Daniel Boone was a man,
Yes, a big man!
And he fought for America
To make all Americans free!
What a Boone, what a do-er
What a dream come-er true-er was he!
This irksomely catchy faux folk song, together with Fess Parker’s earnest portrayal of the frontier hero for Disney, cemented an image of Daniel Boone in the minds of two or three generations of Americans. The TV show first appeared in the early Sixties, when its American audience was innocent in the scariest sense of that word. Disneyfied Daniel Boone represented the unpretentious, forthright, steadfast, and homespun style with which we were going to civilize the entire world.
“Forget the coonskin cap,” Robert Morgan’s biography begins; “he never wore one.” Though this headgear was imposed upon him by image-fabricators well before Disney, Boone considered it “uncouth, heavy, and uncomfortable.” He preferred a beaver felt hat—just as appropriate for his impressive career as a hunter and trapper, and far more practical. Morgan’s Boone is not a debunking biography, though. While remaining an admirer, Morgan sees his subject as “more complicated…, stranger, and far more interesting” than the tales most commonly told of him.
Never so physically large as the folklore would have it, the real Boone is in some ways even bigger than his legend. Beginning in Quaker Pennsylvania (where he was born forty-two years before the Declaration of Independence), he reached Yellowstone before the end of his days. Though at different times of his life he had claims on hundreds of thousands of acres of Kentucky and Missouri, he died, in the ruefully caustic words of his nephew Daniel Bryan, “not owning as Much land as would make his grave.”
Morgan understands very well that Boone cannot be extricated whole from his mythology as an expert and archetypal frontiersman. The problem is complicated by the fact that Boone was a very large celebrity during his lifetime (rating among other things a substantial passage in Lord Byron’s Don Juan). That situation caused him some serious problems over the years, but more often than not Boone cooperated, rather enthusiastically, in promoting his own larger-than-life image. By carefully drawing on many different accounts, Morgan works toward as clearly focused a picture of the real man as possible, while at the same time (and quite openly) reworking the legend better to suit his own tastes, and maybe ours. Emerson declared, “All history resolves itself very early into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” Morgan’s Boone can be read as an illustration of this principle.
George Boone III, Daniel’s grandfather, brought his family from England to Philadelphia in 1717. The Boones had become Quakers fifteen years before. Daniel’s father, Squire Boone, was quite likely a Freemason as well—so Morgan argues on the basis of a Masonic symbol carved on his tombstone, probably by Daniel himself. Expert as Huckleberry Finn at avoiding school, the boy Daniel must nevertheless have logged a fair amount of time in Quaker meetings. As Quakers, the Boones forbade dancing parties for the young, but Daniel snuck out and attended those of neighbors. When his mother shut the children into the house during a smallpox epidemic, he and his sister are said to have deliberately infected themselves, so as to be sooner free when they recovered.
In the 1740s, two of Daniel Boone’s older siblings married outside the Quaker community. Twice rebuked by the Meeting for these derelictions, Squire Boone decided to leave Pennsylvania. It was not uncommon to walk away from such extremely local religious disputes in those days, when there were plenty of places to go to. In 1750, the Boones moved southwest, to North Carolina’s Yadkin River Valley.
Daniel Boone, meanwhile, had been given his first “short rifle gun” at the age of twelve—he’d previously hunted with a club—and thanks to his habitual truancy, he was well on his way to becoming a skillful hunter before the family moved to the Yadkin. On one occasion when he stayed out overnight his family sent a search party after him. In the 1740s, settler–Indian relations in Pennsylvania were generally peaceful; there were still plenty of Indians in the woods the boy Daniel explored, along with “white hunters who lived like Indians.” Much was learned on either side, and Morgan reminds us that “white and Indian communities on the frontier mirrored each other in many ways.”
Beginning in 1755, this intercultural harmony was shattered, when the Seven Years’ War between England and France expressed itself as the French and Indian War on the North American continent. Newly hostile Indians in Pennsylvania practiced a style of asymmetrical warfare that would be quite recognizable to twenty-first-century terrorists, avoiding major battles in favor of massacring isolated settler households. These tactics produced tremendous confusion and fear and, as a literary by-product, a new genre of tabloid horror story defined by Peter Silver, in his recent study Our Savage Neighbors, as the anti-Indian “pathetic sublime.” Pennsylvania Quakers, whose first response to the war was to found the “Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures,” became a magnet for fearful suspicion of collaboration, aroused by pamphlet propaganda.
Twenty-one-year-old Daniel Boone (along with the young George Washington and Boone’s first cousin Daniel Morgan) joined an expedition led by General Edward Braddock against the French-Indian stronghold at Fort Duquesne, which ended in a disastrous defeat near the Monongahela River. When the rout began, Boone (present as a teamster, not a combatant) cut his horses loose from the wagon he was driving and rode back to the Yadkin River Valley, where he married Rebecca Bryan the following year. In 1759, following Indian attacks in North Carolina, the Boones and their two young sons moved to Culpepper, Virginia. But Daniel had already begun to hear enticing rumors of Kentucky.
Between 1760 and 1762, Boone hunted very extensively beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, into Cherokee country which very few white men then dared to penetrate. A story has it he was absent from his hearth for two years straight, and returned to find a newborn daughter, Jemima, who could not possibly have been his, but perhaps had been fathered by one of his brothers. In some versions, Rebecca begs for his mercy; in one she says plainly, “You had better have staid home and got it yourself.” Boone was philosophical about the surprise. “In no version,” Morgan points out, “does Daniel get angry, accuse his wife, or threaten to leave her.” Instead, Jemima became his favorite, growing to be a spirited young woman who survived a kidnapping by Indians in 1776 and a bullet wound during a siege of the Boonesborough fort two years later.
In 1762 the Boones and their four children moved back to the Yadkin, where peace had been made with the Cherokees. In 1765, after their father died, Daniel and his brother Squire traveled to Florida. “The death of a father is a time for reaching out,” Morgan pronounces, “for stretching, moving ahead.” Though the Boones found little game in Florida, and didn’t much like the territory, Daniel made a land claim and proposed to move his family there. Rebecca, for once, would have none of it.
John Findley, another member of Braddock’s ill-fated expedition, was the first to describe Kentucky to Boone. In 1769, Boone made his first excursion there with Findley and four other men. Scarcely visited by Europeans then, this country was thick with game. But it was not just “an idyll in the wilderness.” Boone, regardless of the ease with which he adopted many Indian ways, was a commercial hunter. Just before Christmas a band of Shawnees captured Boone and his companion John Stewart and confiscated the huge store of hides and furs they had laid up in six months of hunting, then let them go with a warning not to return to Kentucky. When Boone and Stewart stole back some of the horses the Indians had also taken, they were recaptured and held until, after seven days, they managed to escape. This episode set a persistent pattern: expert as he was in exploring and hunting, Boone seldom managed to bring home his spoils.
Boone’s brother Squire had come out to search for the party in January of 1770. While the others returned, Squire, Daniel, and John Stewart elected to stay for the winter fur-trapping season. Separated from the Boones, John Stewart vanished; some years later his body was found in a hollow tree. In May, Squire returned to the Yadkin, while Daniel remained in Kentucky, alone, till Squire rejoined him three months later. Reminiscent of an Indian vision quest, Boone’s solitary time in the wild was probably the most formative experience of his life.
Boone’s lone Kentucky pilgrimage inspired some uncontrolled slobbering on the part of Victorian writers, some of which Morgan holds up for display, if not entirely for ridicule. C.W. Webber, for example, describes Boone going “deeper and deeper with yet more restless strength into the cool profounds of the all-nourishing bosom of his primeval mother.” Though finding this passage rather too purple, Morgan thinks the sexualizing of Boone’s relationship to virgin Kentucky is not to be dismissed, invoking Annette Kolodny’s description of “Boone’s passion for the wilderness as a male fantasy of ‘privatized erotic mastery.’” Fortunately, Morgan’s own imaginative descriptions of Boone’s experience are much stronger than any such rhetoric—so powerful that the reader can feel something of Boone’s rapture.
In the winter of 1771, a member of a large party called the Long Hunters went cautiously to investigate an unusual sound and
saw a sight that astonished and then made him laugh. Lying on his back on a deerskin in a little clearing, a bare-headed man was singing to the sky. It was Daniel Boone, alone in the forest, indulging his love of song and craving a human voice, even if it was his own.
Here was Boone not only enjoying “the Enlightenment sense of harmony in nature and between man and nature” but also (according to Morgan’s supposition that Boone had earlier spotted the Long Hunters) intentionally creating an image for an audience of himself doing just that.
Exploitation, inevitably, came next. If the Kentucky odyssey gave special satisfaction to Boone, it also made him, in the practical sense, the greatest white expert on the region. His first attempt to settle his family there failed, thanks to an Indian attack that killed, among others, his oldest son. But by 1775 Boone was cutting a road through Cumberland Gap on behalf of the Transylvania Company, a corporation, headed by Richard Henderson, that had purchased much of Kentucky from Cherokees led by Attakullakulla.
Not all the Indians in Kentucky accepted this deal, however, and once the American Revolution was underway, Indian hostilities against Kentucky settlers began to be abetted by the British. While hunting alone in the winter of 1778 near a salt-boiling operation at Blue Licks, Boone was captured by a large Shawnee army on its way to attack Boonesborough, the settlement he had founded and partially fortified on behalf of the Transylvania company. Boone quickly worked a deal to surrender the twenty-six salt-boilers without a fight, on the understanding that they would not be harmed, and that the attack on Boonesborough would be called off. To win this latter point, Boone even promised the Shawnee Chief Cottawamago (Blackfish) that in the spring he would bring the settlers from Boonesborough to form a joint community with the Shawnee on the Little Miami River.