As the legend goes, it took five huge storks to deliver the infant (already gigantic) Paul Bunyan to his parents in Bangor, Maine. When he grew older, one drag of the mighty lumberjack’s massive ax created the Grand Canyon, while the giant footprints of his trusty companion, Babe the Blue Ox, filled with water and became Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Such frontier tall tales surely stretch reality, but was Paul Bunyan himself a real person? The true story of this iconic figure is a little more complicated.
Historians believe Bunyan was based in large part on an actual lumberjack: Fabian Fournier, a French-Canadian timberman who moved south and got a job as foreman of a logging crew in Michigan after the Civil War. Six feet tall (at a time when the average man barely cleared five feet) with giant hands, Fournier went by the nickname “Saginaw Joe.” He was rumored to have two complete sets of teeth, which he used to bite off hunks of wooden rails, and in his spare time enjoyed drinking and brawling. One November night in 1875, Fournier was murdered in the notoriously rowdy lumber town of Bay City, Michigan. His death, and the sensational trial of his alleged killer (who was acquitted), fueled tales of Saginaw Joe’s rough-and-tumble life—and his lumbering prowess—in logging camps in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and beyond.
Over time, Fournier’s legend merged with that of another French-Canadian lumberman, Bon Jean. Jean had played a prominent role in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, when loggers and other working men in St. Eustache, Canada, revolted against the British regime of the newly crowned Queen Victoria. The French pronunciation of Jean’s full name is believed to have evolved into the surname Bunyan.
The first Paul Bunyan story, “Round River,” made it into print in 1906, penned by journalist James MacGillivray for a local newspaper in Oscoda, Michigan. In 1912, MacGillivray collaborated with a poet on a Bunyan-themed poem for American Lumberman magazine, earning Paul Bunyan his first national exposure. Two years later, an ad campaign for Minnesota’s Red River Lumber Company featured the first illustrations of the larger-than-life lumberjack. Combined with pamphlets spinning the tales of his exploits, his prominent appearance as Red River’s mascot would help turn Paul Bunyan into a household name—and an enduring American icon.