Half Horse, Half Alligator

Mike Fink

A civil war musket is largely accepted to be 100% accurate with five shots on a man sized target at a range of 100 yards.[i] A single shot accuracy of 20% at that distance. Now let’s assume, range, accuracy and size of target are proportional. A whiskey glass is around four and a half inches tall and the average height of a man in 1800 in the United States was five feet, seven inches or 67 inches.[ii] By these averages, that makes a whiskey glass 6.71% the height of a man in 1800. That makes an estimated accuracy of a musket shooting at a whiskey glass from 100 yards 1.34% with one shot. From 75 yards this accuracy slightly increases to 1.8% with one shot. Mike Fink did this for amusement and he boasted an accuracy of 100%. But this feat becomes increasingly less implausible when his other hobbies are considered which include standard bouts of feral bull riding and out jumping, running, fighting and smarting any man in the country.[iii] But how plausible are these myths? Mike Fink presents an interesting enigma in which man and myth are largely blurred in the middle. However, this myth most likely is just that, a myth. Though Mike Fink’s persona is largely rooted in fact, his tales and gregarious personality are products of the vicious nature of keelboat culture and the wild and violent expansion into the American West.

In order to delve into the myth of Mike Fink it is necessary to provide known facts of the man himself. Mike Fink was born in Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania in 1770.[iv] When he entered his teens he also entered the Indian scouts at Fort Pitt and continued his militia work until 1790.[v] From there he transitioned to his mythical position, keelboat navigator. Keelboats were integral parts of transporting goods throughout America’s river systems from the east to the largely undeveloped West and vice versa. Keelboats were around 60 feet long and required vast amounts of strength and endurance to propel the boat up the river. Apart from the inherent physical demands of simply propelling the boat, keelboat navigators had to brave through the treacheries of the rivers (Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Yellowstone) that were naturally present such as waterfalls, rapids, rocks, sandbars and ice. They also faced several human obstacles such as Native Americans and outlaws that waited to intercept stuck and slow moving boats.[vi] This was an unforgiving trade in an unforgiving part of an unforgiving country. This culture perhaps provides an explanation for the outrageous claims made about the man who Mike Fink is claimed to be. Mike Fink was known for his impressive physical stature which for a keelboat navigator is completely plausible and necessary for that line of work. However, it is the description of his violence and ferocity that begins to manifest myth from fact.

Another variable of the Mike Fink legend involves his involvement in William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company which is also known as Ashley’s Hundred. After his days as a militia man and a keelboat navigator, there are records of a man named Mike Fink who became a member of the trading company around the year 1800. This type of work appears to be a completely appropriate fit for a man like Mike Fink who, for his entire life, had participated in gritty, arduous work in the vicious heart of the early American West.  But did this company provide an outlet for the myth of Mike Fink or the reality of Mike Fink? Fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company provided a demographic for the type of men it intended to enlist. The company released an advertisement in the St. Louis Gazette on February, 1823 that provided a description for the type of men the company desired. The advertisement reads as such, “To Enterprising Young Men, The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years. For particulars, enquire of Maior Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines in the County of Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at Saint Louis.”[vii] This advertisement provides evidence towards Fink being the standard, leathered river boat navigator rather than the rambunctious, abrasive, sharpshooter that the legends depict him to be. The advertisement calls for young, enterprising men both of which are descriptions that do not align with the myths of Mike Fink. Mike Fink, who is by no means lethargic, does not fit the title of enterprising. He is described as being mischievous, picking fights for the thrill of them and perfecting his marksmanship. His myths of bull riding and brawling give no account of him searching to improve his social or economic status. One particular tale of Mike Fink provides a steadfast example of Mike Fink being devoid of enterprise. The tale is titled “Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett Bests Mike Fink” and it described Mike Fink dressing himself in alligator hide in an attempt to frighten Davy Crockett’s wife Sally after his ego gets the best of him when Davy describes her as being able to wrestle an alligator. Ultimately, Mike’s plan is foiled and he is unmasked and beaten up by Sally and attributes his injuries to a bout with an alligator when he is asked about them the following day.[viii] Mike Fink is ego driven. His behavior is both stubbornly prideful and belligerently self-harming. He is looking to create his own legend with only himself. A fur trapping company that requires men who are willing to contribute to something greater than themselves does not appear to be a path that mythical Mike Fink would subject himself to.

So who is Mike Fink? First it is necessary to look at the popular perception of the early American West. From a modern stand point, the American West is depicted as incredibly wild, teeming with cowboys who are at constant odds with bands of vicious Native Americans, saloons, gun fights and a wilderness that is crawling with dangerous and plentiful wildlife. This is the ideal culture in which the myth of Mike Fink to be developed. For a man who was dubbed, “Half horse, half alligator” by the legendary Davy Crockett[ix], only a wild region could provide an outlet for someone of such a persona to be cultivated into a legend. However, this interpretation of the West has as much of an ambiguous tint to it as Fink does. There is plentiful evidence to suggest that the West was not the romanticized depiction of gun slingers and cowboys that it is commonly depicted as. It is more likely that as the 1800’s West grew further and further into the past, people clung onto people and ideas that were representative to the familiar and fantastical interpretation that tantalized minds and hearts. Recognition of Mike Fink as a myth provides insight on how the American West became so heavily romanticized in modern culture and describes the reality of its true harshness and overwhelming personality as a young, expanding region that defined and is still defining modern day America. Mike Fink is one of those figures who has been assimilated into this fantasy. For a man who represented the hard work and brawn of legendary Western men came superlative accounts of his perhaps regular actions on a hyper realistic level.

[i] The Inaccuracy of Muskets | Journal of the American Revolution (Journal of the American Revolution)

[ii] Human Height (Our World in Data)

[iii] A Patriot’s History of the USA (A Patriots History of the United States RSS)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ashley, William. Missouri Gazette, February 13, 1822.

[viii] Schlosser, S.E,. ”    Tall Tales.” Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett Bests Mike Fink: From Tall Tales at Americanfolklore.net.

[ix] A Patriot’s History of the USA (A Patriots History of the United States RSS)

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