10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can't Fit in a Storybook

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

By Larry Holzwarth
10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

Legendary figures abound in American history, some totally fictional and some based, in part, on historical facts. There are near-mythical explorers, workers, frontiersman, and pioneers. Some came about as extensions of legends brought to America by early immigrants. Others developed from similar tales gleaned from the Native Americans. There are legendary actions attributed to real life Americans which grew upon each retelling to become mythological. Some have been retold to the point of becoming widely believed to be true.

There are stories of ghost trains driven by ghostly engineers splitting the night with ghostly whistles. Lost souls roam certain patches of woods looking for lost companions. Other legends tell of traveling peddlers who saved whole towns from destruction. During the railroad building boom legends developed of the superhuman achievements of some track layers. Coastal towns brought tales of legendary pirates and ghost ships, and in the farmlands stories of roaming agrarians grew with the nation. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Johnny Appleseed as a child, few know the truth about him. Paul Bunyan and his legendary Blue Ox, Babe, have been claimed as natives of numerous towns scattered across several states, wherever lumber cutting has been a part of the economy, recent scholarship reveals he may have been based on real persons.

Here are ten legendary American figures, some real, some fictional, and some somewhere in between.

These statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe stand in Bemidji Minnesota. Wikimedia
A fanciful drawing of Johnny Appleseed. In real life he planted extensive orchards throughout the Ohio country. Wikipedia

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed is usually pictured in tattered coveralls, wearing a pot as a hat. He is remembered as a legendary figure who roamed the country, scattering apple seeds along the way. This picture of an itinerant figure wandering almost aimlessly is the result of decades of urban legends and folk tales, fed today by numerous festivals and celebrations in his name in apple growing regions of the East and Midwest.

In fact Johnny Appleseed was John Chapman, a minister of the Swedenborgian Church, and a noted nurseryman who established well designed orchards in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Canada and Illinois. Chapman served an apprenticeship as a nurseryman in Ohio before he set out on his life of travels, during which he both preached the Swedenborgian religion and built orchards.

Chapman would stay in one location long enough to establish an orchard, fenced to protect it from wild animals and livestock, and sell shares in the crops to settlers and other neighbors. In doing so he became wealthy but most of his wealth was lost in the Panic of 1837. Nonetheless when he died his estate included several valuable orchards, one of which included more than 15,000 trees. Another covered over 1200 acres.

In his later years he concentrated more on preaching, and traveled as an itinerant minister, usually sleeping in barns or as a guest in one of his convert’s houses. He preached extensively to the Native Americans in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Along with his beliefs in the Swedenborgian religion (also called the New Church) he developed a respect for animals to the point that he became a vegetarian. His religious beliefs led him to oppose grafting of apple trees and accepting the fruit only in its wild state. The apple varieties attributed to him are not of his creation.

Chapman died in Fort Wayne, Indiana on March 18, 1845. His gravesite is disputed with several locations in the Fort Wayne area claiming to be his final resting place. Of the many orchards he established in several states none remain. In recent years some historians postulate that Chapman brought apples to the frontier in the form of cider rather than as edible fruit, but recorded documents in numerous locations clearly define many of the orchards he created.