Folklore of the United States

Folklore of the United States

The folklore of the United States, or American folklore, is one of the folk traditions which has evolved on the North American continent since Europeans arrived in the 16th century. While it contains much in the way of Native American tradition, it should not be confused with the tribal beliefs of any community of native people. American folklore covers the same broad categories as the folklore of other nations. It encompasses myths, jokes, riddles, legends, cautionary tales, and many other forms of storytelling.

Founding myths

The founding of the United States is often surrounded by legends and tall tales. Many stories have developed since the founding long ago to become a part of America's folklore and cultural awareness, and non-native American folklore especially includes any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of American values and belief systems. These narratives may be true and may be false; the veracity of the stories is not a determining factor. Three so-called "founding myths" (or national myths) include: Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and George Washington.

Christopher Columbus

Though Christopher Columbus did not participate in the founding of the American government, he has been interpreted as a "founder" of the American nation, in that it is descended from the European immigrants who would not have moved to the New World if Columbus had not found where it was. Indeed, one particularly pervasive story is that Columbus discovered America, as it is far easier to elevate a man to heroic status than to reflect the reality among complex series of waves of immigrants from multiple conditions and walks of life. According to some stories, Columbus began his journey across the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, August 3, 1492, in order to prove that the world was round, because he expected to reach the Far East by sailing west. Like most legendary "founders" Columbus' mission is then rendered entirely noble, intellectual and rational. He helped dispel the inaccurate beliefs of his time, and, so, it is concluded, the nation he founded must be a nation of intellect and logic. Washington Irving is the first citation for this belief. The 20th century, however, saw a decrease in the prestige of Columbus' legend as skepticism about Europeans' activities in the New World and elsewhere has become more prevalent.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is said to have begun with the Pilgrims in 1621. They had come to America to escape religious persecution, but then nearly starved to death due to the unfamiliar land. Some friendly Native Americans (including Squanto) helped the Pilgrims survive through the first winter. The perseverance of the Pilgrims is celebrated during the annual Thanksgiving festival. As a legend, this story relates to the founding of the culture. The Pilgrims' dedication to their cause in spite of the hardships renders the foundation of the country, and therefore the country itself, seem stronger and more resilient. It is also a fertility festival, similar in some ways to other harvest-time celebrations in other cultures, celebrating the nourishment that comes from the earth. It was also said that the Pilgrims were the first colony in the New WorldFact|date=December 2007, but before that, there were some French and Spanish colonies, as well as other English colonies. Some English colonies in America that predated Plymouth Rock include the famous "Lost Colony" or Roanoke settlement and the Jamestown Settlement, which was successful and predated the Pilgrims' settlement by 20 years.

George Washington

George Washington, the country's first president, is often said to be the founder of the United States. Since his death, Washington has been "mythologized", with many anecdotes and stories about his life told, in general, to present the founder of the modern American nation as a just and wise cultural hero. For example, it is said that Washington, as a young child, chopped down his father's cherry tree. His angry father confronted the young Washington, who proclaimed "I can not tell a lie" and admitted to the transgression, thus illuminating his honesty. Parson Mason Locke Weems is the first citation of the legend, in his 1850 book, "The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen". Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is also known to have spread the story while lecturing, personalizing it by adding "I have a higher and greater standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won't." Stories of national value often have similar themes – that the founder of the nation, Deucalion, George Washington, Abraham – was a wise, virtuous and brave man.

American tall folk and their tall tales

Apocryphal people

*Paul Bunyan
*Casey Jones
*Iron John
*John the Conqueror
*John Henry
*Roy Hobbs
*Johnny Kaw
*Joe Magarac
*Molly Pitcher
*Pecos Bill
*Stagger Lee

Historical men

*Benjamin Franklin
*Cowboy Morgan Evans
*Patrick Henry
*John Hancock
*Paul Revere
*"Johnny Appleseed" Chapman
*Simon Kenton
*The Leatherman
*Lewis & Clark
*Davy Crockett
*Daniel Boone
*Edgar Allan Poe
*Abraham Lincoln
*Charles Goodnight
*Wyatt Earp
*Doc Holliday
*Wild Bill Hickok
*Kit Carson
*Joaquin Murrieta
*Robert E. Lee
*Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
*Sitting Bull
*Jesse James
*Billy the Kid
*Pancho Villa
*Casey Jones
*Buffalo Bill
*Mark Twain
*Emperor Norton I
*Mike Fink
*Babe Ruth
*Robert Johnson
*Joe Hill
*Jonathan Moulton
*John Dillinger
*Pretty Boy Floyd
*Baby Face Nelson
*Woody Guthrie
*Jackie Robinson
*James Dean
*The Rat Pack
*Elvis Presley
*Johnny Cash
*John F. Kennedy
*Ranald MacDonald
*Muhammad Ali
*Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Evel Knievel
*Michael Jordan

Historical women

*Boxcar Betty
*Calamity Jane
*Harriet Tubman
*La Llorona
*Lizzie Borden
*Mary Mallon ("Typhoid Mary")
*Marie Laveau
*Maria Monk
*Mother Jones
*Annie Oakley
*Bonnie Parker
*Betsy Ross
*Rosa Parks
*Marilyn Monroe
*Emma Goldman

Native Americans

*Sitting Bull
*Crazy Horse

Legendary and folkloric creatures

*La Llorona
*Skunk Ape
*Fur-bearing trout
*Rabbit's foot
*Babe the Blue Ox
*Nain Rouge
*Jersey Devil

Locations and Landmarks

*Plymouth Rock
*Independence Hall
*Liberty Bell
*White House
*Mississippi River
*Old West
*Ellis Island
*Statue of Liberty
*Route 66
*Pearl Harbor
*Area 51
*Vietnam War Memorial
*World Trade Center
*Grand Canyon
*Tombstone, Arizona

Cultural archetypes and icons

*Entrepreneurs & Robber barons
*Gangsters and gangs
*Juvenile delinquents
*Motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels
*Uncle Sam

Literature and the arts

*Horatio Alger, Jr.
*"Little House on the Prairie"
*Stephen Vincent Benét
*Washington Irving
*Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
*Robert Johnson
*Edgar Allan Poe
*Norman Rockwell
*Mark Twain
*Parson Weems
*Uncle Remus
*James Fenimore Cooper
*Nathaniel Hawthorne
*Beat Generation
*Stephen King
*Ernest Hemingway
*H. P. Lovecraft


*California Gold Rush
*Cowboys and Indians
*Ellis Island
*Hatfields and McCoys
*Indian captivity narratives
*Noble savage
*Pony Express
*Salem witch trials
*Wagon train

Contemporary folklore

*Conspiracy theory
*"Legend tripping"
*List of character-based movie franchises
*Urban legend
*Skull and Bones
*Chuck Norris Facts

ongs and games

*jump rope rhymes
*stickball or sandlot ball
*counting-out game
*"Oh My Darling, Clementine"


Further reading

*—the evolution of the Elephant Riddle that entered U.S. folklore in California in 1963

ee also

*American Dream
*The Frontier

External links

* [ American Folklore Society]
* []

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