Friday, May 5, 2017

American Gods: The Ballad of Mike Fink, Pirate King of America

This post is part of an ongoing series.  Read more about the #AmericanGods project here. 

Well, my daddy was a bear in the Allegheny Mountains
And my mother was a 'gator in the Ohio.
I was born full-growed at the forks of the river
And I cut my teeth on a catfish bone.

Oh, my name is Mike Fink, I'm a keelboat poler,

I'm a Salt River roarer and I eat live coals .
I'm a half-alligator and I ride tornaders,
And I can out-feather, out-jump, out-hop, out-skip,
Throw down and lick any man on the river.

The Ballad of Mike Fink, by Bob Dyer,
preformed by Michael Cochran & Pete Szkolka

Last night, I told some tales of the Ohio River.  Today, I want to tell you of his king: Mike Fink, the Pirate King of America.

Born in 1776 at Fort Pitt, Mike Fink spent his teenage years following in his father's footsteps as a militiaman. He was known, even as a youngster, as the best sharpshooter on the western frontier, and earned for himself the name "Bangall".  But, following orders wasn't much to Mike's taste, and in his early 20s, he heard the call of freedom, and he became a river man.  Among the rivermen of the time boasting was a competitive sport; the song below is Disney's 1957 version of Epic Rap Battle of History: Mike Fink vs Davey Crocket aka Davey Crocket and the River Pirates.

Listen to the thunder! 
Hear the winds roar! 
Hurricane's a-coming; Board up the door
Load up the cannon! Call up the law!
Worstest calamity that folks never saw.
Girls run and hide! Brave men shiver!
I'm Mike Fink, King of the River!

Despite Disney's smear campaign, Mike Fink and Davey Crockett were, in traditional tellings, friends, or, perhaps frenemies.  In one famous myth, they compete to shoot the tails off pigs.  I was going to retell it for you, but I don't think I can beat this wonderful version by local storyteller Pennsylvania Jack.

Although Mike was a brawler and downright mean and ornery to folks he didn't know, he could be a good and true friend to those he did, and so he welcomed Davy. The two of them sat on the porch taking a few "phlegm cutters" from Mike's favorite jug, while they caught up on each other's goings-on and while Mrs. Fink rustled up some supper.

Davy was up early the next morning, preparing to head off again on his hunting trip. Mike was up a wee bit later, but he had had a bit more of the jug the night before than had Davy and it was still showing. In what was typical Mike Fink bragging, he greeted Davy with a declaration. "I've got the prettiest wife, the fastest horse, and the sharpest shootin' iron in all of Kentuck, and any man that says I don't I'll be in his hair quicker than hell can scorch a feather! So there!"

Now all that gave Davy Crockett reason to pause and consider. After a moment, he said to Mike, "Well, Mike, it seems Mrs. Crockett is in Tennessee, and I don't have my horse along on this trip. But as to your rifle - I don't like to call you a liar, but I'll be danged if you speak the truth!"  
Read the rest here.

Many of the tales of Mike Fink are, like the one above, tales of his sharpshooting, fighting, or other sporting prowess.  However, he is also a bit of a trickster.  Here is a tale highlighting that aspect of our hero.

One day, as he lazed his way down the Ohio, Mike saw, on the shore, a large flock of beautiful, white, fluffy sheep.  His mouth watered; he and his men hadn't had fresh mutton in many months.  So, he thought to himself, what if I pull a little trick?
Now in his hold, he had some fine scotch snuff, which he took ashore.  Under cover of night, he chose six of the finest sheep and rubbed their faces black..  Meanwhile, he sent one of his men to go get the sheep's owners, and tell him to hurry and see what was the matter with his sheep.

The farmer came, still in his nightdress, only to find his sheep dancing about, bleating and leaping, a regular sheepish bachanal.  The farmer was alarmed.  "What is wrong with my sheep?"

"You don't know?" said Mike, all astonishment.  "It's the black murrain!  All the sheep upriver have it, they're dying left and right.  Once one sheep gets it, soon enough the whole herd is a goner.  Best to shoot the sick ones now, to save the rest."

"But no man but Mike Fink could target a single sheep, dancing about like they are!"

"Well," said Mike, "It's your lucky day.  I'm Mike Fink."

The farmer begged Mike to shoot the infected sheep for him, and throw them into the river.

"Might be mistaken," said Bangall.  "Best go to ask your neighbor if it's the murrain.  Wouldn't want to shoot no poor innocent sheep if we was wrong."

The farmer begged and begged, and finally promised three full jugs of fine peach brandy if Mike would help him.

That night, Mike and his men laughed and sang, and washed down their lambchops with fine peach brandy.

Now, having heard that tale, you might be asking yourself "Is Mike why we call a cheater a fink?"  I asked myself that too.  As near as I can tell, no.  However, the word doesn't appear in English until 1902, and is of uncertain origin, perhaps a variation on "pink", related to the Pinkerton rent-a-cops who busted up the Homestead Massacre.  (which I'll tell you all about when I sing to you of another local hero, Emma Goldman)

If your savvy, you might, by now you might be thinking that you've heard this one before....

Mike Fink, Master Navigator, Athlete Hero's, Herd Snatcher...
Trickster, Liar, Thief...
Hail to you Quicksilver Lord, the Pirate King of America.

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