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