20 American Tall Tales and Legends Every Child Should Hear

Published: April 3, 2014

The culture of a country can be truly experienced in its music, dance, foods, holidays, but especially in its legends. More than culture, legends add to history and history often intertwines with myth to create legends that seem larger than life! The Americas called these 'Tall Tales' and some of them were completely fictitious, while others were real people who simply did incredible feats (or were said to do so!). From Paul Bunyan to Annie Oakley, the American territories are filled with so many tall tales that it seems are being forgotten or passed by. This is a shame as many of these were our first superheroes and served as inspiration, cautionary tales, life lessons, and incredible role models that got the imagination churning! So, here are the 20 American Tall Tales and Legends that every child should hear about:

  1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman)

    The very first American Ghost story was written by the father of what would be the American Short Story. Washington Irving also gave us the view of Santa Claus we have today, but before then he was both charming us and scaring the living daylights out of us with his spooky story taking place a little ways from Tarrytown in a place called 'Sleepy Hollow', so named because it was so quiet and quaint. However, the town brewed with ghost stories; rumors, whispers, and superstitions were the fog that shrouded the otherwise pleasant little village. Enter our protagonist, a not-so refined new schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who has a run-in with the most frightening ghost of them all . . . The Headless Horseman!

    So whether you've read the original, seen an illustrated rendering, the classic Disney cartoon with Bing Crosby, Tim Burton's thrilling mystery, any of the other more historical retellings on Hallmark or other networks, or the new Fox Network show based upon the characters, we've all at some point at least heard of The Headless Horseman even if we've never heard of Ichabod Crane! How strange is that? The story centers around a young and a little bit of a selfish, pouty, schoolmaster and yet the villain remains haunting us for the rest of our lives!

     

  2. Pecos Bill

    A master of wild west beasts, storms, and even landscape, Pecos Bill was the Superman of the Wild West! He was said to have dug the Rio Grande just because he was thirsty, roped tornadoes with his lasso, used snakes as lassos, and even managed to make a friendship that allowed him to ride the killer horse 'Widowmaker' who was, after all, aptly named! The one weakenss of Bill? Read the next seciton . . .

  3. Slue Foot Sue

    This catfish-riding cowgirl was somewhat of her own legend, but not popularized until she was pursued by the famous Pecos Bill. Legend has it that her bouncy undergarments proved too great a difficulty when she demanded to ride Widowmaker (who disliked her) before she would marry Pecos. Widowmaker proved too fast and threw her onto her bottom that bounced higher and higher. Some legends say she reached the moon and that Pecos spent the rest of his life teaching coyotes and wolves to howl at it for her. Others say that he managed to lasso her down, but then she rebuffed him. You should look up and see if there's a happy ending for the 'toughest couple west of the Alamo'.

  4. Paul Bunyan

    This statue in Maine showcases Pail's place in the lumber industry.

    No one knows where Paul came from, but the town he washed ashore at adopted him and set him out at sea in a cradle to sleep, then raised him as they would any other child. Eventually, Paul become a lumberjack and one of his legends tells of a griddle big enough to satisfy his appetite for pancakes that required men to skate on it with butter or fat on their feet t grease it up! 

    But Paul's story even includes a faithful animal friend; like Pecos Bill's 'Wdowmaker', Paul had the companionship of a big, blue ox named Babe! However, unlike the moody and stubborn Widowmaker, Babe was never ridden and was very docile and affectionate. In fact, there are a great deal of similarities in Babe's story to the creation myths in Norse Mythology!

     

  5. Johnny Appleseed

    Both a tall tale and a real person, John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed, traveled from the northeast to the pacific northwest planting apple trees whereever he went. He is famous for wearing a pot on his head for protection and practicality since he traveled light and ate mostly apples. Stories tell us that cider, bobbing for apples, apple dumplings, and American Apple Pie came from Johnny Applessed!

  6. Old Stormalong/Captain Stormalong

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    Captain Stormalong, or Old Stormalong's story is a little more difficult to explain, but mirrors many of the elements of Paul Bunyan's in his size, origin, raising, and purpose. However, unlike Paul who slept at sea as a baby and then worked on land, it seems Old Stormalong did the opposite!

  7. Daniel Boone

    Daniel Boone's tall tales might have actually originated from overly proud townspeople, confused townsfolk, or overly proud parents (I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and not claim he made it up) at the very young age of 3 when he supposedly killed a bear. Known for his rugged lifestyle and mannerisms, Daniel Boone was considered a true example of the American spirit of living with, off, and conquering the land without devastating it. Many stories circulate about his survival in the wilderness.

  8. Davy Crockett

    Famous for his trademark coonskin hat, Crockett was always ready for action and joined with the United States Armed Forces against Mexico at the legendary battle of the Alamo where he met his untimely demise. Before then, numerous stories of survival, inventions of survival tools, and the story of the hat itself still remain staples for American culture.

  9. Geronimo and Hiawatha

    Geronimo is one of the most famous objectors to peaceful dealings with the dishonest pioneersmen who were trying to take land and kill natives instead of negotiating. Having seen horrors in his youth, Geronimo vowed to protect his people from the 'white man' and fought against them many times. But although he was seen as an enemy, Geronimo is still hailed as both a hero and a catch phrase.

    Hiawatha, on the other hand, was immortalized in the epic poem/ballad by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was a leader of the Mohawk Nation and founded the Iroquois Conederacy which helped more than 5 specific and large Nations maintain their cultures and power during the conflict with the white man. Hiawatha was a skiled leader and diplomat as well as being said to have powers to communicate with nature. The poem is worth a read and there are even cartoon renderings online of this amazing story.

  10. Buffalo Bill Cody

    Cody's tall tales were spread in his 'Wild West Show', but also earned him a medal of honor for service to the United States as a scout, putting his life at risk. As a bison huner who used every part of the animal, he gained the respect of the Native American community and still has a museum nearest his gravesite in Colorado dedicated to his feats (real and exaggerated) and hopes.

  11. Sacagawea

    America's first mult-tasking mom and refugee as well as proof that men do ask for directions. There are exaggerations about her stories, yes, but many of the unbelievable stories like recovery from a strange illness without proper medicine and in wintertime are true. Sacagawea was the guide for Lewis and Clark as they journeyed westward, but as a child she was a captive from a tribal war then lost in a bet from the new tribe to a group of white men. Her skills in tracking and cunning are more then legendary, they are exemplary!

  12. Sheriff Wyatt Earp

    Wyatt Earp or Sheriff Wyatt Earp is sometimes called 'The Greatest Lawman that Ever Lived'. While he was an amazing sheriff, much of his life stories have been exaggerated in order to give pioneers and future lawmen a role-model of epic proprotions. His friendship with anti-hero, Doc Holiday, just adds to the amount of tolerance and goodness in him. 

    The film 'Tombstone' is hailed as one of the best modern westerns ever made and it is because of the dynamic brought by the depth into the real-life characters theselves by the actors. Kurt Russell, seen here portraying Wyatt Earp remains concerned, but hard and straight; just like the man himself was said to be.

  13. (John Henry) Doc Holiday

    A gunslinger, gambler, drunk, and womanizer, Doc Holiday had a reputation that would now have him on TMZ every single day! When he was diagnosed with Consumption (Tuberculosis), by supposedly 7 doctors who gave him different small aounts of time to live, he decided to go out west, drink, gamble, and have all the fun he could. Most of his tall tales are of a rather seedy nature, but add to the gritty part of what the west was al about for America.

    While Doc Hollywood outlived all the doctors that had given him months or weeks to live, eventually the severity of the Consumption caught up to him, but not without a final fight alongside friend, Wyatt Earp. In the film, 'Tombstone', Hollywood is portrayed by Val Kilmer who does a most amusing trick with a tin cup used for whiskey when challenged to do gun tricks!

  14. Annie Oakley

    Known as the greatest sharpshooter that ever lived, Phoebe Anne Moses, or Annie Oakley's stories have been immortalized in song, film, literature, and poetry. She was once a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show performing amazing tricks with a gun in both hands!

  15. Calamity Jane

    Born as Martha Jane Canary, Jane was one of the first female scouts and had many incredible stories tied with that honor and danger. She was well-acquainted with Wild Bill Hickok and became a prominent frontierswoman who lived off the land. Though she was tough as nails, she was said to be compassionate and respectful of all living things. Jane's popularity and legends grew so great that she spurred her own musical with her name as the title and Doris Day in the starring role!

  16. John Henry

    There is dispute over whether a man matching the legend's description is actually John Henry or not. Henry supposedly had unprecedented strength and could drive in a railroad spike with only one blow from his mighty hammer! After being freed from slavery or prison, depending on how the story goes, Henry gets a job at the railroad and is pitted against a machine that will put hundereds of men, uncluding Henry, out of work. In most of the stories, Henry wins, but dies. In the latest short film version featuring 'Grit, Sweat, and Love', Henry makes it through the challenge, lives, and bequeaths his hammer to his son after making it into a guitar to alllow him to sing about his deeds in life.

  17. Wild Bill Hickok

    Like Doc Holiday, Hickok was a gunslinger, gambler, and drinker. Unlike Holiday, Hickok's exploits on the frontier were exaggerated making him a legend, earning him positions as a lawman, and even serving in the Union Army. He was killed unfairly by a poker opponent by being shot in the back, but it is rumored that he still won the game.

  18. Molly Pitcher

    Molly's feats, while legendary, were likely not exaggerates. She brought water to troops during the heat of battle, helped tend the wounded, and even took up arms to the point of loading, aiming, and firing cannons at the British forces!

  19. Molly Brown

    The term 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' was turned into a musical, film, and more. Molly Brown was an upper class woman who fought for the rights of lower class citizens and cared for them. Her exploits were somewhat exaggerated in her charitable deeds, but what wasn't exaggerated was her attempt to create order from chaos during the Titanic tragedy when she demanded life boats be more filled and that all passengers should have equal access to boats. 

    In the film, Titanic, Brown's role portrayed by Kathy Bates, was significantly downplayed, but the look of horror on her face was palpable and made the desperation and loss of life seem all the more realistic.

     

  20. John Paul Jones

    There is a reason why this rogue Scottish sailor who opposed the British is known as the 'Father of the Modern United States' Navy' and many of them are true, but manyb are exaggerated as well. A veritable legal pirate, Jones struck fear in the heart of British sailors and helped give the colonies a great advantage by sea!

Whether it's around a campfire, sitting in a classroom with a book, sitting in front of the television, or gathered as a famly for a fun story, these tales have shaped the ingenuity and spirit of the United States since its infant days. We should keep their stories and their lessons alive in our hearts and imaginations for as long as we have our great country!