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Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, stories, tall tales, and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called folkloristics. In usage, there is a continuum between folklore and mythology.

American folklore, encompasses the folk traditions that have 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.

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. In fact, it was generally accepted by Columbus' time that the world was round. What set Columbus apart was that he believed the world to be considerably smaller than most thought, small enough that a ship sailing west to the Far East could carry enough supplies for the journey.

By this legend 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 "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island

One of the most haunting stories in American folklore is that of the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh recruited over 100 men, women and children to journey from England to Roanoke Island on North Carolina's coast and establish the first English settlement in America under the direction of John White as governor. Virginia Dare (born August 18, 1587) was the first child born in the Americas to English parents, Ananias and Eleanor White Dare in the short-lived Roanoke Colony. The fact of her birth is known because the governor of the settlement, Virginia Dare's grandfather, John White, returned to England in 1587 to seek fresh supplies. When White eventually returned three years later, Virginia and the other colonists were gone.

During the past four hundred years, Virginia Dare has become a prominent figure in American myth and folklore, symbolizing different things to different groups of people. She is the subject of a poem (Peregrine White and Virginia Dare) by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet, and the North Carolina Legend of the White Doe. While often cited as an Indian legend, the white doe seems to have its roots in English folklore. White deer are common in English legends and often used as symbols of Christian virtue. A similar story of a young girl transformed into a white deer can be found in Yorkshire, where it formed the basis for Wordsworth's poem The White Deer of Rylstone. [1] In the four centuries since their disappearance, the Roanoke colonists have been the subject of a mystery that still challenges historians and archaeologists as one of America's oldest.[2]

Jamestown

In 1605, a group of London merchants combined the investments of many smaller investors and petitioned King James I for a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. This group became the Virginia Company. After receiving its charter, the Virginia Company organized its expedition, providing free passage to America in exchange for a contract under which the settlers agreed to seven years of indentured servitude. In December 1606, those who signed on (a total of 120) boarded three vessels — the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed. By May 1607, the 104 remaining settlers sailed their three rather frail vessels through the Chesapeake Bay and thirty miles up the James River to a parcel of densely wooded, swamp land. There, they built Jamestown, Virginia, England's first permanent colony, and like many other explorers before, they set out to find treasure. Too late in the season to plant crops, many were not accustomed to manual labor. Within a few months, some settlers died of famine and disease. Only thirty-eight made it through their first year in the New World. That these settlers survived at all is due in large measure to Captain John Smith, a pirate turned gentleman. Smith was chosen to lead the Jamestown Colony in 1608. He turned the settlers into foragers and successful traders with the Native Americans, who taught the English how to plant corn and other crops. Smith led expeditions to explore the regions surrounding Jamestown, and it was during one of these that the chief of the Powhatan Native Americans captured Smith. According to an account Smith published in 1624, he was going to be put to death until the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, saved him. From this the legend of Pocahontas sprang forth, becoming part of American folklore, children's books, and movies. [3]

Pilgrims

Plymouth Rock Monument designed for the Tercentenary (1920)

Plymouth Rock is the traditional site of disembarkation of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 and an important symbol in American history. There are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims' landing on a rock at Plymouth. The first written reference to the Pilgrims landing on a rock is found 121 years after they landed. The Rock, or one traditionally identified as it, has long been memorialized on the shore of Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 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, stronger and more resilient. It is also a fertility festival, similar in some ways to other harvest-time celebrations in other cultures.

Puritans

In 1630, aboard the ship Arbella, Puritan preacher John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon Shining city upon a hill. The ship landed in 1630 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established at what is now Boston, Massachusetts. Winthrop's sermon gave rise to the common belief in American folklore that the United States of America has a special status in the world as God's Country. This belief is called by historians American exceptionalism.


American folk figures

The following is a list of people who are either folk heroes, important figures in American folklore, or chroniclers and creators of such folklore.

Revolutionary War figures

George Washington

George Washington, the country's first president, is often said to be the founder of the United States. The exalted esteem in which the founding fathers, and especially George Washington, were held by 19th-century Americans seems exaggerated, but that Washington was so regarded is undisputed. 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. Apocryphal stories about Washington's childhood include a claim that he skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac River at Mount Vernon. Another tale claims that as a young child, Washington 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 mentions the first citation of this legend in his 1850 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. This anecdote cannot be independently verified. 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, George Washington, – was a wise, virtuous and brave man. Similar mythology grew up about other Founding Fathers (e.g., Patrick Henry), usually well after the subjects of the mythology had died.

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. With the House undecided on whether to mobilize for military action against the encroaching British military force, Henry argued in favor of mobilization. Forty-two years later, Henry's first biographer, William Wirt, working from oral histories, tried to reconstruct what Henry said. According to Wirt, Henry ended his speech with words that have since become immortalized: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" The crowd, by Wirt's account, jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". For 160 years Wirt's account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt's reconstruction.

Francis Marion

Francis Marion (c. 1732 – February 27, 1795[1]) was a military officer who served in the American Revolutionary War. Acting with Continental Army and South Carolina militia commissions, he was a persistent adversary of the British in their occupation of South Carolina in 1780 and 1781, even after the Continental Army was driven out of the state in the Battle of Camden. Due to his irregular methods of warfare, he is considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare, and is credited in the lineage of the United States Army Rangers. He is known as the Swamp Fox.

Molly Pitcher

Molly Pitcher was a nickname given to a woman said to have fought in the American Battle of Monmouth, who is generally believed to have been Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly. Since various Molly Pitcher tales grew in the telling, many historians regard Molly Pitcher as folklore rather than history, or suggest that Molly Pitcher may be a composite image inspired by the actions of a number of real women. The name itself may have originated as a nickname given to women who carried water to men on the battlefield during the war.

Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836) is widely credited with making the first American flag. There is, however, no credible historical evidence that the story is true. Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations. In 1870 Ross's grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had "made with her hands the first flag" of the United States. Canby said he first obtained this information from his aunt Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, twenty years after Betsy Ross's death. Canby dates the historic episode based on Washington's journey to Philadelphia, in late spring 1776, a year before Congress passed the Flag Act. In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, Smithsonian experts point out that Canby's recounting of the event appealed to Americans eager for stories about the revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women's contributions to American history.

Other Revolutionary War heroes who became figures of American folklore include: Benjamin Franklin, Nathan Hale, John Hancock, Andrew Jackson, John Paul Jones, and Paul Revere.

Apocryphal people

Historical persons

Statesmen

Old West figures

Frontiersmen and explorers

Activists

Civil rights leaders
Women's suffrage
Labor movement
Muckrakers
Anti-war movement
White supremacy
Environmentalism


Military figures

Athletes


Literary figures

Artists

Musicians

Actors and filmmakers


Native American figures

Aviation and space exploration

Criminals

Law officers

Religious figures

Inventors and Entrepreneurs

Other

Legendary and folkloric creatures

Locations and landmarks

Cultural archetypes and icons

History

Titanic

Contemporary folklore

Songs and games

See also

References

Further reading