5 Famous American Folktales

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Historically, folktales are stories that emanated from both truth and myth. These tales are passed down through generations and have embedded themselves in history. Most have supernatural elements and focus on a particular action, or are meant to convey a message to their listeners. These stories have no one author, but are built from years of retellings, harboring slight variations in each telling. Today’s surviving folktales merge fantasies and truth to create seemingly outlandish tales. These are the 5 of the most famous American folktales.

Scargo Tower, an observation tower near Scargo Lake.Princess Scargo

Rooted in Native American lore is the tale of Princess Scargo. In the most popular version, a man from a neighboring village brought to Princess Scargo four fish before leaving for war. She had a small pond dug to keep the fish in. One morning, she woke to find the pond had dried up, and three of the four fish had died. She cried and cried, her tears keeping the last fish alive until her father could create a lake for the fish to live in. This lake became Scargo Lake, and here the fish lived out a long and happy life. In the end of this version, the man from the neighboring village also returns from war.

Davy Crockett.Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett’s story is part legend, part fact. He was widely known as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” and for having a reputation of being a skilled hunter and storyteller. Crockett’s name became a legend after he died in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. He was heralded as a Texan savior, and inspired many in the fight for Texas independence. In the mid-1900s, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” premiered. The song detailed the frontiersman's life in outlandish detail. According to the song, he was born on a mountaintop and wrestled a goat. Neither were true, but they helped build the legend surrounding Crockett. Disney has also had their take on the legend, both as a movie and an addition to the Disneyland theme parks as Frontierland.

A statue of Johnny Appleseed. Reprinted from <a data-cke-saved-href='/Products/9781467136686' href='/Products/9781467136686'>Central Ohio Legends & Lore</a> by James A. Willis, courtesy of the author (pg. 41, The History Press, 2017).Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman, known in lore as Johnny Appleseed, became famous when he started planting large amounts of apple trees in most of Pennsylvania. His reputation spread throughout the country because of his kind and generous approach toward conservation, and the symbolic importance he put on apples. Today, depictions of Appleseed usually portray the man walking barefoot in an apple orchard tending to the trees.

A view of Niagara Falls.Maid of the Mist

According to Iroquois legend, the young tribeswoman Lelawala was heartbroken by the death of her husband. After weeks of enduring the heartache, it became too much. She climbed into her canoe, and paddled towards the edge of Niagara Falls, where currents quickly swept her over. However, before reaching the bottom, Lelawala was rescued by Heno, the god of thunder, and nursed back to health by him and his son. Lelawala fell in love with Heno’s son, married him, and lived with the family behind the waterfall. However, her new mythical status meant she could never see her family – she was only ever permitted to see them once, to warn of a giant snake who threatened to poison the village’s water supply. When the snake arrived in the village, he found it empty. Lelawala saved her people and carried out her life beneath the Falls.

A carving of Paul Bunyan.Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

The story of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe emerged from loggers in North America. These tales were commonly told in the bunkhouses of loggers, and usually contained elements of other popular folklore like strange creatures, freak weather, and superhuman abilities. Each telling was so widespread that it’s impossible to pinpoint one variant as the original. Some tales claim that Bunyan was taller than a mountain, while others say his and Babe’s footprints created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. Together, Bunyan and Babe are two of the most famous folk heroes of American culture.
America’s legends and lore have helped shape our history. They take an imaginative spin on true stories, then pass them on from generation to generation, slowly adding bits and pieces to craft the tales we still tell. Even today, there are countless versions of every folktale, and they continue to change with each narraton. With purposes ranging from explaining the unknown, to helping Americans through difficult times, America’s most popular folktales will forever be engrained in the spirit of the nation.