Tell Me a Story

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The Boatman's Howling Daughter

The most famous Howl is probably Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, but Sal Fink’s may rate a close second because face it, there’s nothing like a character who is larger than life or a story in which detail is wildly, boldly, madly exaggerated. North America is a big place, and its bigness in size and spirit is made evident in its many tall tales and tall tale figures.

Long before TV or movies or radio, people told stories to entertain each other. After a long day’s work, folks wanted to laugh, and maybe, just maybe, to describe their work as even harder than it actually was. The spirit of one upsmanship enhanced the myths that developed and spread across the continent, and in the tall tales of people like Paul Bunyan, Mike Magarac, Pecos Bill, Tony Beaver, Windwagon Smith, Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, and Febold Feboldson, that wild frontier spirit still lives. That’s why tall tales have such rollicking energy.

Among the mythological figures of these tales, Mike Fink looms large, but there’s one big difference between Mike and such legendary heroes as Bunyan of logging fame. Mike Fink was real, the most famous keelboatman ever to ply the Mississippi. He did just that for two decades, until the early 1800s when steamboats replaced keelboats as a preferred way to transport goods.

Keelboat men like Mike Fink were hard-working hulks who poled their boats upriver against fierce and relentless currents. Born near Pittsburgh around 1780, Fink did have real parents—French Canadians who spelled his name Miche Phinck, and that real man did like to brag. He claimed he could “outrun, outshoot, throw down, drag out and lick any man in the country,” which may be the reason he transformed into a tall tale character who rode a moose, wrestled an alligator and drowned wolves with his own hands.

Mike’s exploits were recorded mostly in American broadside ballads and dime novels and other texts from before the Civil War. In an 1821 farce called The Pedlar by Alphonso Wetmore he appeared, and here he was not much more than a bully, though in the Davy Crockett Almanack of the 1840s, Fink’s family appears to have been born.

After the Civil War, as folk heroes began to vanish and people became especially uneasy with bullies like Mike Fink, he began to disappear, but in the early 20th century, Colonel Shoemaker, a Pennsylvania folklorist, decided Fink was the local Davy Crockett and Shoemaker resurrected many of his stories. It wasn’t until 1955 though that Mike Fink actually made an appearance in a Disney episode, a television series with Davy Crockett, and around that same time, keelboats with Fink’s name began to appear at Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks where they remained until the 90s.

Now maybe Mike Fink will be forgotten, but who will ever forget little Sal and that wild howl. Who can resist a feisty female who tames wild bears and outwits a whole band of pirates?

Those wishing to read more tall tales might want to check out Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes by Walter Blair, or Great American Folklore: Legends, Ballads and Superstitions from All Across America compiled by Kemp P. Battle. American Tall Tales by Adrien Stoutenburg (Puffin Books) and American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne are great reads, too, and for those who know that lots of women were out there on the frontier, even if they didn’t get as much press, don’t miss Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend and Tall Tales by Robert D. San Souci.

In Folklore or Fakelore Richard M. Dorson suggests that the roots of some of our favorite tall tales aren’t in our past but were created by Madison Avenue. That may be so, but telling tales will change the way you see the world, and maybe little Sal with her buckskin shirt and wild howl will inspire your own kind of song.