The Gamecock of the Wilderness

During the Revolution a small book appeared in London purporting to be a history of Connecticut. It was not quite historical. Its author, the Reverend Samuel Peters, was in fact disporting himself after a prolonged sojourn among the blue laws. He presented a highly irreverent view of the Puritans, and explained how they happened to be called pumpkin-heads. Passing from social habits to geography, he described the Connecticut River, whose narrows, he said, were so swift that a crowbar would float there. He pictured the monstrous march of the frogs of Windham, and dwelt upon a bird called the humility, which spoke its own name, had an eye as piercing as that of a falcon, and could never be shot as it skimmed the ground, for it always saw the spark in the flintlock before the powder was kindled and darted out of range. Connecticut also boasted of a little animal called the whappernocker.

The Reverend Samuel Peters had perhaps taken time to lay his ear to the ground and catch certain faint reverberations from the West, or it may be that such humor was destined to flourish on any new American frontier, and that he had heard snatches of it on the New England coast. But the stories were unrecorded; they did not flourish there; the Reverend Samuel Peters stands as something of a prophet, for even in the West tall tales were not to come into abundant bloom for another generation or more. He was an artist as well, for he mixed the true with only slightly stretched and told his tallest stories with moderation. He was not appreciated in Connecticut. Perhaps the inhabitants saw more than met the eye in his study of the humility; examined closely, this might be taken as a tiny fable; the lines on pumpkin-heads were a broadside; and among the few woodcuts with which the book was adorned was one of an Indian woman in a canoe, not quite properly clad, sailing perilously down a narrow gorge and drinking a jug of whiskey. With all his accomplishments he was denounced by the Reverend Timothy Dwight as having created "a mass of folly and falsehood," and his little volume sank into oblivion.

For many years after his outburst tall talk and tall tales slumbered in New England. The Cape Cod sea serpent had its long day, and remained a simple sea serpent. At last, in the '40's, it became a caracoling monster that carried the crew of a schooner from the Straits of Magellan around the Horn; but by that time the western tall tale had acquired a considerable stature, and the story may have been a western fantasy.


IN 1822, at a theater in New Orleans whose pit and parquet were crowded with flatboatmen, an actor stepped out in buckskin shirt and leggings, moccasins and fur cap, with a rifle on his shoulder. He might have come from the audience. To a familiar air he sang a new song by the author of "The Old Oaken Bucket"--

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn't scar'd at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles;
So he led us down to Cypress Swamp, the ground was low and mucky;
There stood John Bull in martial pomp: but here was old Kentucky!

With this he threw his cap on the ground and took aim. The response was a deafening Indian yell, and cataclysms of applause greeted each of the eight stanzas with their refrain--

Oh, Kentucky! the hunters of Kentucky,
Oh, Kentucky! the hunters of Kentucky!

Thereafter the song was sung at theater after theater in the South and West, sometimes half a dozen times in an evening. Sweeping eastward, it reached fame in New York with "symphonies" and accompaniments and elaborations--

We raised a bank to hide our breasts, not that we thought of dying,
But that we always liked to rest unless the game is flying;
Behind it stood our little force; none wished it to be greater,
For every man was half a horse and half an alligator.

Like the Yankee in the Revolution the backwoodsman had leapt up out of war as a noticeable figure-the War of 1812; in the scattered western country his portrait had taken shape slowly. Once on the national horizon, however, he made up in noise what he had lost in time. He grew rhapsodic-about himself-and like the Reverend Samuel Peters betrayed a strong leaning toward natural history. He was not only half horse, half alligator, he was also the sea-horse of the mountain, a flying whale, a bear with a sore head. He had sprung from the Potomac of the world. He was a steamboat, or an earthquake that shook an enemy to pieces, and he could wade the Mississippi. "I'm a regular tornado, tough as hickory and long-winded as a nor'wester. I can strike a blow like a falling tree, and every lick makes a gap in the crowd that lets in an acre of sunshine." He was the most cunning of the creatures of the backwoods, a raccoon, "a ring-tailed roarer." Oddly enough, he was also a flower. "I'm the yaller blossom of the forest!" Heels cracking, he leapt into the air to proclaim his attributes against all comers like an Indian preparing for warfare. As a preliminary to a fight he neighed like a stallion or crowed like a cock. He was "the gamecock of the wilderness" and the "Salt River Roarer." "Down thar you go, war you a buffalo," he chanted in wrestling matches, with hands placed on the shoulder and hip of his opponent.

Strength was his obsession-size, scale, power: he seemed obliged to shout their symbols as if after all he were not wholly secure in their possession. He shouted as though he were intoxicated by shouting. He shouted in ritual, as though the emotions by which he was moved were bending him to some primitive celebration. Leaping, crowing, flapping his wings, he indulged in dances resembling beastdances among savages; his heel-crackings and competitive matches were like savage efforts to create strength for the tribe by exhibiting strength. They even appeared, in the fertile new country, like those primitive ceremonies to produce growth by which the sower leaps high to make the hemp grow high.

He not only created a bestiary; with the single digres sion to the floral he insisted that he was a beast--a new beast, and the records prove that in this contention he was often right. Gouging was his favorite method of attack in affairs not settled with a gun or knife. Men of the back woods joined in mortal combat stark naked, strapped within a few inches of each other to a bench, armed only with bowie-knives. A steamboat captain, once a flatboatman, finding that one of his men had been badly treated in a house on the river near New Orleans, fastened a cable round the pier on which the house rested, and starting the steamer, pulled it into the river, drowning the inmates.

Horror, terror, death, were written large in the life of the rivers and forests. Yet the backwoodsman kept a comic oblivious tone; he seemed to possess "a certain jollity of mind, pickled in a scorn of fortune." A traveler floundering through the mire of a cypress swamp in Ohio saw a beaver hat lying crown upward in the mud. It moved, and he lifted it with his whip. Underneath was a man's head--a laughing head that cried, "Hello, stranger !" The traveler offered his assistance, but the head declined, saying that he had a good horse under him.


STRANGELY enough, the ancestry of the backwoodsman bore a close resemblance to that of the Yankee. His early faith had been the same, a rooted Calvinism, and he united similar racial strains, though the Ulster and Scots inheritance among the first inhabitants of Kentucky seems to have been stronger than among the New Englanders, and their history-also one of persecution-had been more violent. Some of them had sprung from that Highland stock which had been driven out of its mountain fastnesses in the eighteenth century; at an earlier date others had been forcibly transplanted to Ulster. Once again this migrant people had moved to Virginia, but the large holdings of the Cavaliers drove them from the Shenandoah Valley to seek land on the Yadkin; and even then it seemed that many of them were never again to take root. With an untouched wilderness on the horizon they moved onward and became the first explorers of the dark and bloody ground.

These many upheavals must inevitably have had a powerful influence upon a highly emotional people whose love of their own soil had once been possessive and deep. The new climate, lush and warm, was unfamiliar, and if the new land was rich its contours were strange. Heights of limestone rose sheer above the dark rolling waters of cavernous rivers. Canebrakes made impenetrable thickets where paraquets swarmed, and turkey buzzards. Always in the forest waited an enemy. Some of these people took on savage coloring as if for protection; others adopted savage modes with an avidity which seemed the outcome of deep-seated instinct. Renegades were plentiful; men like the Harpes plundered with no object, and like ogres in medieval fairytale slept with their victims in order to slay them, while creatures such as the Jibbenainosay haunted the landhalf white, half Indian, monstrous and ghostlike, phantasms of terror to whites and Indians, moving through the forests on vengeful errands.

Indian legends seeped into the consciousness of the new settlers, turning this awry. After the harsher dangers were t over, many a Kentucky pioneer was like the red-headed Pete Featherton, who one day crunched over dry snow for miles without a sign of game and at sunset found the streams running in the wrong direction, shadows falling the wrong way, and his own shadow traveling around him like the marker on a sun-dial, though much faster. A spell was laid upon his rifle that was relaxed only by Indian incantations and the appearance of a snow-white fawn. In these legends-which sometimes seemed to join with Gaelic fragments-white fawns often appeared, or white steeds of the prairies, or jet-black coursers. In one tale an Indian warrior was struck down in a storm and found a thunderbolt beside him with a stallion on which he sprang, seizing the bolt; the stallion was the lightning, and the warrior crossed prairies, forests, rivers in an instant and was flung headlong upon the Rocky Mountains.

The backwoodsman conquered the Indian, but the Indian also conquered him. He ravaged the land and was ravaged in turn. Something of his prevailing hysteria was shown in his insensate habit of killing more game than he needed, or of shooting the hundreds of pigeons that blackened the sky from a blind wish to exhibit power or a blinder purpose to obliterate the wilderness. Yet he was often exuberantly, wildly light-hearted, and in the end, according to his own stories, he too bestrode the lightning, though not in the awed mood of the Indian.

Perhaps the bonds of strangeness and terror had been pulled overtight in his first period of conquest in the new country. Perhaps the soft climate released him. The French voyageur may have brought a different mood, who came by the rivers and kept to the rivers, who was livelier than the Kentucky scout and had the habit of song. As settlers arrived in the early nineteenth century the voyageurs were overwhelmed by numbers, and the backwoodsmen learned the art of steering the heavy broadhorns. But the habit of song persisted, as Negro oarsmen joined their number and broke into rowing-melodies. On the Ohio fiddles might be heard on the boats plying their way from Pittsburgh far down the Illinois shore, as soon as the dangers from savage attack were over.

At the great bends of the rivers where the horns sounded their warning of the swift approach of the heavy boats, the Ohio was like sheets of crystal, so clear that the eye could see to a depth of twenty feet or more. In the early spring, gum tree and locust, dogwood and redbud drifted. The notes of the mocking-bird floated out: everywhere was the fresh faint odor of wild grape.

O, boatman! Wind that horn again,
For never did the listening air,
Upon its lambent bosom bear
So wild, so soft, so sweet a strain!
What though thy notes are sad and few
By every simple boatman blown,
Yet is each pulse to nature true,
And melody in every tone.
How oft in boyhood's joyous days,
Unmindful of the lapsing hours,
I've loitered on my homeward way
By wild Ohio's bank of flowers;
While some lone boatman from the deck
Poured his soft numbers to the tide,
As if to charm from storm and wreck
The boat where all his fortunes ride!

The boatman's horn was heard by many travelers moving into the West, and lingered in memory long after the steamboats had driven the broadhorns from the rivers.

The boatman blew his magic horn and improvised sentimental songs. As he "pulled upon the beech oar" he slipped into a highly posed melancholy. He grew elegiac over lost loves. But he was as hardy a rapscallion as ever drew breath. He "sang best to a mark," he said, and the broad prose of his rejoinders to taunts and queries echoed as widely as his lyrics. He had answers for every landingstage, could provoke talk where none seemed to be forthcoming, and reenforced his repartee by muscular evidence. A prime wrestler and a crack shot, trained by Indian attack, from 1800 onward he lorded it over the Mississippi as well as the Ohio, and could easily be singled out by his arrogant bearing and tall figure in a crowd, all the way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

With the freer ways of the water the boatman perhaps emerged more quickly as master of his scene than did the backwoodsman. Well into the nineteenth century they seemed separate figures; yet in the long view they mingle. Even in the matter of music the two had been allied, for as terror receded from the forest, the sound of Scotch or English airs and ballads had arisen from the clearings. The hard ground was covered with corn bran for dancing; the backwoodsman played the flute, the fiddle, the flageolet; Negro slaves taught him the bones; the banjo came no one knows whence. Both the backwoodsmen and the boatman were lively dancers, mixing Negro breakdowns with Irish reels and jigs. The backwoodsman sang; his rough improvisations mingled with the older songs. He often had a cabin, but like the boatman he moved constantly. Boone's cry of "more elbow-room" was echoed for years by many others, and seemed the watchword of a host of men both restless and perplexed. "I don't like to be crowded," they said. Comic resilience swept through them in waves, transcending the past, transcending terror, with the sense of comedy, itself a wild emotion. They boasted and rhapsodized and made a rising clamor in the forests and along the great rivers. But they were full of sudden silences. They were curious, with the thirsty curiosity of the backwoods. Like all frontiersmen they possessed a gift for masquerade: they wore blank countenances. They were fond of costume, wearing bright fringes and many-colored coats. Each carried a gun, which was his dearest possession, his friend, his clown.

With these simple outlines the backwoodsman emerged into the general view during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Others entering the West might retreat to the mountain fastnesses of Kentucky to preserve there, as in amber, the speech and music and habits of an older world. Some chose the more stable life of the settlements. By the time the War of 1812 was ended Lexington had grown into a small city, with broad streets and a university; within or beyond its contours were deep lawns, fine gardens, chaste pleasure-grounds. But the men and women who followed these more ordered ways were etched sparely in the records of the time, or sank into oblivion It was the huntsmen of Kentucky, the boatmen, the innumerable local figures of western legend, who commanded a wide and lasting attention.


IN THE blaze of light focused upon the American character by foreign travelers the backwoodsman came into full view; and he in turn considered foreign conclusions. Western newspapers and the primitive western stage were full of his responses. The French comments on western life were received with amusement because of their flattering romanticism. From these the backwoodsman culled the phrase "child of nature" and applied it coyly to himself. When he became a target for British criticism, indeed the very bull's-eye, western rejoinder was fairly neat. It assumed that the British traveler had gained his monstrous impressions of the West through western waggery. On many a small western stage Mrs. Trollope became a gross and gullible witch-woman who was stuffed with tall tales.

The backwoodsman also received critical commentaries from domestic sources. The opprobrium of New England was often as marked as that of Great Britain. Early in the century feeling in New England against the West became acute because of the steady drainage of migration to the new lands. Timothy Dwight declared that men left New England only because they were too disgraced or too unprincipled to remain at home; he pictured the West as a grand reservoir for the scum of the United States. In later years Whittier told a story that had come down to him, of a New England farmer who went to the Ohio country, where he married a western witch-wife, who inspired him with such terror that he was afraid to fall asleep for fear she would turn him into a horse, get him shod at the smithy, and ride him to a witch-meeting. He slipped away at last, returned to his native village, and married a New England maiden. But one day the witch-wife came riding up the street, and he was obliged to return with her to the West on a pillion and to stay there until she died. He then came back to his New England bride, and was thereafter often seen at the village tavern, old and stout and red-nosed, explaining over mugs of cider how little he had liked the rich bottom-lands of the West, and how much he had missed his father's pasture with butternut trees along the road.

In running reply to such aspersions the backwoodsman told of a long-legged cream-faced Yankee peddler who mistook a mud-turtle for an alligator, climbed a tree, found a knot-hole, and buried his head in it. Long strings of such brief hits were contrived, and the stories that riddled Yankee peddlers ran in cycles. "He wer hatched in a crack -in frosty rocks, whar nutmaigs am made outen maple, an' whar wimmen paints clock faces an' pints shoe-paigs, an' the men invents rat-traps, man-traps, an' new-fangled doctrines fur the aid ov the devil," said one story-teller of a Yankee.

But queerly enough, the backwoodsman indulged in conduct resembling that of the Yankee when under the fire of criticism, as if after all there were a tacit bond between them. He assumed in gross form the- faults with which he was charged. He was considered uncouth, and he swaggered the more roughly. He was called a bragger and a liar: he gently retouched his exploits. He had begun early the social pastime of shooting cans on his comrades' heads as a proof of friendship, at greater and greater distances. About i 8oo a traveler in the West had seen a bullet split at a hundred paces and the string of a flag cut at three hundred. He learned of a shot that enlarged the eye of a weathercock on a church steeple, and was told of a marksman in Kentucky who punctured a milk-pail carried on the shoulder of a maiden walking along a path on the farther side of the Ohio River. The backwoodsman's sight was like his aim. "I can see a bee a mile away, easy," he said. In Texas he had lassoed Comanche chiefs while galloping bareback on a stolen horse, and once flushed twenty of them from a bit of timber and shot them on the wing.

Probably the backwoodsman always kept a large blank gaze fixed upon the stranger as he polished his tales-or upon that hypothetical stranger and wary critic whom sooner or later he was sure to meet. He always demanded an audience: yet in the end, though he included the critic, though his self-consciousness grew noisy and acute, his finest efforts seemed mainly for his peers.

"You never did see anything rain like it did the fust day when we was floatin' down," said Bill Merriweather, telling of the disappearance of his Brother Joe on a trip from Georgia to Kentucky for a boatload of stone. "Near sundown we'd made a matter of twenty mile afore we went ashore and tied up. We raised a rousin' big fire on the bank close to where she was tied, and cooked some side and possum, an' I was sittin' on a log talking to Brother Joe, who was standin' chock up agin the fire with his back to it . . . . Brother Joe allers was a dressy sort of chap, fond of the brass buttons he had on his coat and the flairin'est kind ov red neckerchers; and this time he had on a pair of buckskin breeches with straps under his boots. Well, as I was a talkin' to him ov the prospect for the next day, all of a sudden I thought the little feller was a growin' uncommon tall; till I diskivered that the buckskin breeches that were as wet as a young rooster in a spring rain, wur beginnin' to smoke an' draw up, and wur a liftin' Brother Joe off the ground! `Brother Joe,' sez I, `you're a going up.' `Brother,' sez he, `I ain't a doin' anything else" And he scrunched down mighty hard, but it warn't ov no use, for afore long he wur a matter of some fifteen feet up in the air. `Brother Joe,' sez I. `I'm here,' sez he. `Catch hold ov the top ov that blackjack,' sez I. `Talk,' sez Brother Joe, and he sorter leaned over and grabbed the saplin' like as maybe you've seen a squirrel haul an elm switch on a June mornin'.

"But it warn't ov no use, fur ef you'll believe me it gradually began to giv' way at the roots, and afore he'd got five foot higher it split out'n the ground as easy as you'd pull up a spring radish. `Brother Joe!' sez I. `I'm listenin',' sez he. `Cut your straps!' sez I, fur I seed it was his last chance. `Talk!' sez Brother Joe, though he looked sort of reproachful at me for broachin' such a subject, but arter apparently considerin' awhile he outs with his jackknife, and leanin' over sideways, made a rip at the sole of his left boot. There was a considerable degree of cracklin' fur a second or two, then a crash sorter like as if a wagonload of cordwood had bruk down, and the fust thing I knowed the t'other leg shot up like, started him, and the last thing I seed ov Brother Joe, he was whirlin' round like a four-spoked wheel with the rim off away down clost toward sundown."

Traveling actors seized such stories and commanded audi ences on the stage or in the taverns. One of Barnum's com panions on his early travels with a small circus through the Southwest was an accomplished purveyor. "Gentlemen," he would begin in a manner solemn and hortatory. "Gen tlemen," he would repeat with a quiet pause as he ap proached a crucial circumstance. "That's a lie, by thun der!" some excited listener would cry as he unraveled the tale of a British Revolutionary officer recently found buried in snow at a high altitude in the Rocky Mountains, who had related his strange adventures when thawed out. Hawley went imperturbably on, joining story to story matching himself in fact until the bottom fell wholly out of reality and the final episode rose like a balloon with the string cut.

Half magnification, half sudden strange reversal, these tales were likely to culminate in moments of "sudden glory" that had a touch of the supernatural. Indian traces appeared in them with a comic movement upside down Fragments of Gaelic lore brought by the earlier pioneers may have strengthened a sense of natural magic. Tall tales were often like wrestling matches or the rhapsodic boastings and leapings and crowings and neighings that prefaced a fight in the backwoods, with one tale pitted against another. A knock-down force belongs to many of them; the competitive purpose is plain in the unexpected thrust at the end. Almost always the listener loses a foothold or draws a sudden breath. It was the wilderness with its impenetrable depths, the wild storms of the West, the great rivers, the strange new wonders on every side, that produced the content of the stories-those natural elements that had brought terror and suffering to earlier pioneers and still belonged to the farther, unknown West, but now were apprehended with an insurgent comic rebound and a consciousness of power.

Warmth sometimes infused some of the tall talk. "It was enough to make a young earthquake for the corn to grow as it did, an' as to the potatoes, I'll be skinned alive if ever I saw anything like it. Why, any one of them hot nights you could jist go into a little patch of fifty acres, clost to the house, an' hold your ear down, an' you could hear the young potatoes quarrelin', an' the old ones a-grumblin' because they didn't lay along and stop crowdin'. Why, one day one of our squash vines chased a drove of hogs better'n half a mile, and they ran and squealed as if the old boy was after them. One little pig stubbed his toe and fell down and never was heard of afterwards."

Many of the tales and much of the talk verged toward that median between terror and laughter which is the grotesque; and some plunged into the monstrous, as in the stories about slavery contrived for traveling New Englanders with a bent toward reform. A crop of these horrors with a callous comic turn was grown, to produce a lasting bewilderment as to the condition of the Negro in the Southwest. The usual manner was impersonal-take it or leave it. A bright trail of fact usually fixed the attention of the listener; and this trail seemed natural. The look and feel of things became important in all the stories, as they had been habitually for the huntsman and scout and pioneer. A favorite approach was scientific, as though natural wonders were being expounded.

Audubon glided easily into this tradition, always the backwoodsman, the wanderer, and a prime shot. His massive achievement in painting the birds of America-"my beloved birds"-in their native habitat was an enlarged reflection of the expert huntsman's knowledge. He joined in the merrymaking of the backwoods, and played the fiddle and the flageolet. He had the western gift for opulent self-portraiture. He loved costume, was inordinately proud of his long thick hair, and appeared in London in his later years garbed in green and crimson. He loved disguise, and once on a journey dressed like a French seaman, and thereafter insisted that he had grown up at sea. When Rafinesque, the eccentric naturalist, appeared in Kentucky, Audubon invented and described to him wholly unknown species of birds; for information as to the fishes of the Ohio, Audubon drew upon the rivers of an abundant fancy, and pictured fishes of such colors and strange shapes, such amazing habits and exploits, that they might have belonged to another world. Among them was the Devil-Jack Diamond-Fish that grew to be ten feet in length and was armored with large stone scales of diamond shape set in oblique rows, which were bullet-proof, and which when dried would strike fire with steel.

Rafinesque was also a romantic, and afterwards engaged in a scheme to induce the mussels of the Ohio River to make pearls: he should have capped Audubon's stories. But he let himself gaze at the flinty fish from a distance, and afterward declared that he had seen some of its scales. He accepted all of these stories, and was plunged into long and cumbersome toil in consequence, and suffered discredit as a scientist. Entranced, he even followed Audubon on a bear-hunt and was led a wild chase through densest canebrake where fire suddenly lent fury to the scene, with the water in the jointed stalks exploding like shells and suggesting the advance of Indians with musketry. A bear lunged out; thunder broke and rain fell. Rafinesque, attempting to flee, became hopelessly jammed. The only mode of exit was to crawl, and such travel had terrors, for the canebrake was haunted by serpents and panthers and bears. "The eccentric was more than gratified by the exploit," Audubon mused afterward. "He soon left my abode without explanation or farewell."

"His words impressed an assurance of rigid truth," he declared pensively in later years of Rafinesque. "As he directed the conversation to the study of natural sciences I listened to him with as much delight as Telemachus could have listened to Mentor." Ulysses would have afforded a more appropriate comparison for himself, that other-careless adventurer who possessed a gift for extravagant devices and achieved a wide pattern in wandering. Audubon showed the extravagant touch from time to time in the midst of the most faithful observation. In his Ornithological Biography he told of riding a wild horse through seven States, from Kentucky to Pennsylvania-a wild horse that had never known a shoe, waded swamps with docility, leapt fences like an elk, and was fond of pumpkins and eggs. He described Boone, whom he had known, as broad and tall and muscular, whereas Boone was slender and under six feet, always appearing smaller than he was. Even his scientific notes sometimes possessed an air of inflation: an uproar was caused among scientists by his description of a rattlesnake chasing a gray squirrel from treetop to tree-top and at last flinging itself upon its prey, killing it by constriction and swallowing the animal. The picture, somewhat diminished, fitted the habits of the blue racer but not of the rattlesnake.

In the controversy that followed, Audubon stubbornly added a further detail, saying that he had tapped the snake on the head as it was torpidly trying to move away, and that it had then raised its tail and rattled. He also insisted that he had taken the description from his journal, which he kept closely day by day; and it may be that even' on the ground he saw the blue racer as a rattlesnake. Certain British scientists proclaimed him a new and greater Munchausen. "Sir," said one critic, "this is really too much even for us Englishmen to swallow, whose gullets are known to be the largest, the widest, and the most elastic in the world."


THE backwoodsman's fancy roamed over two figures of his own kind: Davy Crockett, the hunter and backwoods oracle, and Mike Fink, known in legend as the first flatboatman who dared to take a broadhorn over the Falls of the Ohio. Fink's frolics and pranks, his feats of strength, his marksmanship, became themes for endless story-telling. He had ridden a moose like a horse through wild country. In a canoe on the Mississippi he had grasped a she-wolf swimming to attack him, and had held her under water until she drowned. As an Indian stood on a hill proudly silhouetted against the sky with his scalp lock and hawk's feather etched clear, Fink-below him and many yards distantraised his rifle: the Indian leapt high into the air and fell to the ground. The act was as cruel as deliberate murder, for Fink-as he intended-had severed the Indian's scalp lock. Many of the tales exhibited the broad, blind cruelty of the backwoods; yet many of them insisted that Fink was good. The abstract quality was habitually attached to shaggy backwoods heroes in later tales.

Mike Fink passed into legend not only because of his early exploits on the rivers but because he was the last of the boatmen-or so he was called-clinging contentiously to his broadhorn long after the steamboats came, when men could not be induced to travel in a low wooden ark. The tales about him became an elegy to wild days that were past or passing. "What's the use of improvements? Where's the fun, the frolicking, the fighting?" he cried in one of them. "Gone! All gone!" The sad noisy sentiment mounted through twenty years or more. The exploits of Fink were still being celebrated during the 'L'o's by the western almanacs. He even passed into literary discussion: one writer said that if he had lived in early Greece his feats would have rivaled those of Jason, and that among the Scandinavians he would have become a river-god.

He was in fact a Mississippi river-god, one of those minor deities whom men create in their own image and magnify to magnify themselves. Gradually he grew supersized; he had eaten a buffalo robe, but New England rum had ruined his stomach. He became Mike Finch, Mike Finx, Mike Wing, in a hundred minor tales. Driven at last from the Mississippi, he moved into the unknown regions of the farther West, achieving the final glory of heroes, a death wrapped in mystery, indeed many deaths, for the true story was lost, and others sprang up.

Mike Fink embodied the traditional history of the hero, but he never attained the nation-wide fame of Crockett" nor did he embody so many aspects of life on the frontier, or slip-as Crockett did-into poetic legend. Crockett first emerged as a coonskin follower of Jackson; he later became Jackson's opponent, and was transformed into an oracle throughout the land, with a position similar to that of Jack Downing. Squibs and stories were contrived, purporting to reveal discussions between them-the legendary and the living figure. Crockett's philosophy was simple: he wanted to save the land from the speculator. In this early phase he was rather more the settler than the huntsman. In his autobiography, which seems to have been taken down as he said it, fragments of old dance and labor songs appeared"Now weed corn, kiver taters, double shuffle!" He repeated other songs reminiscent of work in the fields and of old country games--

We are on our way to Baltimore
With two behind and two before, Around, around, around we go,
Where oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
In waiting for somebody. (A kiss)

'Tis thus the farmer sows his seed,
Folds his arms and takes his ease,
Stamps his feet and claps his hands,
Wheels around and thus he stands,
In waiting for somebody. (A kiss)

The whir of the spinning wheel could be heard in this narrative, and the phrases of homely proverbs. "A short horse is soon curried." "If a fellow is born to be hung he will never be drowned."

But hog and hominy were soon mixed with air and thunder. Even in the autobiography Crockett's magnified exploits of marksmanship and strength were pictured-by himself. Soon still greater feats were attached to him. He had climbed a tree upwards of a hundred times that rose thirty feet without branches, sliding down and climbing up again to break the chill after a plunge into icy water. He was "shaggy as a bear, wolfish about the head, and could grin like a hyena until the bark would curl off a gum log." He had fiercely grinned at what he took to be a raccoon in the topmost crotch of a tree, but the beast failed to fall before his spell, and the striped circle proved to be a knothole from which his grin had stripped the bark. He was full of "quirky humors," and fought and neighed and crowed and proclaimed himself the "yallerest blossom of the forest." He could whip his weight in wild cats. "Gentlemen," the legendary Crockett boasted, "I'm the darling branch of old Kentuck that can eat up a painter, hold a buffalo out to drink, and put a rifle-ball through the moon."

Crockett became a myth even in his own lifetime. Other spurious autobiographies were offered as his own; he was made the hero of a hundred popular tales repeated by word of mouth and circulated in newspapers and almanacs. After his death in 1836 he was boldly appropriated by the popular fancy. His heroic stand at the Alamo was richly described; and laments arose in the western wilderness. "That's a great rejoicin' among the bears of Kaintuck, and the alligators of the Mississippi rolls up thar shinin' ribs to the sun, and has grown so fat and lazy that they will hardly move out of the way for a steamboat. The rattlesnakes come up out of thar holes and frolic within ten foot of the clearings, and the foxes goes to sleep in the goosepens. It is bekos the rifle of Crockett is silent forever, and the print of his moccasins is found no more in our woods."

Then Crockett reappeared in popular stories as though he had never died, assuming an even bolder legendary stature than before. The story of his life in one of the almanacs began by picturing him as a baby giant planted in a rock bed as soon as he was born and watered with wild buffalo's milk. Another declared that as a boy he tied together the tails of two buffaloes and carried home five tiger cubs in his cap. In another he wrung the tail off a comet, and announced that he could "travel so all lightnin' fast that I've been known to strike fire agin the wind." Lightning glanced through all the stories. By leaping astride the lightning Crockett escaped from a tornado on the Mississippi when houses came apart and trees walked out by their roots. He could make lightning by striking his own eye. He could make fire by rubbing a flint with his knuckles. On one of his adventures he was barred by an "Injun rock so 'tarnal high, so all flinty hard that it will turn off a common streak of lightnin' and make it point downward and look as flat as a cow's tail." Once he escaped up Niagara Falls on an alligator. "The alligator walked up the great hill of water as slick as a wild cat up a white oak."

For the most part Crockett was a wanderer, moving westward, to Texas, across the plains, to California, to Japan-for pearls-and to the South Seas. Diving there, he came to a cave, crawled until he reached dry land in the deepest depths beneath the ocean, made a lampwick out of his hair, soaked it in elbow-grease, and struck a light with his knuckles on a rock.

"Now I tell you what," people would say of some strange happening, "it's nothing to Crockett."

In the end he became a demigod, or at least a Prometheus. "One January morning it was so all screwen cold that the forest trees were stiff and they couldn't shake, and the very daybreak froze fast as it was trying to dawn. The tinder box in my cabin would no more ketch fire than a sunk raft at the bottom of the sea. Well, seein' daylight war so far behind time I thought creation war in a fair way for freezen fast: so, thinks I, I must strike a little fire from my fingers, light my pipe, an' travel out a few leagues, and see about it. Then I brought my knuckles together like two thunderclouds, but the sparks froze up afore I could begin to collect 'em, so out I walked, whistlin' `Fire in the mountains!' as I went along in three double quick time. Well, arter I had walked about twenty miles up the Peak o' Day and Daybreak Hill I soon discovered what. war the matter. The airth had actually friz fast on her axes, and couldn't turn round; the sun had got jammed between two cakes o' ice under the wheels, an' thar he had been shinin' an' workin' to get loose till he friz fast in his cold sweat. C-r-e-a-t-i-o-n ! thought I, this ar the toughest sort of suspension, an' it mustn't be endured. Somethin' must be done, or human creation is done for. It war then so anteluvian an' premature cold that my upper and lower teeth an' tongue war all collapsed together as tight as a friz oyster; but I took a fresh twenty-pound bear off my back that I'd picked up on my road, and beat the animal agin the ice till the hot ile began to walk out on him at all sides. I then took an' held him over the airth's axes an' squeezed him till I'd thawed 'em loose, poured about a ton on't over the sun's face, give the airth's cog-wheel one kick backward till I got the sun loose-whistled `Push along, keep movin' !' an' in about fifteen seconds the airth gave a grunt, an' began movin'. The sun walked up beautiful, salutin' me with sich a wind o' gratitude that it made me sneeze. I lit my pipe by the blaze o' his top-knot, shouldered my bear, an' walked home, introducin' people to the fresh daylight with a piece of sunrise in my pocket."


AS THE tall tale came into its great prime in the early '3o's a sudden contagion was created. A series of newspaper hoaxes sprang into life in the East. The scale was western, the tone that of calm, scientific exposition of wonders such as often belonged to western comic legend. Explorations of the moon by telescope, voyages to the moon or .across the Atlantic by balloon, were explained in the imperturbable manner of the tall tale, verging aggressively toward the appearance of truth and sheering away again. They were circumstantial, closely colored; yet they broke all possible bounds and reached toward poetry, making snares out of natural elements or even from the cosmos. No single character dominated them, and they went off at a long tangent from popular lingo; yet the alliance seems clear. Similar monstrous practical jokes were being played with the sun, moon, stars, winds, waves, and water in the tall talk of the West.

The new inflation crept into New England: and Uncle Zeke sat on the bottom of the river pouring powder from one horn into another. Improbable reverberations were heard in Philadelphia, which quickly became a fountainhead of American jokes. An old gentleman was so absentminded that he tucked his pantaloons into bed one night and hung himself on the back of his chair, where he froze to death. Another had whiskey so good that when he drank it he spoke broad Scotch. A man was so tall that he had to get up on a ladder to shave himself. There was the immemorial oyster, so large that two men were required to swallow it. Many of these tall tales in miniature have never died, and there was a reason for their sturdy continuance. Consciousness of native humor had dawned; and these little tall tales were pristine; they wore the lustrous air of new birth. They were therefore appropriated with loyalty and preserved as carefully as the old men hung up in bags in one of Hawley's Rocky Mountain stories. Again and again they were taken out, like the old men, and revived. Dry and wispy as they became, they continued for years to betray the sense of jubilant discovery.

With them came a long sequence of stories-chiefly hunting stories-in which the hunter killed or captured a bagful of game at a single stroke. In danger from the onslaught of a bear and a moose, he aimed at a sharp-edged rock; the split bullet killed both, and fragments of rock flew into a tree and killed a squirrel. The recoil knocked him backward into a river; swimming to the shore, he found his coat full of trout, and other fish flopped from his trousers. Such tales were told throughout the century and perhaps have never died. Their lineage is long; they appear in shy forms on the New England frontier of the eighteenth century. No doubt they have a far older ancestry, going back to fairy tales of Europe in which a hunter or a poor man wanders all day without finding game, and then encounters magical events in the forest. Touches of natural magic remain in the later inventions, but the excess belongs to the American frontier. It was in the West that these tales took on their final inflation; and from the West they spread over the country.

Not only the expansive effect but strange new words came rolling out of the West. The backwoodsman may have gained his freedom with language from that large era of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century out of which many of his progenitors had stepped, passing so soon into the wilderness as to preserve their habits of speech, and to be uninfluenced, presumably, by the later stability of the English language. At least he was full of free inventions. "Absquatulate," "slantendiclur," "cahoot," "catawampus," "spyficated," "flabbergasted," "tarnacious," "rampagious," "concussence," "supernatiousness," "rumsquattle," and dozens of other ear-splitting syllables were among his novelties -sudden comic shouts or mock pompous words. Some of these passed into common use and moved eastward to join with the drawling speech of New England, mixing with the less marked vernacular.

Tall talk echoed from Florida to Oregon with whoops and boasting, and a larger verbal thunder rose to match it in the fantasy of western oratory. "What orator," said a Kentuckian, "can deign to restrain his imagination within a vulgar and sterile state of facts?" Said another, "The eloquence of the East is sober, passionless, condensed, metaphysical; that of the West is free, lofty, agitating, grand, impassioned . . . . The West defies and transcends criticism."

"The literature of a young and free people will of course be declamatory," said an oratorical writer in 1834, who was drenched in western ideas. "Deeper learning will no doubt abate its verbosity and intumescence; but our natural scenery and our liberal political and social institutions must long continue to maintain its character of floridness. And what is there in this that should excite regret in ourselves, or raise derision in others?" he queried with remembrance of the parent critics across the sea. "Ought not the literature of a free people to be declamatory?" he reasoned. "Whenever the literature of a new country loses its metaphorical and declamatory character, the institutions which depend on public sentiment will languish and decline . . . . A people who have fresh and lively feelings will always relish oratory."

The American people relished oratory. With the beginnings of the Jacksonian democracy public speech burst forth in a never-ending flood. "And how, sir, shall I speak of him," said a member from Mississippi of Calhoun in 1840-"he who is so justly esteemed the wonder of the world, the astonisher of mankind? Like the great Niagara, he goes dashing and sweeping on, bidding all created things give way, and bearing down, in his resistless course, all who have the temerity to oppose his onward career. He, sir, is indeed the cataract, the political Niagara of America; and, like that noblest work of nature and of nature's God, he will stand through all after-time no less the wonder than.. the admiration of the world. His was the bright star of genius that in early life shot madly forth, and left the lesser satellites that may have dazzled in its blaze to that impenetrable darkness to which nature's stern decree had destined them; his the broad expansive wing of genius, under which his country sought political protection . . . . He stands beneath the consecrated arch, defended by a lightning shut up in the hearts of his countrymen-by a lightning that will not slumber but will leap forth to avenge even a word, a thought, a look, that threatens him with insult. The story of his virtuous fame is written in the highest vault of our political canopy, far above the reach of groveling speculation, where it can alone be sought upon the eagle's pinions and be gazed at by an eagle's eye . . . ."

This encomium was offered as "buncombe"-as burlesque. It sprang from a region where tall tales flourished. In similar set pieces every feather of the eagle was accounted for and magnified. Orators kept the bird so continuously in flight from the peak of the Alleghanies to the top of Mount Hood that its shadow was said to have worn a trail across the basin of the Mississippi. Niagara continued to roar; the inevitable lightning flashed. The thunderous echoes were heard in New England, and the Yankee as well as the backwoodsman learned the art of comic oratory. Barnum enjoyed it in his early years. Dickens regarded it with indignation. Serious oratory rose and fell in similar cascades, but so far-reaching was the burlesque that it was often impossible to tell one from the other without a wide context of knowledge as to the subject and the speakers. Popular declamation of the '30's and '40's has often been considered as bombast when it should be taken as comic mythology.


AN EXHILARATED and possessive consciousness of a new earth and even of the wide universe ran through this tall talk and the tall tales; they were striated by a naturalistic poetry. Inflation appeared with an air of wonder, which became mock wonder at times but maintained the poetic mode. The Crockett stories even distantly approached the realm of the epic, not merely because of the persistent effect of scale or because of their theme of wandering adventure, but because they embodied something of those interwoven destinies of gods and men which have made the great epical substance. The tales were brief and scattered; the bias was comic; a perverse and wayward spirit was abroad. The animistic might take the place of the godlike presence, appearing in the spirit which sent the squash vines chasing pigs or hoisted Brother Joe to the skies through the medium of shrinking leather. But halfgods had taken shape and walked the earth with a familiar look in the later Davy Crockett and Mike Fink; and around them faint shapes emerged of a similar large mold.

"I saw a little woman streaking it along through the woods like all wrath," said Crockett in one of the almanac stories. Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett wore a hornet's nest trimmed with wolves' tails for a bonnet and a dress of a whole bear's hide with the tail for a train; she could shoot a wild goose flying, wade the Mississippi without wetting her shift, and stamp on a litter of wild cats. Mike Fink had a huge daughter who could whistle with one corner of her mouth, eat with the other, and scream with the middle, and who had tamed a full-grown bear. Another figure appeared as an occasional companion of Crockett's, Ben Hardin, a well-known character in Kentucky who claimed that he had been a sailor on far seas and had consorted with mermaids. It was with Hardin in tow that Crockett performed some of his boldest exploits. The outlines of a supernatural hierarchy were sketched in these figures; and beyond them lay dim others belonging to local legend who might grow into a dynamic stature.

The whole history of these tales can never be traced, so transient were they, so quickly passed on and embellished, so rarely recorded. They belonged to that wide portion of the West known as the old Southwest, which spread from Kentucky and Tennessee in a broad encirclement through Georgia and the Gulf States to Texas and Arkansas, reaching beyond the Mississippi as the scout and huntsman and pioneer moved from his first base of the dark and bloody ground. The tales spread indeed over the entire country. The Crockett almanacs, widely circulated in the West, were reprinted in New England; and the stories which they contained were often caught up by other local almanacs and newspapers. Some of the almanac stories were clearly the work of sophisticated minds, but even when the hand of the skilled writer shows, a homely origin is usually plain. Many of them appear as direct transcriptions of tales current in the West. They were linked at times to make a consistent legend, but fragments were given place which sound like casual talk picked up first hand; and gross inconsistency in tone or handling was uncommon. The talk was that southern talk with a mellowed roughness which became the popular speech of the West.

Even on their own ground these tales took on finish, for they flourished not only among boatmen and backwoodsmen, but at the annual meetings of the bar in the West and Southwest, where the members, who often lived in remote isolation, joined in bouts of story-telling as after long drouth. The strangest, most comic experiences, quiddities, oddities, tales, and bits of novel expression were treasured and matched one against another.

These fabulous stories underwent the many changes to which popular legends have always been subject, but they never coalesced into large forms. The more extravagant of the Crockett legends were unattached to the older body of the Crockett story; they slipped into oblivion as the almanacs were scattered and lost. They exist now only in fragments. On the brink of a coherent wide expression, reaching toward forms that might have partaken of the epical, the popular fancy turned aside-turned to a theme which had always been dominant in the native mind-that of the native character.


THE TRUE tall tale with its stress upon the supernatural was laid against others of a prosaic grounding. Out of this new cycle would stride a man who rose six feet without surplus flesh, pantherlike, with a mouth like a wolftrap and red-brown hair sticking up like the quills of a porcupine, who shook the rafters when he spoke and was bent on litigation; or a small stubby man in a calico vest with a cravat like a tablecloth, his head upheld by his shirt collar. Stories were told of such characters as Cave Burton, familiarly known as Blowing Cave, with observations on his Gargantuan feasts and the devices by which he was occasionally deprived of the spread banquet.

A scrupulous attention was devoted to well-known and accomplished liars. "Bolus was a natural liar, just as some horses are natural pacers, and some dogs natural setters. What he did in that walk, was from the irresistible promptings of instinct, and a disinterested love of art. His genius and his performances were free from the vulgar alloy of interest and temptation. Accordingly he did not labor a lie: he lied with a relish: he lied with a coming appetite, growing with what it fed on: he lied from the delight of invention and the charm of fictitious narrative . . . . The truth was too small for him. He adopted a fact occasionally to start with, but like a Sheffield razor and the crude ore, the workmanship, polish, and value were all his own. A Tibet shawl could as well be credited to the insensate goat that grew in the wool, as the author of a fact Bolus honored with his artistical skill could claim to be the inventor of the story . . . . He was fluent but choice of diction, a little sonorous in the structure of the sentences to give effect to a voice like an organ. His countenance was open and engaging, usually sedate in expression, but capable of any modification on the slightest notice . . . . Such a spendthrift never made a track even in the flush times of 1836. It took as much to support him as a first-class steamboat."

Scalawags, gamblers, ne'er-do-wells, small rapscallions, or mere corncrackers were drawn into a careless net of stories, against a background of pine barrens, sandy wastes, half-plowed fields, huts with leaky roofs. Their implements were rusty, their horses wall-eyed and spavined. They belonged to a rootless drift that had followed in the wake of the huntsman and scout, and they were not wholly different in kind. Sly instead of strong, they pursued uncharted ways, breaking from traditions, bent on triumph. 'Their adventures-of the rascally Simon Suggs, the worthless Sut Lovingood, the garrulous Major Jones, the characters in Georgia Scenes and Flush Times on the Mississippi-had to do with vast practical jokes, pranks played on ministers and camp-meetings and on settled respectable people generally, or on Yankees; their jokes on Yankees were perennial. These stories were as coarse-grained as poplar wood and equally light as timber. Grotesquerie and irreverence and upset made their center; caricature was drawn in the single line or phrase. "He drawed in the puckerin'-string ov that legil face of his'n," said Sut Lovingood of a sheriff. Another remarked of an ungenial ad-_ versary, "The feller looked as slunk in the face as a baked apple." "When he seed me," said Major Jones of Count Barraty, who had lectured on Greek art in a Georgia village, "he relaxed the austerity of his mustaches and walked out of the Square."

Within these tales character and custom in small sections of the Southwest were portrayed with such close and ready detail as to provide something of a record of the time and place. Dialect was differentiated with a fine gift for mimicry. Yet with all this steady seizure of the circumstantial these tales had little or nothing to do with a genuine actuality. They were rough fantasies cast into the habitual large outline. As in the tales of the deep backwoods, their odd local figures were generic, the events preposterous. These characters formed a regiment of small Tyll Eulenspiegels scattered over the West, upsetting remnants of the old order, hinting a new. This action and their triumph seemed the secret of the pleasure they induced-this, and their portraiture of new types in the new country.

Thin as much of their humor has worn, as mere upset is likely to be reduced to its barest outline by time, they were enormously popular in the quarter of a century during which most of them appeared, from 1835 to i86o. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes led the train; and scattered stories appeared in newspapers like the New Orleans Picayune, the St. Louis Reveille, the Louisville Courier, and in that prime sporting weekly and compendium of western humor, the New York Spirit of the Times. They were gathered in books and again widely circulated, adding a smutch of gross and homely color to the half-formed American portrait.


IN THE final and more poetic legends Crockett commanded the whole western world or even the universe. But in the early period of his vogue, in fact during his own lifetime, he appeared not as a half-god with a piece of sunrise in his pocket, but as a national figure. Like the Yankee he was drawn in a graphic stage portrait, under the name of Colonel Nimrod Wildfire in The Lion of the West and The Kentuckian. The author of the first play, Paulding, denied the identity, but the resemblances were many, and Wildfire was generally believed to be Crockett. The play was never a stable affair because it was always being altered by improvisation after the manner of western storytelling, and the original text has been lost; but there was no question as to its vogue. This early backwoodsman, leaping, crowing, neighing, boasting, dancing breakdowns and delivering rhapsodic monologues, traveled throughout the country and was enthusiastically received in the West; his reception in New York was uproarious. Other backwoodsmen of similar character soon appeared on the stage. For a brief time in fact the backwoodsman fairly matched the Yankee in the general view. He was appropriated; his eccentricities were considered not only western but American, and he was warmly applauded therefor.

This newest portrait of the American was taken to England, where it was scrutinized with care and considered "pleasing . . . open-hearted . . . childish." Discussions as to western humor were soon under way. "The muses of these curious phenomena are found in the wilderness . . . in dreary solitudes where the mind has no useful employment, and in the uncertain and extraordinary circumstances of a society so fast and loose that it has not and never had any parallel in the history of mankind," said one critic. He added, "The humors of our own Anglo-Saxon flesh and blood transported to America, and often located in wildernesses, are like nothing among the family which has remained at home." Precise Miss Mitford collected western tales, declaring that her purpose was "to promote kindly feelings between the two nations." "I have grasped at the broadest caricature," she said, "so that it contained indications of local manners; and clutched the wildest sketch, so that it gave a bold outline of local scenery."

The backwoodsman had emerged as a full-bodied American figure, but a curious circumstance became clear. A Yankee infusion appeared in many of these drawings. Nimrod Wildfire was made the nephew of a Yankee. In The Gamecock of the Wilderness the hero was clad in a buckskin shirt with a rooster for a cap, and his antics and talk were western. "The devil might dance a reel in my pocket 'thout dangerin' his shins 'ginst silver," he declared; and the inflation. belonged to the backwoods. But his name was a composite of western strength and Yankee acumen, Samson Hardhead; and the double strain ran through the character. The part, moreover, belonged to a Yankee actor schooled in the Yankee fable, Dan Marble.

If the backwoodsman became Yankee, the Yankee of legend also absorbed the character of the backwoodsman. Sam Slick declared, "Many's the time I've danced `possum up a gum tree' at a quiltin' frolic or huskin' party with a tumblerful of cider on my head and never spilt a drop." The song and the feat and the boasting belonged to the West, as did Slick's leap over three horses standing side by side. He even confessed that he was "a ring-tailed roarer." A Sam Slick broadside in London contributed to folk-talk and back-talk between the two nations, and stressed the double character. "It isn't every day that you see a genu-ine Yankee Doodle, I calculate! Oh, no. Now look at me. I'm cast iron all over, and pieced with rock . . . . I'm half fire, half love, and a little touch of thunder-bolt! . . .

"So here I am, just down from South,
In everything a meddler,
Spruce and slick in everything
Is Sam the Yankee peddler! . . .

"We Yankees are a tarnation cute race; we make our fortune with the right hand, and lose it with the left . . . . We Yankees don't do things like you Britishers; we are born in a hurry, educated at full speed, our spirit is at high pressure, and our life resembles a shooting star, till death surprises us like an electric shock . . . . I am Sam Slick the Yankee peddler-I can ride on a flash of lightning and catch a thunderbolt in my fist . . . .

"Oh, here I come before you all,
And reckon yourselves lucky,
That I have brought the news along,
From wonderful Kentucky.
"My mother from Virginny came,
My father was no noodle,
And 'twixt them both they brought me up
A regular Yankee Doodle!"

In the wake of Wildfire and Slick came Sam Patch, a spinner at Pawtucket with an aptitude for jumping, whose feats quickly passed into legend. He jumped over Niagara Falls but was unable to leap the Falls of the Genesee, and plunged through to the other side of the world and bobbed up in China-pure Yankee again though still jumping, and promising to take the shine off the sea serpent when he got back to Boston. He bobbed up in Paris. Plays were written around him, stories told, poems composed. An epidemic of jumping developed. Clerks called themselves Patch as they jumped counters, country lads as they leapt over rail fences; men traveled through village streets, jumping. Sam Patch became a symbol of quickness and power. Even today a small boy's red express wagon may bear the lineal name Dan Patch. "Some things can be done as well as others," said Sam Patch laconically. The character belonged to the backwoods, but the drawling tone and dry talk were Yankee.

"The leetle ends of the Yankee's coat-tails was soon standin' out toward sunset," concluded the story of a Yankee who pushed into the West with a pewter dollar. More and more frequently the Yankee was shown against the western background. The two figures seemed to join in a new national mythology, forming a striking composite, with a blank mask in common, a similar habit of sporting in public the faults with which they were charged, both speaking in copious monologues, both possessing a bent toward the self-conscious and theatrical, not merely because they appeared on the stage but because of essential combinations in mythical character. Both were given to homely metaphor. "A bear sat in the crotch of a tree looking at them dogs calm as a pond in low water," said a backwoodsman in one of the tales. Both figures had produced a strain of homely poetry.

Even on more prosaic ground some fusion appeared, drawn from life. Swapping was an ardent pursuit in the West and Southwest as well as in New England. "I am perhaps a leetle-j ist a leetle-of the best man at a horseswap that ever stole cracklin's out of his mammy's gourd," said a character in one of the southwestern stories. Those evasive dialogues by which the Yankee sought to learn everything and tell nothing and accomplish an expanded sociability were repeated by the backwoodsman. "What mout your name be?" asked an old Georgia cracker in Georgia Scenes. "It might be anything," answered the traveler, who knew his interlocutor's mode of conversation. "Well, what is it then?" "It is Hall, but it might as well have been anything else." "Pretty digging!" said the cracker; and when he was asked to give his own name, "To be sure I will," he replied. "Take it, take it, and welcome. Anything else you'd like to have?" "No," said the traveler, "there's nothing else about you worth having." "Oh, yes, there is, stranger"' said the cracker, raising his rifle, shedding the Yankee, and becoming the backwoodsman.

In the mixed portrayals it was always possible to see where the Yankee left off and the backwoodsman began. The low key of the Yankee was maintained against the rhapsody of the backwoodsman. Yankee humor was gradual in its approaches, pervasive rather than explicit in its quality, subtle in its range. Backwoods drawing was broad, with a distinct bias toward the grotesque, or the macabre. Backwoods profusion was set against Yankee spareness. The Yankee might compare himself or another with a weasel or a blacksnake, but he never was the weasel or the blacksnake as the backwoodsman was the alligator or the raccoon or the tornado. And the Yankee as a figure stood alone or apart, a red-white-and-blue apparition which was still the dominant national figure. The backwoodsman was likely to appear in pairs, leaping or boasting or telling stories in matches with the background of a crowd. Yet a basic tie remained between them, even beyond effects of talk and masquerade, a tie which had been fashioned by the common mind out of which they sprang. Neither invited the literal view or the prosaic touch. The fantasies surrounding them might often be crude and earthy, but they were fantasies. These odd and variegated creatures were firmly planted in the spacious realm of legend.

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