MIKE FINK:Half Horse-Half Alligator was his brag in a song a folk legend and real person and a ring-tailed roarer

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Folk hero?

Oh, my name is Mike Fink, I'm a keelboat poler
I'm a Salt River roarer and I eat live coals
I'm a half-alligator and I ride tornaders
And I can out-feather, out-jump, out-hop, out-skip
Throw down and lick any man on the river.

Song Mike Fink by Bob Dyer from digital tradition.

Information varies as to the historical facts about Fink. His birth year is generally considered to be 1770 but could be later. He was probably born in Fort Pitt near Pittsburgh. His parents were French Canadians and named him Michel Phinck.

Does Mike Fink deserve to be called a folk hero? Like so many other legendary figures, it depends on your point of view. His reputation was that of being a bully, reckless and generally disagreeable. Hardly what we think of as hero material in this day and age. However, very few of the gods and heroes in mythology would meet the test. Mostly not nice guys. Most of the heroes of bygone days would not fit into polite society now. Further it is hard to find the man behind the legend. It has been suggested that the legendary Mike Fink could be a composite of two or more real people. That might account for some contradictions in the legends, such as his birth date.

Although Fink’s birth year is given as 1770 in most accounts, he is said to have been part of Ashley’s hundred who built Fort Henry. If he was the same man born in 1770, he would have had to be at least 50 years old and would have stood out and been remarked upon in that group made up of very young men, according to Wikipedia.

Reports of Fink’s death are also somewhat mixed. One version is that there was a drunken argument over a woman he was killed. According to another version he was close to a lad named Carpenter who he though of like a son. Along with others they were drinking and got into a shooting contest. A favorite sport between the two was to shoot a can with whiskey in it off the head of the other. The first shot was carpenters and it was a little off and grazed the top of Finks head. When it was Mike’s turn he fired his rifle and the ball hit the youth’s forehead and killed him. In turn a man named Talbott, who had denounced Fink as a murderer, later shot Fink, possibly thinking Fink was out to kill him.

Mike Finks Great Shot

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U.S Nickle bearing Keelboat image.

public domain picture from wikimedia
public domain picture from wikimedia

Fink was a frontiersman and worked keelboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. (A keelboat is a riverboat that has a keel but no sail. and is used for freight. The keel is to stabilize the boat.) Part of that culture was like today’s wrestlers and others, who brag, flex muscles and gestures to declare themselves to be top dogs. They play to the audience. Bragging has a long tradition in American folklore, as anyone who has ever gone fishing probably knows. We even have liar’s contests in modern day culture. I believe some rap songs have an element of bragging. Fink bragged that he could out brag anybody else.

For an outsider it’s hard to separate the persona from the person. Fink weighed 180 lbs at 6’3” and the strength he gained from forcing keelboats upstream would make him a formidable opponent. He was also noted for marksmanship and trick shooting. He probably fit in well with that frontier culture.

In his time, stories of flatboat life were associated with his name, which made him something of a Paul Bunyan type figure, in that he was larger than life and had amazing feats such as his marksmanship. Mike Fink’s adventures were made known in broadside ballads, dime novels and other pre-civil War publications. In an 1881 farce, “The Pedlar” Fink appears as a stereotypical bully and braggart. He is frequently linked to Davy Crocket, but Fink never had any of the qualities that make Crocket appealing now. Crocket was known for his backwoods oratory, serving three terms in Congress and dying a hero at the Alamo.

In the 1950’s Fink was portrayed as in two episodes of the “Davy Crocket” miniseries Walt Disney World theme parks had Mike Fink keelboats but they were eventually phased out. Fink was portrayed mostly as a comic character. Post Civil War America was not in favor of a folk hero who was bumptious and violent.

Oh, he’s a ring-tailed roarer and a tough old alligator,

Oh, he’s a bull-nosed bully and a real depopulator.

Lyrics from the movie Davey Crockett and the River Pirates..

Mike Fink

Was Mike Fink a folkhero?

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21 comments

creativeone59 profile image

creativeone59 6 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

Thanks for a great story hub,thanks for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think th folklore of the country shares with the history good or bad as part of our heritage.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors

This was fascinating reading! Mike Fink--what a character! I wonder if Wallace Stegner found inspiration for his main character in Big Rock Candy Mountain from the likes of Mike Fink?

Maybe Fink was popular in folklore because of his swagger. He was the epitome of a poor everyman's frontiersman, who saw the world through the eyes of the river. I love your writing Dahoglund!

America loves its rascals.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Wannabewestern

Your are right about rascals.It's a trait that we got from our English heritage. A paper on the subject I wrote in college is probably what peaked my interest in it.

I'm not familiar with "Big Rock Candy Mountain" except for the song.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Wannabewestern

Your are right about rascals.It's a trait that we got from our English heritage. A paper on the subject I wrote in college is probably what peaked my interest in it.

I'm not familiar with "Big Rock Candy Mountain" except for the song.


Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 6 years ago from Central Texas

Great Hub -- and I think he's an interesting character. When you pointed out he was reckless, a bully and generally disagreeable I couldn't help but think of our present day politicians! Yep, I think Fink definitely has folklore qualities -- all of them can't be the good guys. Thanks for an interesting read! Best, Sis


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for your comments. I'm sorry I just found your comment. We are visiting in Texas this week. Quite a drive getting here.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I enjoyed this story. I had not heard of Mike Fink before. Thanks for the education.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Mike Fink is mentioned in many folklore books. He is often associated with Davy Crocket and they are both known for brags.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

Like James, I was also unfamiliar with Mike Fink. Now Davy Crocket...that is another story! Coonskin caps were popular in the 50's and I remember my brothers having them. And the Davy Crocket song...I can hear it in my memory now!

Thanks for the education. Interesting as usual.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Peggy W

Mike Fink has not been so much part of the popular media. I think Disney and others kind of left out some of the rough and tumble of our frontier life and lore, which Fink certainly represents.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

Interesting character none-the-less from reading your account.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

There was a movie you might like. "The Incredible Rocky Mountain Race" 1977. It is a comedy about a grudge race between Mark Twain and Mike Fink from Missouri to California.

Not a movie to take seriously but much fun.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 6 years ago

Hey dahoglund, I never heard of mike fink but I vote it up , I love this stuff, great one.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for the comment. In a way he is typical of a folk character much like Paul Bunyan in that regard.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 3 years ago from Sunny Florida

Fink was certainly an interesting character. I think as a folk hero he's missing some qualities but as you said many folk heros were not the nicest people. I wonder if our use of fink has anything to do with him and his behavior.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi KoffeKlatch Gals, those times on the river were rough and rather lawless. If you remember Johnnie Cash's "Boy Named Sue" the fight describe may well fit the rivermen. Thanks for commenting.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 22 months ago from sunny Florida

No matter how much of his persona is fiction he is still. an interesting character to read about That whole shooting the whiskey cup or whatever off the head, I don't think that is something I would have tried.

Great hub...enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Angels are on the way to you ps

Shared and voted up ++++


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 22 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

pstraubie, thanks for commenting. it occurs to me that some of this sort of thing is carried on today in things like professional wrestling. The opponents get out to publicize a fight and brag about ho tough and mean they are. Thanks for the vote and the shares.


ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 9 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

I had not heard of Fink, but find him to be colorful. I guess most of my folk heros all had good qualities like Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. Anyway, on TV they were good. Great article. share


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 9 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Lady Guitar Picker, Mike Fink definitly belongs to the river which has it's own lore. Thank you for commenting.

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