Along with his perhaps better known contemporary, Davy Crockett, Mike Fink looms large in the folklore of the early American frontier, maybe even larger than he was in life. Although most of Mike’s renown happened downstream, he was born in 1780 in the shadow of Fort Pitt, and thus this is included here as a Pennsylvania Tale.
Mike’s first honest employment was as an indian fighter, but by the early 1800s of his younger days, the “indian menace” had moved west, and so Mike drifted to the rivers. Pittsburgh was an important port on the inland waterways of early America. Pittsburgh to Wheeling to Cincinnati, to Cairo and the Mississippi, and from there to points up and down the “mother of waters” was a busy route. The keelboat, the mainstay of river transportation required tough men, and Mike was tough and ready. Eventually the new-fangled steamboat put the keelboaters out of business, and so Mike Fink drifted to yet another line of work – as a “mountain man” in the fur trade of the Rocky Mountain west. Mike died tragically at Fort Henry on the Yellowstone River, and lies buried there, far from his Pittsburgh roots, but the larger-than-life tales of this “half horse, half alligator”, “a little bit the almightiest man on the river any how”, remain with us.
Mike Fink was known as “the Salt River Roarer,” which is pretty appropriate for a man who was never happier than when he was shooting his rifle, “Old Bang-All,” or brawling with anyone he could catch. Mike was the captain of a keelboat. At the end of the day when the boat was tied up to a wharf at some riverside town, Mike and his crew would head for the taverns, there to drink all they could and fight, either the crews of other boats or the heartiest of the town folk. The last man standing was awarded a red feather as a show of his prowess – Mike Fink had enough red feathers to make a war bonnet. It was common practice to bite off ears and gouge out eyeballs. Sometimes the floor of the tavern would be covered with gouged-out eyes and all the fighters would be down on their hands and knees searching for one that fit. If they found one they would slap it back in and go on fighting.
There was good money to be made transporting cargo down the rivers, and Mike could make enough money on a trip or two to take time off for his other favorite pastime – hunting. Mike’s needs were few. As long as he had enough money for gunpowder, and lead for bullets, two things that had to be “store bought,” and for a few little gifts for his wife, Mike was as happy to be found along the rivers as on them. Mike had a horrid handsome wife and he loved her just the wickedest you ever did see. They were at their cabin along the Cumberland River in Kentucky, not far from the mighty Ohio, when an old friend, Davy Crockett, wandered in to his dooryard looking for a place to spend the night. Davy was fond of hunting trips himself, and he was off on an extended hunt from his home in down in Tennessee.
The illustrations below, of Mike Fink on the left, and Davy Crockett on the right, may be what they actually looked like.
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!” Davy knew that he was going to have to outshoot Mike to prove his point, and he knew that, in truth, Mike was a pretty fair shot. In fact whenever the local towns had a shooting match, they would usually just go ahead and give Mike First Prize. Otherwise Mike would outshoot everyone else and win all the prizes.
Just as Davy expected, Mike was quick to challenge him. Davy took a look around, and spotted Mike’s old tom cat sitting on a fence rail way down in the pasture about a hundred and a half paces away. Taking his rifle, “Ol’ Betsy,” Davy quickly checked his load, took aim and fired. His rifle ball trimmed the ears off of that cat so clean and close you would have thought somebody did it with a razor. That cat didn’t even know they were missing until it reached up to scratch. “There,” said Davy, “how was that?”
Mike had to allow that was a pretty fine shot. “Do ya see those pigs down there about at the end of the world?” Mike asked, pointing down by the far barn. Without waiting for an answer, he picked up “Old Bang-All” and shot the corkscrew tail off of the big sow pig in the sty at the far end of the barn. Then in short order he reloaded time and again and shot the tails off the four little shoats that were in the pen too. “Now there!” exclaimed Mike. “I would be preeticularly obleeged to you if you could put them back on again.”
“That was fine shooting, Mike,” Davy told him, “but you have been pretty wasteful of your ammunition. I can see you didn’t cut those tails off clean. You’ve left a bit of a stub on each one. With that, Davy shot several times and clipped those short tail stubs off so cleanly you would have thought someone had driven them in with a hammer.
Well after that, Mike was proceeding to get just a mite confabulated and even a little bit helliferocious. He just wasn’t a fellow who could stand to be getting beat in any way at all. About that time, Mrs. Fink was heading on down through the pasture with a bucket to get some water from the lower spring. Mike just upped his rifle and sent a ball after her and it took half of the horn comb right off of her head, without stirring a hair. Mrs. Fink was used to Mike’s shenanigans with his rifle, and so she stopped and stood still as a scarecrow in a cornfield while Mike urged Davy to take a blizzard at the other half of that hair comb. But Davy couldn’t do it.
“No, Mike,” said he, “Davy Crockett’s hand would be sure to shake like a leaf if his shootin’ iron were pointed within a mile of a shemale. I give up, Mike. You beat me.”
With that, Mrs. Fink continued on to the spring, while Mike and Davy settled in on the front porch again to share another sip from Mike’s jug. Then, making his goodbyes, Davy and “Ol’ Betsey” headed on out to continue his hunting trip. As it turned out, this was the last meeting between Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. As the newfangled steamboat put the small boatman out of business on the rivers, Mike drifted west to the Rockies and the fur trapping trade. Davy went off to Congress, and after that to “the Texas” and immortality at the Alamo.
The story above owes much to the version that first appeared in the Crockett Almanac of 1839. For some more tales of Davy Crockett, please see “Davy Crockett’s Grin” in the “Old Time Stories” section of this site.