Jake Mitchell (ca. 1840-ca. 1900) was one of Alabama’s most talented and imaginative storytellers. A former slave who could not read or write, he owes the preservation of his tall tales to Robert Wilton Burton, a white acquaintance and fellow citizen of Auburn, Lee County.
Little is known about the details of Mitchell’s life. Born into slavery during the 1840s in an Atlantic seaboard state, probably Virginia, Mitchell was brought, at an early age, to a Black Belt cotton plantation in Marengo County. After the Civil War, he moved to Auburn where he worked at various jobs, including gardener and gravedigger. Mitchell was married and was the father of two children. He was well known in Auburn as a teller of fantastic tales.
Robert Wilton Burton published 36 tales and sketches told to him by Mitchell, who appears in them as “Marengo Jake.” The stories appeared under only Burton’s name in Montgomery and Birmingham newspapers between 1886 and 1891. Mitchell was, according to Burton, “a veritable Baron Munchausen in black,” referring to the eighteenth-century German character internationally known for his extravagant, exaggerated stories.
Mitchell’s own term for creating his fabulous yarns was “stretching the blanket.” His perennial theme was the mythic superiority of all things in Marengo County, especially compared with what he found in his new Lee County residence. In Mitchell’s tales, Marengo frogs are as big as common steers and rats are the size of ordinary mules, snakes stretch across rivers and disrupt steamboat traffic, crawfish farm and market cotton in their extensive underground world, rats convene for serious political debate, pumpkins serve as houses, the juice of one watermelon can drown a mule, and Black Belt mud can take the tails off pigs and swallow up horseback riders.
There seems little doubt that Jake Mitchell, a black male in a white-dominated world, deliberately played the role of a social inferior in getting along in such a world. Yet in the tall tales that he spun, he was extraordinary. He died in relative obscurity sometime in the early 1900s.
Sport, Kathryn, and Bert Hitchcock. De Remnant Truth: The Tales of Jake Mitchell and Robert Wilton Burton. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.