Though he has developed a mythology to rival that of Paul Bunyan, Fink was not a figment of anyone’s imagination. He was the most famous of the keelboatmen who plied the Mississippi and other rivers for two decades until they and their watercraft were displaced by steamboats as the preferred means of moving goods in the early 1800s.
The keelboatmen were the original American anti-heroes -- hard-living, hard-drinking hulks who used their tremendous strength to pole and pull their boats upriver against the current before floating back down.
Born in a log cabin near Pittsburgh around 1780, Miche Phinck, as he learned to spell it from his French Canadian parents, gained notoriety as an Indian scout in the Ohio River Valley and a marksman before settling into keelboating.
His superior physique -– he stood 6-foot, 3 and weighed 180 pounds -– and flair for self-aggrandizement -– he claimed he could “outrun, outshoot, throw down, drag out and lick any man in the country” -- transformed him into an icon for storytellers of the day.
Some of the tales they swapped had him riding a moose like a horse, wrestling alligators and drowning wolves with his bare hands. Fink apparently drifted west after the demise of the keelboats and, by one unconfirmed account, died during a drunken altercation with a trapper friend.