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Tall tales you won't believe are based on true stories

When we're kids, we’re conditioned to believe the things our elders tell us. Surely an adult wouldn’t steer us wrong and tell us tall tales, right? As we get older, we realize much of what we thought to be true was rooted in fantasy and the dreams of children hopeful of lands of magic and awe.

That’s not to say every tall tale we have ever heard was the product of fallacies, however. In fact, there is a selection of them that were simply twisted from their real counterparts. Rooted in a touch of reality, here are five tall tales that you likely heard as a child that are based on true stories.

Calamity Jane

Black and white vintage photo of Calamity Jane
Credit: Everett Historical/ Shutterstock

With a name like Calamity Jane, you’d automatically assume this were some fictional tale passed down from generation to generation. According to the legend of Calamity Jane, the adventurer and performer worked as a laborer on the Union Pacific, scouted for General Custer, served as a teamster, and busted her back as a dishwasher at Fort Bridger. She was said to have been married to Wild Bill Hickok and birthed a child with him. Her life was a veritable adventure movie, where Miss Calamity jumped from one fantastic tale to another.

The truth, however, isn’t quite as glamorous. A real person of the 19th century, Jane was born near Princeton, Missouri, and, as she grew up, she latched onto the notion of the Wild West. She looked the part of a cowboy, loved to ride and shoot, and was often known for performing attention-grabbing stunts. Jane loved the attention and took to telling stories of false exploits to garner even more.

Unfortunately, all the attention in the world couldn’t stop her from slipping into severe alcoholism. She let her autobiography, which included many of her fabricated stories, speak for her as she slipped into a depression and died on August 1, 1903.

Paul Bunyan

Statue of Paul Bunyan and a big blue ox
Credit: Joshua Rainey Photography/ Shutterstock

It’s unlikely that there ever was a lumberjack accompanied by a big blue ox named Babe. The legend of Paul Bunyan claims it took five storks to deliver him as a (gigantic) baby. According to the same fable, it was he and a giant ax that created the Grand Canyon while the footprints of his ox became Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.

As fascinating as Bunyan is, the origins of his story have an alleged connection with French-Canadian timberman, Fabian Fournier. He wasn’t quite the size of Bunyan, but Fournier did measure six feet tall and was known for his large hands and his 1875 death by murder. After his death, the details of Fournier’s conflict-ridden life started to take the form of a legend and merged with stories of Bon Jean, another French-Canadian timberman.

Bon Jean took part in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837 and was an integral figure in the revolt against the British. One theory as to the connection between Bon Jean and Bunyan is in the pronunciation of the French-Canadian’s name. In French, it would be pronounced very similarly to “Bunyan.”

Johnny Appleseed

Statue of Johnny Appleseed, Bedford County, VA
Credit: David Wilson/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

In Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time,” a barefoot traveler was depicted as a generous soul who shared his perfect apples wherever he went. The real Johnny Appleseed, however, was far less involved in delivering apples and more interested in crafting a popular drink of the time.

Thought to be the basis of the fable of Johnny Appleseed, the exploits of Nova, Ohio, native John Chapman do revolve around acres of apple orchards. Rather than share them with others, Chapman took his delectable fruit and turned it into a popular libation: hard apple cider. He had plenty of apples to keep his supply of cider high, which benefited the settlers that became his frequent customers.

Chapman had an infallible system that always kept him on the move. When he learned of settlers moving into new territory, he would get a head start on them, enough to plant his orchards. When the settlers arrived, he would be prepared with completed batches of hard apple cider.

According to Howard Means, author of “Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story,” cider was a big part of frontier life. The drink was a staple that accompanied most meals, which provided Chapman the demand to become a veritable Johnny Appleseed.

Truth in the myth

An open book with a colorful background
Credit: Mitshu/ iStock

Most tall tales are just that — tales. But not all stories are complete fabrications, and it’s interesting to hear about the real-world people who inspired these legends. The next time someone brings up one of these mythical figures, you’ll have some great insights into their past to share.