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

Updated on February 26, 2018
dahoglund profile image

Don has worked in newspaper writing, business writing, and technical writing.

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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.

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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    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years 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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 years 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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 5 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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • ahorseback profile image

      ahorseback 7 years ago

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

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

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

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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 Woods 8 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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

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

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 8 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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 8 years ago from Iowa

      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
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 8 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

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

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