settlement of America. In the bibliographical note the author provides what he calls “proof” and in true tall tale fashion he further purports the veracity of these tales by stating that he used only the most likely facts which he “truthened up” even more. In addition to the better known tall tale heroes the author includes tales of “Windwagon Smith and the Santa Fe Trail” and Jonathan Slick, a Yankee Peddler.

GR105.P37 Davis Library 4th Floor Stacks
Coffin, Tristram Potter, and Hennig Cohen, eds. The Parade of Heroes: Legendary Figures of American Lore. New York: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1978.

In addition to a comprehensive anthology, each section is preceded by an introduction that provides explanatory information, background, or common characteristics of the stories. The general introduction is also a source of information on American folklore, folk heroes, legendary characters and their creation, evolution, characteristics and function within American culture. Relevant sections include p. 68,"‘John Henry Hammer Songs"; p. 250, "Johnny Appleseed and the Bewitched Cow"; p. 431-434, "Davy Crockett"; p. 485-527, "Paul Bunyan and His Kin".

GR105.37 .D3 D383 Davis Library 4th Floor Stacks
Lofaro, Michael A. ed. Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001.

The outrageous exploits and adventures of Davy Crockett’s women, or “shemales” are highlighted in this collection of tall tales from the Crockett Almanacs published from 1835-1856. Included is a lengthy analysis of the context of the tales within their historical and cultural backgrounds. Although by today’s standards these tales may be perceived as cruel and unjust in their depictions of women and minorities, this is a useful source of information to someone interested in the original tales of Davy Crockett.

398.2 Malcolmson SILS Library Juvenile Collection
Malcolmson, Anne, and Dell J. McCormick. Mister Stormalong. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952.

A collection of entertaining stories based on the many legends surrounding this tall (30 feet) seafaring Yankee who travels across the globe. In their ‘Acknowledgements’ the authors briefly explore the historical origins of Alfred Bulltop Stormalong and compare him to other North American folk heroes – Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill and briefly explore the link between Stormalong and ancient seafaring lore.

PS451 .S5 Davis Library 7th Floor Stacks
Shay, Frank. Here’s Audacity! American Legendary Heroes. NewYork: The Macaulay Co., 1930.

Along with the more well-known crowd, this collection includes two less often mentioned Texas legends, Kemp Morgan (referred to as Gib Morgan in some tales), Texas Oil Driller and Strap Buckner, a Giant Texan who battles the devil in one tale. Published in 1930 these retellings reflect a more violent treatment of Native Americans and animals that is not present in more modern versions.

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Histories and Literary Criticisms

PS437 .B76 Davis Library 7th Floor Stacks
Brown, Carolyn. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Probably the most frequently mentioned critical text on tall tales, this in-depth study of the history, structure and functions of this genre is an essential resource for undergraduates and anyone seeking to gain an understanding of the tall tale as an oral genre as well as its oral and written forms within the disciplines of folklore and literature.

GR 105 .D67 Davis Library 4th Floor Stacks
Dorson, Richard M. “Gib Morgan.” Man and Beast in American Comic Legend. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

This chapter explores the real person behind the legend and tales of Gib Morgan the storyteller and distinguishes between Gib Morgan and Kemp Morgan, a misnomer according to the author. This is a useful history and criticism that traces the development of this legend and tale.

PS 461 .B8 H6 Davis Library 7th Floor Stacks
Hoffman, Daniel. Paul Bunyan: Last of the Frontier Demigods. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.

This book traces the tradition of Paul Bunyan and the social, economic and literary forces that shaped the changes in his character. A useful analysis of the history and reasons for these changes, this work includes an extensive bibliography, notes to the chapters and motif, name and subject indexes.

973 She Chapel Hill Public Library Main Collection
Shenkman, Richard. Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1988.

This historian attempts to separate truth from fiction in many of the myths and legends that have been accepted as fact and explains why some tall tale heroes such as Paul Bunyan are considered “fakelore”, a creation developed to meet the American need for folk heroes. Relevant sections include:
Paul Bunyan, p. 167-168
Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), p. 151, 166
John Henry, p. 165
Davy Crockett, p. 114

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Handbooks and Guides

398.0973 Gre Chapel Hill Public Library Main Collection
Battle, Kemp B., compiler. Great American Folklore: Legends, Tales, Ballads and Superstitions from All Across America. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986.

A broad representation of some of the best-known tall tale heroes: select tales of Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Gib Morgan, Pecos Bill, John Henry and Febold Feboldson are included. The book is arranged into sections with an entire chapter given to Paul Bunyan and his tales; most of the other tales are scattered throughout the chapters according to themes such as “Love and Marriage” and “The Fightin’ Spirit”. The index,“Tall Tales and Legends”, makes it easy to find tales about a particular character by name.

GR 105 .D64 Davis Library 4th Floor Stacks
Dorson, Richard M. America in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present. New York: Random House, 1973.

This heavily illustrated volume is divided into four historical periods. Among the folk heroes and legends included in the “Early National Period” ( pages 57-121) are the tall tale characters Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and Mose. The “Later National Period” includes Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Gib Morgan, Febold Feboldson and Joe Magarac. The author explores folklore and legend as a reflection of a particular historical period in terms of its values and philosophies.

398.0973 Han Chapel Hill Public Library Main Collection
Dorson, Richard M., ed. Handbook of American Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

This useful reference tool provides analysis and criticism of sources, establishes standards of selection and includes an extensive index and bibliography for further research. Relevant sections include:
p. 290 –compares American tall tales which exemplify American storytelling to the Marchen which characterizes European storytelling
p. 291-292- tall tale performers and “tellers”
p. 342 – compares slave folktales to white nineteenth-century American tales
p. 430 – adaptations of tall tales as children’s literature
p. 463-464 – distinguishing between folklore and "fakelore"

398.0973 Lee Chapel Hill Public Library Main Collection
Leeming, David, and Jake Page. Myths Legends, & Folktales of America: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.

In this work tall tale heroes are presented as typical American hero types such as “the lone individualist”, and tall tales are categorized as “European American” in that their fictional happy endings are often the “freedom of the road with the boys” instead of the European fictional happy ending of the achievement of family and home. This is useful as an introduction to the genre and characters in a nutshell. Relevant sections include:
p. 181-185, John Henry
p. 156-161, Pecos Bill, the “Paul Bunyan’ of cowboys
p. 126-130, Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman)
p. 130-134, Davy Crockett
p. 134-135, Mike Fink (depicted by this author as a cruel bully)
p. 135-136, Paul Bunyan
p. 137, Joe Magarac, a “Bunyan-like" character from an immigrant population who is also not based on a real person – was a creation of steel workers

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Z5984 .U6 F55 Davis Reference
Flanagan, Cathleen C. and John T. Flanagan. American Folklore: A Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977.

This bibliography covers the twenty-five years from 1950 to 1974 and primarily the United States in geographic scope. Each entry includes a short annotation. It is divided into sixteen sections of which "Folk Heroes" and "Legends" are especially useful for finding sources on tall tales and particular characters.

PS 461 .J6 W54 Davis Library 4th Floor Stacks
Williams, Brett. John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983.

This is a useful aid for the student researching John Henry the man as well as the legend. Among other subjects this work draws on research into nineteenth-century history, emancipated slaves, railroad tunnel construction in the South and ballad lore in order to construct this biography. It includes a bibliography of all the written sources on John Henry materials: films and sheet music in addition to a discography of recorded versions of the ballad. Pages 93-97 discuss the significance of the John Henry story as a tall tale and its more frequent inclusion in tall tale anthologies than in collections of tales about heroes.

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These lively retellings of tall tales presented in the oral tradition are narrated by celebrities and are an ideal way to introduce the tall tale to an audience of children. These compact discs are available at the Chapel Hill Public Library in the Children’s Collection.

JCD 398.2 Joh
John Henry. Compact Disc. Told by Denzel Washington. Music by B. B. King. Rowayton, CT: Rabbit Ears Productions, Inc., 1993.

JCD JB Chapman
Johnny Appleseed. Compact Disc. Told by Garrison Keillor. Music by Mark O’Connor. Rowayton, CT: Rabbit Ears Productions, Inc., 1993.

JCD 398.22 Mos
Mose the Fireman.Compact Disc. Told by Michael Keaton. Music by Walter Becker and John Beasley. Rowayton, CT: Rabbit Ears Productions, Inc., 1993.

JCD 398.2 Sto
Stormalong. Compact Disc. Told by John Candy. Music by NRBQ. Rowayton, CT: Rabbit Ears Productions, Inc., 1993.

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Online Databases and Web Resources

These databases can be accessed through the UNC Library website "Article Databases and More" feature < http://eresources.lib.unc.edu/eid/>. Searching these databases using the terms “tall tale”, “folk heroes”, “folk heroines”, “folk tales” and specific heroes/heroines by name returns numerous articles dealing with this genre’s history, criticism, and application to curriculum. The articles come from publications such as Library Journal, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Horn Book and others.

ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature). Chadwyk- Healy.

Essay and General Literature Index. H. W. Wilson.

MLA Bibliography. Modern Language Association.


These sites are informative as well as entertaining and can be used as an adjunct to other sources for introducing tall tales to children..

American Folklore. <http://www.americanfolklore.net>.

Retellings of tall tales from all fifty states are included in this site and can be found under the sections "Historical Folklore", "Regional Folklore", "State Folklore" and "Famous Characters" and " Tall Tales".

Animated Tall Tales. Entechnevision. <http://www.animatedtalltales.com>.

This is an engaging site of animated games and tales of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and other characters.

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Created for INLS 111 by Diana Chike
School of Information and Library Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Last Updated 18 April, 2004