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Fakelores and its Influence on American Folklore

Updated on September 30, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.


Frank M. Dorson, an American folklorist and scholar, had a problem with several American legends. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe were folk heroes embraced by millions; however, Dorson was not buying their authenticity and tales as folklore.

Their stories had been told around countless campfires and were printed in numerous books, magazines, children’s literature, comic books, and other forms of media. Also, they were the subject of movies and roadside attractions throughout the United States.

Still, in 1950, Dorson was determined to expose these stories for what they were. As a result, he came up with a classification to describe Paul, Babe, Pecos Bill, and other traditional American tall tales. The classification he coined was called “fakelore.”

Fakelore is not a positive category, at least for Dorson and other scholars. It was a name given to invented stories, songs, legends, persons and artifacts that were presented as traditional folklore (Dynesline, 2007). In other words, they were stories created by fledgling writers, illustrators, hucksters, and advertisers for various reasons.

Since its inception, fakelore has encompassed tales created by advertising campaigns or stories and myths meant to support an ideological or religious point-of-view. Some had humble or innocent beginnings (possibly to update or modernize the tale). Others were based on homophobia (such as the origin of a particularly derogatory term), antisemitism (such as Blood Libel), or other forms of bigotry.

Whatever the case may be, these characters and their stories have become a part of American lore, despite Dorson’s attempt to squash them or expose their real origins.

Before his research, the two legends were widely known as examples of the American Tall Tale tradition. These were tales in which exaggerations of the character’s abilities and adventures became the centerpiece of the stories

Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill

Of all the characters and stories listed under the fakelore category, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill have often been listed at the top. In fact, they were the first two characters Dorson had in mind when he came up with the label.

Before his research, the two legends were widely known as examples of the American Tall Tale tradition. These were tales in which exaggerations of the character’s abilities and adventures became the centerpiece of the stories.

As an example, Paul Bunyan was often described as being “so big and strong” that he was able to change the course of rivers. Also, his blue ox, Babe had the ability to create such landscapes as the Grand Canyon with his horns.

While Pecos Bill was represented as a cowboy with an average height, he was often described as having superhuman skills. In some stories, he lassoed tornadoes or rode on the backs of mountain lions.

The popular perception was that these were regional stories. Paul Bunyan and Babe supposedly had its origin in the U.S. and Canadian lumber camps of the Great Lakes Area while Pecos Bill came from cowboys in the American Southwest during the late 1800s. And, for much of the early 20th century, this perception was never challenged.

Pecos Bill lassos a tornado
Pecos Bill lassos a tornado | Source

Dorson Sets the Record Straight

Then, along came Dorson. As a folklorist, he was interested in finding the real origin of these stories. To his dismay, he discovered that Pecos Bill, the quintessential cowboy, was never told around “campfires on the open range” as it was popularly believed. It was created by a single person, Edward “Tex” O’Reilly.

The first stories to introduce the fictional cowboy were published in “The Century Magazine” in 1917. In 1923, a collection of these stories were reprinted in the book, “Saga of Pecos Bill.

O’Reilly, as it turned out, intentionally tried to sell his stories as genuine folklore. He claimed that the stories were part of an oral tradition told by cowboys during the westward expansion and settlement of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California (Pecos Bill, 2012). However, Dorson discovered that stories of the cowboy didn't exist in these areas before the 1917 publication.

Dorson’s accusation on Pecos Bill was concrete. Although there was an actual “Pecos Bill” – the nickname of the Civil War general and Texas hero, William Shafter – O’Reilly’s creation was clearly not associated with him.

His accusation against the Paul Bunyan myth was controversial. Bunyan was an actual character from traditional tales told by loggers. However, the stories that would eventually come to represent the larger-than-life lumberjack - as well as his pet and other secondary characters – were invented by a series of writers during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1910, the Detroit News-Tribune published “The Round River Drive,” the first published Paul Bunyan story. The writer, journalist James MacGillivray, claimed to have heard the story while working at a lumber camp in Michigan several years before its publication (Adams, 2002).

Joe Magarac, Man of Steel
Joe Magarac, Man of Steel

The Advertisement World Influences a Literary Genre

Although MacGillivray was the first to bring the stories to the populous, it was the ad writer and illustrator William B. Laughhead who expanded the Bunyan myths. Laughhead’s contribution came in the form of an advertising pamphlet entitled, “Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California”. This story was the first of many pamphlets for the Red River Lumber Company. The company was expanding its logging business to the west coast and used Bunyan’s story to help promote them.

Laughhead claimed he heard the tales from a lumber camp near Bemidji, Minnesota; however, his version couldn’t be verified. What is known is that his version was responsible for naming Babe, the blue ox, and introducing Johnny Inkslinger, the clerk who has an ink hose connected to his pen (Adams, 2002).

Although Red River trademarked a particular image of the lumberjack, the stories by Laughhead were never copyrighted. As a result, the stories were freely distributed and other writers added their versions to the growing collection of stories. In particular, James Stevens, who wrote a 1925 collection for kids. This version became one of the most popular collection of the Paul Bunyan tales (It was also the least faithful to the original oral tradition tales).

Dorson declared the Paul Bunyan’s tale to be inauthentic for another reason. The original language and jargon of the oral tradition had been replaced. According to him, the original tale was filled with technical terms that were familiar to loggers, but was difficult to comprehend for those outside the profession. The printed short stories to follow were intentionally made for a wider audience. Much of the words were altered and descriptions were removed.

The Legacy of Fakelore

The term would eventually expand to other stories from around the world. Numerous stories, artifacts, songs and legends were believed to be fakelore, including Joe Magarac, a fictional steelworker made of steel; Old Stormalong;Febold Feboldson; and Whiskey Jack.

Even the Afro-American Folk Song supposedly from the Underground Railroad days, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, has been accused of being a fakelore.

Still, the fakelore designation has done little to affect the popularity of some of these works of literature. Movies, children literature and statues can be found throughout America bearing the images or stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Fake or not, they’ve come to personify the American spirit despite what Dorson believed.

Extra: Two other Examples of Fakelore

Apart from department store jingles (such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) and fledgling writers that claimed to have collected folklore from various regions of the country, elements of fakelore can still be found. Here are two examples:

  • Pulp stories – many famous characters such as Conan or Cthulhu started in the 1930s and 40s in the pages of cheap pulp magazines. Over the years many writers have used these characters in their stories – in part, because the creators of these characters, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, wanted others to do so. They were intrigued with the idea of starting a new line of mythology with these characters. In doing so, they gave other writers the permission to write stories that included these characters.
  • Creepypasta – dubbed as the Internet’s urban legend, this brand of horror comes off as folklore; however, a creator for these tales are traceable. Many may use pen names, but some have come out and taken credit for their stories.

Update: How Folklore Influences Fakelore

The big difference between stories labeled as folklore or mythology – when compared to other literary genre such as fakelore – has to do with origin. Often folklores don’t have a particular person’s name associated with it and have been existence for hundreds or thousands of years before being written down or recorded.

Also, folklores seemingly evolve with the times. They take on new elements to the plot, theme or characters with every telling (hence, stories associated with urban myths).

Seemingly, stories deemed to be fakelores have some of these elements, as well. They evolve over time, and will have some type of lesson. However, there’s usually a source associated with them.

True, many fakelore came from advertisement for department stores or an establish corporation. Still, many are started by fledgling writers who’ve figured out an ingenious marketing ploy – to deliberately write folklore-style stories, and creating a murky origins for those stories.

Many fakelore writers borrowed from some folklore tales; however, they put their spin to it, often creating its plots and themes.

Pecos Bill vs. Paul Bunyan

Of the two, which one was your favorite?

See results

© 2014 Dean Traylor


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