Paul Bunyan's French-Canadian Heritage

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Paul Bunyan is a popular American folk hero who visually portrays the
lumberjack heritage and a larger than life common working man.

Indeed, the American giant Paul Bunyan could be our country's first
official Franco-American, born in Bangor, Maine with ancestry in

A colorful giant statue of Paul Bunyan is evident on Main Street outside
of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

My lovely 15 year old granddaughter Amanda was going back to school
shopping with "Mimi", near Bangor where she lives, when we decided to
visit the Paul Bunyan statue.

"So, Mimi, do you know who the real Paul Bunyan was?" asked Amanda.
So, I decided to find out more about the man behind the legend. Straight
away, I called Maine folk-song writer Joseph Pickering (see footnote),
who also lives in Bangor. Pickering wrote the words to "The Ballad of
Paul Bunyan", which is actually the theme song for the Bangor Region
Chamber of Commerce.

"Yes, Paul Bunyan has French-Canadian roots," admits Pickering.

"Some say the mythic figure Paul Bunyan came from a leader of a Farmer's
rebellion in Quebec against the British known as the Papineau Rebellion
of 1837. Others tell the story of another Quebec man who moved to the
Northwest. The man was reportedly born with a double row of teeth that
he used to chew the ends off of a wooden bar. The guy liked to drink and
chew wood, I guess. Anyway, he actually came to no good end...he was
eventually murdered," says Pickering.

My own research proves out much of Pickering's story.

Legends claim that five overworked and exhausted storks delivered Bunyan
to his parents in Bangor, Maine, sometime in the early years of the 19th
century. As a child, Bunyan was given a pet blue ox named Babe who grew
large enough to eat thirty bales of hay for a mid-day snack. Bunyan was
a great lumberjack who, according to his myth, could clear a forest with
a single swing of his ax.

But Bunyan's legend is based, at least in part, on some facts.
Historians who researched Paul Bunyan's legend refer to a real
French-Canadian timber man named Fabian "Joe" Fournier.

It's actually Fournier who is, most likely, the real person behind the
Paul Bunyan fable.

Born in Quebec around 1845, Fournier went to Michigan after the Civil
War because logging paid considerably more than similar work in Canada
at the time. He was large and strong, and could deftly handle a
double-bit axe. Fournier stood six feet tall and had large, powerful

Indeed, he may well have had two sets of teeth, as Pickering suggests.

Fournier brawled, and drank heavily and was murdered after one of his
brawls. He was hit in the back of his head with a ship carpenter's
mallet on the night November 7, 1875, although his death record shows he
died in October of that year.

Paul Bunyan's myth and legend can be, historically, traced
chronologically through newspaper stories, poetry, and songs. Over time,
these tall tales about a giant lumberjack also became connected to a
French-Canadian hero of the Quebec farmer's uprising of 1837, called the
Papineau Rebellion. A man named Bon Jean was apparently a hero of this
effort to throw out British rule over Quebec farmers. Eventually, the
lumberjack created in Fournier's legend merged with Bon Jean's to create
the folk hero named Paul Bunyan.

Regardless of where the legend originated, my research suggests it's,
absolutely safe to call the giant mythical man named Paul Bunyan a
larger than life Franco-American.

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Copyright 2004, Juliana L'Heureux and the Portland Press Herald