The Biggest Folk Hero in Every State
May their legend live forever!
If you grew up in America, it’s a good bet you were raised on a compendium of tall tales. You know: Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Buffalo Bill, guys like that. But, though America sure loves their rough-and-tough mountain men—as evidenced by the staying power of those guys—if you get down in the local weeds, you’ll discover a far more rich and diverse pantheon of folk heroes.
Occasionally, these stories, like the Civil War-era tale of a rebellious slave girl, became legends because they inspired a sense of hope. But, in some cases, the morality is less cut-and-dried; these characters, like the pirate who robbed merchants before single-handedly winning the War or 1812 for us, can be painted as both heroes and villains. And the lines are blurred even more, depending on where in the country you happen to be. So here, ranging from tales rooted in reality to yarns so preposterous they just have to be make-believe, allow us to present the most revered folk heroes every state has to offer. And for more on the stories each state has kept alive for generations, don’t miss The Weirdest Urban Legend in Every State.
Alabama: John Henry
The ballads of John Henry, an African American man born in the Reconstruction era, portray him as a burly railroad worker with immense strength who valiantly competed with a steam engine to cut a railroad tunnel in the side of a mountain. According to legend, John Henry beat the engine, but died shortly afterward. But as the New York Times reports, there is some tenuous evidence that this mythic man might have actually existed. And for more on people who definitely never existed, check out the 50 Famous People Who Never Existed.
Destined to a life of eternal wandering, Kiviuq is an Inuit hero revered among Alaska, Canada, and Greenland natives for his incomparable compassion—on, and also his incredible ability to fend off all manner of sea monsters. And for more on the Last Frontier, find out why Juneau is one of the 13 Airports Pilots Hate Flying Into.
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Arizona: Wild Bill Hicock
Wild Bill was resoundingly the best shot in the West, credited with gunning down 100 “badmen” during his time as a Wild West vigilante of sorts. According to Wild West magazine, even General George Armstrong Custer admitted that Wild Bill was a man “whose skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring.” That’s pretty high praise from one of our nation’s most infamous military leaders. And if you can’t remember who Custer was, you might need to brush up on the 20 United States Civic Studies Lessons You Forgot.
Arkansas: The Arkansas Traveler
The historical song of the Natural State, “Arkansas Traveler,” is primarily an embodiment of Arkansas’ good ‘ole Southern hospitality. Supposedly, the song is rooted in one of Colonel Sanford Faulkner’s experiences. As Faulkner was walking through the woods, he came across a cabin in the woods. An unnamed man lived inside. After some banter, the guy welcomed Faulkner into his home, handed the Colonel a fiddle, and lo, a legendary tune was born.
California: John A. Sutter
Often heralded as the founder of California, John A. Sutter actually owned the land in California where gold was first gleefully discovered in 1848, kicking off the nation’s Gold Rush. But in a cruel twist of fate, the whirlwind of the search for gold left the formerly wealthy man bankrupt, as all of his workers abandoned his fort in pursuit of riches.
Colorado: Kit Carson
A legendarily iconic frontiersman who helped push America into embracing the Manifest Destiny, one of Kit Carson’s most notable accomplishments was successfully guiding explorer John C. Frémont across the terrain of Colorado, and then later the Pacific Northwest. Carson’s exploits were vaunted to a sort of celebrity status by the dime novels, movies, and TV shows loosely based on his life.
Connecticut: Whalley and Goffe
Whalley and Goffe were a pair of Puritan judges who took part in sentencing King Charles I to execution by beheading. The pair fled all the way from England to New Haven when Charles II, the executed king’s son, ascended to the throne, threatening retribution for his father. At first, the two lived freely in the Connecticut colony, but when they realized Charles II had sent soldiers to search them out, Whalley and Goffe went into hiding in the mountain caves near New Haven. Legend has it that, for years afterward, the colonists would occasionally spot an old, white-bearded man (presumably one of the exiled judges) among the mountains at the colony’s edge.
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Delaware: Tom Christ
The evidence for the story of Tom Christ, young pirate-catcher, is dubious at best. But supposedly, Captain William Kidd, a pirate who ransacked the New England Coast, came ashore at Delaware Bay in 1699. Kidd allegedly buried a box in the sand dunes of Cape Henlopen before quickly setting sail, unwittingly allowing Tom Christ, a young local boy, to witness the entire scene. After the pirate’s ship had sailed away, Christ promptly dug up the box, discovering gold and the pirate’s private papers. Somehow, these papers lent enough information about Kidd’s whereabouts for Christ to inform the authorities about Kidd’s upcoming plans and eventually lead to Kidd’s capture, landing Tom Christ a reputation as a young hero. And speaking of pirates, find out which state becomes obsessed with them every summer by learning The Weirdest Summer Tradition in Every State.
Florida: Juan Ponce de Leon
Juan Ponce de Leon was the Spanish explorer credited with first setting foot on the coast that would later be known as Florida. He was also the guy who regularly got everyone’s hopes up for the possibility of immortality with frequent yet futile searches for the Fountain of Youth.
Georgia: Brer Rabbit
Brer Rabbit: the tiny but clever woodland creature who constantly evades his fellow creatures (Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, and Brer Bear) by outwitting them at every turn—landing them in briar patches and other prickly situations.
Appearing in Disney’s popular film, Moana, Maui is more than just Hollywood concoction. It’s an actual Hawaiian legend, a demigod replete with a magical fish hook and super strength who, among other feats, harnessed the sun.
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Idaho: Carl Buck
Described as a “crack rifleshot,” the tall tales about Carl Buck’s ability to perform impressive feats with a rifle, like successfully firing between the legs of a fluttering hummingbird from 50 yards away, epitomize the West’s reverence for the classic sharp-shooting man. And for more amazing stories, don’t miss the 33 Common Myths We’re All Obsessed with.
Illinois: Johnny Appleseed
Perhaps one of the most infamous folk heroes, the tin pot hat-wearing, appleseed-sowing, gentle Johnny Appleseed is a legend many states would love to claim, but Illinois has one of the strongest claims, due to the fact that the real life man, John Chapman, planted several apple tree nurseries (yes, he did actually stick around to tend the seeds he planted) in the state of Illinois.
Indiana: The “Sissy” from the Hardscrapple County Rock Quarry
Emerging from a tale ultimately aimed at promoting the hardiness of quarry workers, the “sissy,” an eight-foot giant, reportedly rode into one of the Hardscrapple County Rock Quarry’s neighboring towns on the backs of two panthers, driving the big cats with a live rattlesnake as a whip. The sissy dejectedly reported to the frightened townspeople that he was ejected from the quarries for being too much of a wimp. The essence of the story? Quarry workers are the toughest of the tough.
Iowa: Kate Shelley
One of the few females from her time to leave a lasting mark in the history books, the best part about Kate Shelley’s story is that it’s absolutely true. One night in 1881, 15-year-old Shelley heard a horrible crashing sound come from the railroad tracks and ran outside to breathlessly discover that the nearby bridge had collapsed, taking a train with it. Realizing that another train was due to cross the bridge that same night, Shelley sprinted to the nearest train station to inform the station master that the bridge had been demolished, in just enough time for him to alert the oncoming train. Needless to say, Shelley’s quick thinking and brave actions made her a statewide hero.
Kansas: Buffalo Bill
As if hunting and killing over 4,000 buffalo to feed railroad construction crews wasn’t enough, Buffalo Bill started his own traveling Wild West show (starring Annie Oakley) that really cemented his status as a frontiersman legend. His folk hero legacy was also propelled along by sales of the “Buffalo Bill” dime-novels, which were loosely based on the real-life man.
Kentucky: Daniel Boone
A famed outdoorsman and war hero, Boone is catalogued in history as one of the main players involved in settling the Bluegrass State, especially blazing Wilderness Road from Virginia to Kentucky.
Louisiana: Pirate Jean Lafitte
Jean Lafitte was characterized among the nation’s most heroic and most villainous during his early nineteenth century pirating days, just depending on who you asked. With a strategic rotation in the Gulf of Mexico and a secret warehouse set up in New Orleans, Lafitte pirated many a hapless trader’s ship, obviously putting him on the wrong side of the law. That said, when the War of 1812 rolled around, Lafitte and his pirate fleet put all hands on deck in support of the U.S. Naval Force during the Battle of New Orleans, and some historians postulate that America would have been hard-pressed to win the war without the pirate’s assistance.
Remembered through the ages by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s eponymous poem, Evangeline was a doomed heroine, a lovestruck Acadian girl who, after being separated from her lover during the Expulsion of the Acadians, set out among the strange woodlands of New England (believed to be, more specifically, Maine) in a desperate attempt to be reunited with the man she loved. And for more of our favorite love poems, check out The 20 Most Romantic Poems of All Time.
Maryland: Big Liz
A legend arising from the African American community in the midst of the Civil War, the story of Big Liz is that of an enslaved girl in Maryland who was working covertly as a Yankee spy. Her suspecting master led her deep into the woods one night, purportedly to bury a box of treasure he didn’t want the Union Army to get their hands on. Suddenly, the master turned the shovel on the girl, burying Big Liz alive—but that wasn’t the end of her story. As legend has it, Big Liz’s spirit was too fierce to die so easily. The girl’s ghost supposedly followed her master back to his house, where she deftly snapped his neck, serving justice, and garnering her a reputation as a folk hero.
Massachusetts: Old Stormalong
Fondly referred to as “Old Stormy” for short, this gigantic sailor was the subject of many a New England nautical tall tale. Among other exploits, he is credited with battling the mythical Kraken during a voyage that took him near the coast of South America.
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Michigan: Anna Etheridge
One of only two women to receive the Kearny Cross Medal of Honor, the combat medic known as “Michigan Annie” was a hardened nurse who provided immediate medical care to wounded soldiers, often smack in the center of Civil War battles.
Minnesota: Paul Bunyan
Arguably the most revered folk hero of all, legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan (and Babe, his trusty blue ox) is fondly touted among the Midwest as a man of mythically large proportions who could roll up his sleeves and chop down entire forests and create entire lakes (like the Puget Sound), all in a day’s work.
Mississippi: Huckleberry Finn
One of Mark Twain’s lifelike literary creations, the fictional character Huck Finn, a ragamuffin boy who befriends a runaway slave, is beloved among Mississippi natives for his unabashed portrayal of the rural nineteenth-century American South—not to mention the young boy’s clarity in viewing African Americans as actual people, a perception not shared by many in the pre-Civil War era. And while we’re on the subject of the literary titan, bone up on the 30 Mark Twain One-Liners That Are Still Relevant Today.
Missouri: Jesse James
Jesse James: outlaw or hero? Well, it depends on the way you look at him. Some claimed his murders and robberies were a sort of twisted retribution for his family’s maltreatment at the hands of Union soldiers during the Civil War. Whatever the case may be, James’ exploits, bloody and gruesome though they were, were bold enough to cause him to be whispered about with a tinge of awe for many years to come.
Montana: General Custer
Likely recognized in the modern era from his portrayal in the Night at the Museum films, General George Armstrong Custer was one of America’s most seasoned and valorous military generals. His most infamous battle, at Little Bighorn in Montana, where he and the entire cavalry regiment under his command perished, is now commemorated as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Nebraska: Febold Feboldson
The tales surrounding this guy are even more bizarre than his name. Allegedly able to control the weather, folk hero Febold Feboldson could supposedly slice fog apart and wrestle cyclones with his bare hands.
Esa, or the Wolf, is recognized by several Native American tribes as the creator god, often tasked with preventing his irresponsible brother, Coyote, from sowing mishaps and contention among the tribes.
New Hampshire: Passaconaway
A chieftain of the Pennacook tribe, Passaconaway was rumored to possess mysterious powers, including the abilities to make water burn, revitalize dead vegetation, and bring dead snakes back to life (though we’re not sure why that would be necessary). Arguably the most bizarre rumor concerning Passaconaway is that upon his death, he ascended to the sky atop a sled borne by wild wolves.
New Jersey: Molly Pitcher
This Revolutionary War-era woman was as fearless as any man, and then some. Legend has it that Molly Pitcher marched onto the battlefield to deliver pitchers of water to soldiers, and even helped operate a cannon during the Battle of Monmouth.
New Mexico: Pavla Blanca
The legend of Pavla Blanca is the tragic tale of a betrothed woman who set out to find her lost lover, a handsome Spanish conquistador who vanished after his company was ambushed by the Apache tribe. Pavla Blanca died somewhere along New Mexico’s Great White Sands while searching for her lover. Her ghost is said to roam the sands to this day, forever immortalizing her story of lost young love.
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New York: Abner Cartwright and Alexander Doubleday
Supposedly, New Yorkers Abner Cartwright and Alexander Doubleday were responsible for the invention of America’s favorite pastime (that’s baseball, in case you weren’t sure). But, according to the New York Folklore Society, the accomplishments attributed to these two men actually represent a classic posthumous misrepresentation of their lives. In reality, neither of the two men likely played any major role in getting the sport up off the ground, and their association with the game is thought to be an elaborately odd practical joke on the part of one of their mutual friends. Nevertheless, when a conversation rolls around to the origins of baseball, these two men’s names still inevitably crop up. And for more on baseball, find out why it ranks among the 30 Most Dangerous Summer Activities.
North Carolina: Henry Berry Lowry
Regarded as a nineteenth-century North Carolinian Robin Hood, Henry Berry Lowry allegedly was of Native American descent, and the aims of the Confederacy didn’t sit too well with him. When the Confederate conscription officers came to town, Lowry took to the woods, joining and eventually becoming the leader of a band that mounted several attacks on Confederate soldiers.
North Dakota: Sacagawea
Forever remembered in the history books for her vital role in the Lewis and Clark expedition, Sacagawea was, for those of you who might not remember, a bilingual Native American woman who guided the two expeditioners across the Rocky Mountains, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The most impressive part? She led the way through Western America’s uncharted terrain while carrying and caring for her newborn baby.
Ohio: Mike Fink
Coined the King of the River, Mike Fink was a superior boatsman who could keelboat with the best of them, and, as the story goes, occasionally outfoxed even the craftiest of businessmen, stealing both money and whiskey. Among Fink’s lauded talents was the ability to shoot whiskey cups off his friends’ heads.
Oklahoma: Kemp Morgan
Oklahoma’s rendition of Paul Bunyan, Kemp Morgan was a no-nonsense oil drilling man with an uncanny gift: the ability to sniff out, with fine-tuned precision, reservoirs of oil located miles and miles underground. And for more strange American trivia, See the Top Slang Term from Every U.S. State.
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Oregon: Jumbo Reilly
A lumbering giant of a man, Jumbo Reilly was widely thought to be the most intense barkeep in Portland. Although the bar where Jumbo worked was at one time reckoned to be the longest in the world, he had a keen eye and a knack for tracking down even the most wily rascals who tried to sneak in through a side door.
Pennsylvania: Joe Magarac
The steelworker’s iteration of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, Joe Magarac was allegedly a Pittsburgh native who could shape and bend steel better than any other man. In some particularly exaggerated retellings, Magarac is actually described as being made entirely of steel himself.
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Rhode Island: Elleanor Eldridge
In a similar vein to Davy Crockett, in that she was an actual person who took on a sort of legendary form, Elleanor Eldridge is regarded as a folk hero of African American feminism. Made famous by memoirs of her life authored by Francis Whipple, Eldridge was a free, single African American woman living in nineteenth-century Providence, who found herself involved in an intense legal battle for her rightfully-owned property. Whipple’s memorialization of Eldridge’s life made her an icon for later uprisings against both racism and sexism in the decades to come.
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South Carolina: Old Black Joe
In the mid-nineteenth century, lyricist and composer Stephen Foster wrote the song “Old Black Joe,” reminiscing on his childhood friendship with a beloved elderly former slave. The song became immensely popular, and, according to the Cedar Swamp Historical Society Collection, Foster’s heartfelt lyrics are considered “the first to elevate the dignity of the black slave.”
South Dakota: Calamity Jane
A gritty woman of the Wild West, Calamity Jane was a South Dakota legend for her admirable shooting precision and tough-as-nails attitude.
Tennessee: Davy Crockett
Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett was elevated to legendary status by the folktales that abounded about his superior frontiersmanship. These were aided by the fact that he died a martyr’s death while defending Texas’ freedom in the infamous Battle of the Alamo.
Texas: Pecos Bill
Pecos Bill: the Southwestern cowboy who was purportedly born to a family of Texas pioneers, and, among a myriad of other tall tales, was raised by wild coyotes, traveled on the back of a mountain lion and lassoed tornadoes in his spare time.
Utah: Brigham Young
A figure of legend to those both of and outside of the Mormon faith, Brigham Young is one of the pillar members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Young is most notably recognized for his instrumental role in the migration of the majority of the religious group (then about 16,000 people) from Illinois to Utah in the mid-nineteenth century.
Vermont: Ethan Allen
Memorialized by a massive statue on the steps of Vermont’s State Capitol, frontiersman Ethan Allen served as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys militia in the eighteenth century, fighting against the preposterous taxes the greedy governor of New York was imposing on Vermont landowners. Later, Allen played a vital role in the Revolutionary War, serving as commander of the armed forces of the Commonwealth of Vermont.
Virginia: John Smith
Although Disney’s Pocahontas romanticizes many of the details of John Smith’s life, the fact remains that this hardy explorer played an immensely important role in establishing America’s very first colony in Jamestown, Virginia, particularly aiding in maintaining positive relationships with the nearby Native American tribes. And for more on the truth of John Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship, don’t miss 30 Outdated History Lessons That Will Make You Cringe in 2018.
Washington: Willie Willey
A more modern-day “hero,” the bizarre Willie Willey is almost a larger-than-life character, a mountain man who moved to Spokane in the early twentieth century and built quite a reputation for his distaste of clothing (often seen clad only in a pair of khaki shorts), and his free-spirited roaming. He was so beloved by the people of Spokane that, after he passed away, the rock seen in the picture above was christened after him.
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West Virginia: Tony Beaver
Often associated with (and sometimes claimed to be kin to) Paul Bunyan, the tall tale hero Tony Beaver was known to frequent the woods near Eel River with two oxen of his own, named Hannibal and Goliath.
Wisconsin: Johnny Inkslinger
Although Wisconsinites fight tooth and nail to claim Paul Bunyan as their own, they also claim Johnny Inkslinger, Bunyan’s highly efficient record-keeper (known to save time by never crossing a ‘t’ or dotting an ‘i’), who supposedly also invented the fountain pen.
Wyoming: John Colter
A member of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter is revered as one of the nation’s first mountain men, rumored to have once outstripped an entire hunting party from the Blackfeet tribe—running across rocks and cacti in his bare feet.
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