Travel

8 Famous American Folktales To Share Around The Campfire

The US hosts a repository of tales and legends about heroes and creatures from the dark and things you wouldn’t want to bump into at night.

The United States is a vast land and as such, hosts a repository of tales and legends about heroes and creatures from the dark and things you wouldn’t want to bump into at night. Here are a few highlights.

The girl with the ribbon around her neck

This classic tale tells the story of a young girl who always wore a ribbon around her neck. It might’ve been yellow or green or red. Some say it wasn’t a ribbon but was rather a bandana or kerchief. Whether it was a ribbon or a bandana, I can’t say. But, I can tell you that her neighbor, a boy, noticed the ribbon and would ask her about it, from the time they were very young. This boy would ask her about the ribbon for he wanted to know why she wore it. The girl would look away and not reply. This continued through all of their school years. After a while the girl began to answer, “maybe I’ll tell you sometime” or “I’ll tell you another time.” As often as he’d ask though, the boy came no closer to finding out why she wore the ribbon around her neck. In high school, the two began to date and afterward they married. The boy would still ask her about the ribbon, but he never got an answer. They built a home together, raised a family together, and still, the boy did not know why the girl wore a ribbon tied around her neck. Over the years though, he forgot to ask, for he’d become accustomed to its presence. The two grew very old together until one day the girl became sick and the doctors told the boy that she would die soon. The boy asked the girl one more time, “why do you wear the ribbon around your neck?” From her bed, she looked up and she said “I’ll tell you. Come untie the ribbon for me.” The boy, now an old man, reached over and pulled the ribbon loose. And the girl’s head fell off and rolled across the floor.

Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan is a beloved lumberjack who features in many tall tales and is especially known for his size and his strength. The story goes that when Paul was born (in Maine), he was so big that it took five storks to carry him to his parents and his first cradle was a wagon. Within a week of his birth, he could fit into all of his father’s clothes, and by the time he was three weeks old, he was so large that during a nap one day, his tossing and turning destroyed four square miles of timberland! His parents eventually decided that the East was just too small for Paul and so they moved to Minnesota. Many stories tell about Paul Bunyan’s feats and adventures with his companion, Babe the Blue Ox. Babe was just a wee calf when Paul found him out in the cold, but Babe soon grew to proportions that matched Paul’s. It was said that it took a murder of crows an entire day to fly from one end of Babe’s horns to the other end. Paul dug out the Great Lakes so that Babe could have some watering holes to drink from.

Hodag

The Hodag is a critter that’s best known in the Wisconsin area. It is fearsome and fierce. It is known to have the head of a frog, the spiked back of a dinosaur, a long tail with spears at the end, thick short legs with huge claws, and the grinning face of a giant elephant. The hodag carries a stench with it and some say that it can even breathe fire! It was first reported in 1893 and features in several of the Paul Bunyan stories. Some of the tales even say that when Babe died, the hodag sprang up from his ashes. Eugene Shepherd perpetuated the hoax of the hodag in the late 1800s, however even after Shepherd’s deception was proven, stories of the hodag persisted. The hodag mostly lives in Rhinelander and often it’s fishermen who claim to have encountered him. It’s said that the hodag covers itself in sap from trees and fallen leaves to keep itself warm during the severe Wisconsin winters. Today, the hodag can be found in several stories that take place in the Harry Potter Universe as well as in such well-known shows as Scooby-Doo.

Montezuma's Treasure

They say that Montezuma’s treasure— the lost treasure of the Aztecs— is to be found somewhere in the Southwest. The treasure is cursed, though, for it was stolen by the conquistadores from the Aztecs and their ruler, Montezuma. In 1519 Hernan Cortes landed in what is today near Vera Cruz, Mexico. Montezuma believed that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec sun god, who legends had prophesied would return that year and so Montezuma sent Cortes and the Spaniards gifts. Cortes was greedy, however, and he and the conquistadores placed Montezuma under house arrest and seized treasures from the palace. Eventually, the people of Tenochtitlan rebelled and Cortes and company fled the city, carrying what treasure they could, but leaving most of it behind. When Cortes returned with reinforcements, the treasure was gone. The Aztecs said that the treasure had been taken and dispersed, hidden from the Spaniards, who they knew would return one day. If we jump many centuries, we end up in the 1800s, when James White, a gold prospector, was found, delirious, in Utah near the Colorado River. He claimed to have found a vast treasure in a cave, maintained by natives. White never returned to the cave and eventually, his claims were forgotten until the early years of the 1900s when a prospector named Jake Johnson became friends with a Paiute man who shared with Johnson the legend of a hidden treasure and eventually took him to see the treasure. Nobody has been able to find the treasure since then and it’s unknown whether its location is in Arizona or Utah, but the general consensus is that the treasure is there to be found, either in caves or at the bottom of lakes, in the Southwest region.

Carrying pork over the Nu‘uanu Pali

Our next folktale takes us from the heat of the Southwest to the tropical lush island of Hawaii. Nu’uanu Pali is a mountain pass cliff section of the Ko‘olau mountain on the island of O’ahu. Its location and its connection to the different sides of the mountain have meant that it has always been a very important pass. It’s also the location of the battle of Nu‘uanu, one of the worst battles in Hawaiian history. The battle was pivotal for Kamehameha I’s conquest over O’ahu. Travel from the leeward to the windward side is surrounded by a well-known legend: never carry pork over the Pali, especially at night! I bet you’re wondering why. Pele, the volcano goddess, lives on the leeward side of the pass. Her ex-boyfriend, Kamapua‘a lives on the windward side. Kamapua‘a is a half-human, half-pig god and the two have agreed to keep to their own territory. Carrying pork over the Pali would break this agreement by bringing Kamapua‘a into Pele’s space (in the form of pork). The legend is so strong that many leave the pork at home. Some have tried to debunk the tale, however, their vehicles have mysteriously stalled out as they approached the boundary line (and restarted once they’ve tossed the pork out the window). It’s better to leave the pork at home for this one!

Tahoe Tessie

Tahoe Tessie brings us to our very own Loch Ness monster, but stateside. Legends of Tessie’s sightings first show up around the mid-1800s and the first tale-tellers were local Native American tribes, especially the Washoe and Paiute Tribes. Lake Tahoe is a very deep lake: its depth reaches 1,645 feet and therefore there is plenty of dark and murky areas where Tessie could live or lurk in hiding. Many of her sightings occur near Cave Rock, which is along the southeastern shore of the lake. The legend of Tahoe Tessie grew exponentially after Jacques Cousteau, the famous French oceanographer claimed to have seen something incredibly large within Lake Tahoe during his exploration of it. Sightings place Tessie’s size anywhere between 10 and 80 feet long and her appearance as reptilian in nature. This is not a creature you want to run into while you’re out swimming in the middle of the night!

Dark Watchers

With the Dark Watchers, we stay in the California region, although they are not associated with just one state. The Dark Watchers are mostly associated with the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Dark Watchers have only been seen at twilight, usually staring off into the mountains. They are human-like and giant. Often they vanish immediately into thin air, once seen or approached. They aren’t generally considered to be dangerous or aggressive and it’s unclear what exactly they are watching. Some refer to the Dark Watchers as the Old Ones and, sadly, they pre-date the coming of the Europeans to America. Many native tribes, including the Chumash refer to them. John Steinback references them in his short story collection The Long Valley. 

Lake Champlain Monster

The Lake Champlain Monster is the east coast variation of Tahoe Tessie. Champ, as it's effectively-known, makes its home in Lake Champlain, a lake near Burlington, Vermont. The first sighting of Champ took place in the 1600s by Samuel De Champlain, after whom the lake is named. He supposedly saw a large monster in the lake while he was fighting the Iroquois. The next documented sighting is from the late 1800s when a sheriff saw the creature. There have been various sightings since then, some of which are more credible than others. In 1977 a visitor to the lake, Sandra Mansi, took a photo that seemed to capture the creature, however that picture has been debunked because the water in the photo is not deep enough to hold a creature the size of Champ. In 2019, the search for Champ continues with folks who use the latest technology, including sonar, to search for evidence of Champ’s existence.

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