Unlike a lot of the tall tales from America's formative years, the story of John Henry is somewhat based in fact. There probably really was a John Henry who was born a slave in the South in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that he was around six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. In those days, that was big enough to guarantee you'd be given exceptionally tough work -- like building railroads or tunnels. If Henry did exist, he likely worked on the Big Bend Tunnel that went through the mountains of West Virginia. From there, the legend has thousands of variations. Some say Henry challenged the tunnel-making machinery to a duel to see who could drive stakes and blast rock faster. Most stories claim that he won, but that he died from exhaustion after the contest. Some say he won and went on swingin' his hammer from coast to coast.
John Henry and Paul Bunyan are huge figures in American folklore. On the next page, find out more about legend favorites Sally Ann Thunder and Johnny Appleseed.