Daniel Boone (November 2, 1734 – September 26, 1820) was an American pioneer and hunter whose frontier exploits made him one of the first folk heroes of the United States. Boone is most famous for his exploration and settlement of what is now the U.S. state of Kentucky, which was then beyond the western borders of the Thirteen Colonies. Despite resistance from American Indians, for whom Kentucky was a traditional hunting ground, in 1775 Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky. There he founded Boonesborough, one of the first English-speaking settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Before the end of the 18th century, more than 200,000 people entered Kentucky by following the route marked by Boone.
Boone was a militia officer during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), which in Kentucky was fought primarily between settlers and British-allied American Indians. Boone was captured by Shawnees in 1778 and adopted into the tribe, but he escaped and continued to help defend the Kentucky settlements. He was elected to the first of his three terms in the Virginia General Assembly during the war, and fought in the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782, one of the last battles of the American Revolution. Boone worked as a surveyor and merchant after the war, but he went deep into debt as a Kentucky land speculator. Frustrated with legal problems resulting from his land claims, in 1799 Boone resettled in Missouri, where he spent his final years.
Boone remains an iconic, if imperfectly remembered, figure in American history. He was a legend in his own lifetime, especially after an account of his adventures was published in 1784, making him famous in America and Europe. After his death, he was frequently the subject of tall tales and works of fiction. His adventures—real and legendary—were influential in creating the archetypal Western hero of American folklore. In American popular culture, he is remembered as one of the foremost early frontiersmen, even though the mythology often overshadows the historical details of his life.
Daniel Boone was born on October 22, 1734. Because the Gregorian calendar was adopted during Boone's lifetime, his birth date is sometimes given as November 2, 1734 (the "New Style" date), although Boone used the October date. He was the sixth of eleven children in a family of Quakers. His father, Squire Boone, Sr. (1696–1765), had immigrated to Pennsylvania from the small town of Bradninch, Devon, England in 1713. Squire Boone's parents George and Mary Boone followed their son to Pennsylvania in 1717. In 1720, Squire, who worked primarily as a weaver and a blacksmith, married Sarah Morgan (1700–1777), whose family members were Quakers from Wales, and settled in Towamencin Township, Pennsylvania in 1708. In 1731, the Boones built a log cabin in the Oley Valley, now the Daniel Boone Homestead in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where Daniel was born.
Daniel Boone spent his early years on what was then the western edge of the Pennsylvania frontier. There were a number of American Indian villages nearby. The pacifist Pennsylvania Quakers generally had good relations with the Indians, but the steady growth of the white population compelled many Indians to relocate further west. Boone received his first rifle in 1747 and picked up hunting skills from local whites and Indians, beginning his lifelong love of hunting. Folk tales often emphasized Boone's skills as a hunter. In one story, the young Boone is hunting in the woods with some other boys. The scream of a panther scatters the boys, except for Boone, who calmly cocks his squirrel gun and shoots the animal through the heart just as it leaps at him. As with so many tales about Boone, the story may or may not be true, but it was told so often that it became part of the popular image of the man.
In Boone's youth, his family became a source of controversy in the local Quaker community. In 1742, Boone's parents were compelled to publicly apologize after their eldest child Sarah married John Wilcoxson, a "worldling" (non-Quaker), while she was visibly pregnant. When Boone's oldest brother Israel also married a "worldling" in 1747, Squire Boone stood by his son and was therefore expelled from the Quakers, although his wife continued to attend monthly meetings with her children. Perhaps as a result of this controversy, in 1750 Squire sold his land and moved the family to North Carolina. Daniel Boone did not attend church again, although he considered himself a Christian and had all of his children baptized. The Boones eventually settled on the Yadkin River, in what is now Davie County, North Carolina, about two miles (3 km) west of Mocksville.
Because he spent so much time hunting in his youth, Boone received little formal education. According to one family tradition, a schoolteacher once expressed concern over Boone's education, but Boone's father was unconcerned, saying "let the girls do the spelling and Dan will do the shooting…." Boone received some tutoring from family members, though his spelling remained unorthodox. Historian John Mack Faragher cautions that the folk image of Boone as semiliterate is misleading, however, arguing that Boone "acquired a level of literacy that was the equal of most men of his times." Boone regularly took reading material with him on his hunting expeditions—the Bible and Gulliver's Travels were favorites—and he was often the only literate person in groups of frontiersmen. Boone would sometimes entertain his hunting companions by reading to them around the evening campfire.
In 1759, a conflict erupted between British colonists and Cherokee Indians, their former allies in the French and Indian War. After the Yadkin Valley was raided by Cherokees, many families, including the Boones, fled to Culpeper County, Virginia. Boone served in the North Carolina militia during this "Cherokee Uprising", and his hunting expeditions deep into Cherokee territory beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains separated him from his wife for about two years. According to one story, Boone was gone for so long that Rebecca assumed he was dead, and began a relationship with his brother Edward ("Ned"), giving birth to daughter Jemima in 1762. Upon his return, the story goes, his wife reproved him saying, "You'd had better have stayed home and got it yourself." Boone was understanding and did not blame Rebecca. Whatever the truth of the tale, Boone raised Jemima as his own and favourite child. Boone's early biographers knew this story, but did not publish it.
|I can't say as ever I was lost,|
but I was bewildered once for three days.
Boone's chosen profession also made for long absences from home. He supported his growing family in these years as a market hunter. Almost every autumn, Boone would go on "long hunts", which were extended expeditions into the wilderness lasting weeks or months. Boone would go on long hunts alone or with a small group of men, accumulating hundreds of deer skins in the autumn, and then trapping beaver and otter over the winter. The long hunters would return in the spring and sell their take to commercial fur traders. In this business, buckskins came to be known as "bucks", which is the origin of the American slang term for "dollar.
Frontiersmen often carved messages on trees or wrote their names on cave walls, and Boone's name or initials have been found in many places. One of the best-known inscriptions was carved into a tree in present Washington County, Tennessee which reads "D. Boon Cilled a. Bar [killed a bear] on [this] tree in the year 1760". A similar carving is preserved in the museum of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, which reads "D. Boon Kilt a Bar, 1803." However, because Boone spelled his name with the final "e", and the inconsistency of an 1803 date east of the Mississippi after Boone moved to Missouri in 1799, these particular inscriptions may be forgeries, part of a long tradition of phony Boone relics.
In 1762 Boone and his wife and four children moved back to the Yadkin Valley from Culpeper. By mid-1760s, with peace made with the Cherokees, immigration into the area increased, and Boone began to look for a new place to settle, as competition decreased the amount of game available for hunting. This meant that Boone had difficulty making ends meet; he was often taken to court for nonpayment of debts, and he sold what land he owned to pay off creditors. After his father's death in 1765, Boone traveled with his brother Squire and a group of men to Florida, which had become British territory after the end of the war, to look into the possibility of settling there. According to a family story, Boone purchased land in Pensacola, but Rebecca refused to move so far away from friends and family. The Boones instead moved to a more remote area of the Yadkin Valley, and Boone began to hunt westward into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Boone first reached Kentucky in the fall of 1767 when on a long hunt with his brother Squire Boone, Jr. While on the Braddock expedition years earlier, Boone had heard about the fertile land and abundant game of Kentucky from fellow wagoner John Findley, who had visited Kentucky to trade with American Indians. In 1768, Boone and Findley happened to meet again, and Findley encouraged Boone with more tales of Kentucky. At the same time, news had arrived about the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in which the Iroquois had ceded their claim to Kentucky to the British. This, as well as the unrest in North Carolina due to the Regulator movement, likely prompted Boone to extend his exploration.
In May 1769, Boone began a two-year hunting expedition in Kentucky. On 22 December 1769, he and a fellow hunter were captured by a party of Shawnees, who confiscated all of their skins and told them to leave and never return. The Shawnees had not signed the Stanwix treaty, and since they regarded Kentucky as their hunting ground, they considered white hunters there to be poachers. Boone, however, continued hunting and exploring Kentucky until his return to North Carolina in 1771, and returned to hunt there again in the autumn of 1772.
On 25 September 1773, Boone packed up his family and, with a group of about 50 emigrants, began the first attempt by British colonists to establish a settlement in Kentucky. Boone was still an obscure hunter and trapper at the time; the most prominent member of the expedition was William Russell, a well-known Virginian and future brother-in-law of Patrick Henry. On October 9, Boone's eldest son James and a small group of men and boys who had left the main party to retrieve supplies were attacked by a band of Delawares, Shawnees, and Cherokees. Following the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, American Indians in the region had been debating what to do about the influx of settlers. This group had decided, in the words of historian John Mack Faragher, "to send a message of their opposition to settlement…." James Boone and William Russell's son Henry were captured and gruesomely tortured to death. The brutality of the killings sent shock waves along the frontier, and Boone's party abandoned its expedition.
The massacre was one of the first events in what became known as Dunmore's War, a struggle between Virginia and primarily Shawnees of the Ohio Country for control of what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. In the summer of 1774, Boone volunteered to travel with a companion to Kentucky to notify surveyors there about the outbreak of war. The two men journeyed more than in two months in order to warn those who had not already fled the region. Upon his return to Virginia, Boone helped defend colonial settlements along the Clinch River, earning a promotion to captain in the militia as well as acclaim from fellow citizens. After the brief war, which ended soon after Virginia's victory in the Battle of Point Pleasant in October 1774, Shawnees relinquished their claims to Kentucky.
Following Dunmore's War, Richard Henderson, a prominent judge from North Carolina, hired Boone to travel to the Cherokee towns in present North Carolina and Tennessee and inform them of an upcoming meeting. In the 1775 treaty, Henderson purchased the Cherokee claim to Kentucky in order to establish a colony called Transylvania. Afterwards, Henderson hired Boone to blaze what became known as the Wilderness Road, which went through the Cumberland Gap and into central Kentucky. Along with a party of about thirty workers, Boone marked a path to the Kentucky River, where he established Boonesborough. Other settlements, notably Harrodsburg, were also established at this time. Despite occasional Indian attacks, Boone returned to the Clinch Valley and brought his family and other settlers to Boonesborough on 8 September 1775.
On 14 July 1776, Boone's daughter Jemima and two other teenage girls were captured outside Boonesborough by an Indian war party, who carried the girls north towards the Shawnee towns in the Ohio country. Boone and a group of men from Boonesborough followed in pursuit, finally catching up with them two days later. Boone and his men ambushed the Indians while they were stopped for a meal, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors. The incident became the most celebrated event of Boone's life. James Fenimore Cooper created a fictionalized version of the episode in his classic book The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
In 1777, Henry Hamilton, a British Lieutenant Governor of Canada, began to recruit American Indian war parties to raid the Kentucky settlements. On 24 April, Shawnees led by Chief Blackfish attacked Boonesborough. Boone was shot in the ankle while outside the fort, but he was carried back inside the fort amid a flurry of bullets by Simon Kenton, a recent arrival at Boonesborough. Kenton became Boone's close friend as well as a legendary frontiersman in his own right.
While Boone recovered, Shawnees kept up their attacks outside Boonesborough, destroying the surrounding cattle and crops. With the food supply running low, the settlers needed salt to preserve what meat they had, and so in January 1778 Boone led a party of thirty men to the salt springs on the Licking River. On 7 February 1778, when Boone was hunting meat for the expedition, he was surprised and captured by warriors led by Blackfish. Because Boone's party was greatly outnumbered, he convinced his men to surrender rather than put up a fight.
Blackfish wanted to continue to Boonesborough and capture it, since it was now poorly defended, but Boone convinced him that the women and children were not hardy enough to survive a winter trek. Instead, Boone promised that Boonesborough would surrender willingly to the Shawnees the following spring. Boone did not have an opportunity to tell his men that he was bluffing in order to prevent an immediate attack on Boonesborough, however. Boone pursued this strategy so convincingly that many of his men concluded that he had switched his loyalty to the British.
Boone and his men were taken to Blackfish's town of Chillicothe where they were made to run the gauntlet. As was their custom, the Shawnees adopted some of the prisoners into the tribe to replace fallen warriors; the remainder were taken to Hamilton in Detroit. Boone was adopted into a Shawnee family at Chillicothe, perhaps into the family of Chief Blackfish himself, and given the name Sheltowee ("Big Turtle"). On 16 June 1778, when he learned that Blackfish was about to return to Boonesborough with a large force, Boone eluded his captors and raced home, covering the to Boonesborough in five days on horseback and, after his horse gave out, on foot.
During Boone's absence, his wife and children (except for Jemima) had returned to North Carolina, fearing that he was dead. Upon his return to Boonesborough, some of the men expressed doubts about Boone's loyalty, since after surrendering the salt making party he had apparently lived quite happily among the Shawnees for months. Boone responded by leading a preemptive raid against the Shawnees across the Ohio River, and then by helping to successfully defend Boonesborough against a 10-day siege led by Blackfish, which began on 7 September 1778.
After the siege, Captain Benjamin Logan and Colonel Richard Callaway—both of whom had nephews who were still captives surrendered by Boone—brought charges against Boone for his recent activities. In the court-martial that followed, Boone was found "not guilty" and was even promoted after the court heard his testimony. Despite this vindication, Boone was humiliated by the court-martial, and he rarely spoke of it.
After the trial, Boone returned to North Carolina in order to bring his family back to Kentucky. In the autumn of 1779, a large party of emigrants came with him, including (according to tradition) the family of Abraham Lincoln's grandfather. Rather than remain in Boonesborough, Boone founded the nearby settlement of Boone's Station. Boone began earning money at this time by locating good land for other settlers. Transylvania land claims had been invalidated after Virginia created Kentucky County, and so settlers needed to file new land claims with Virginia. In 1780, Boone collected about $20,000 in cash from various settlers and traveled to Williamsburg to purchase their land warrants. While he was sleeping in a tavern during the trip, the cash was stolen from his room. Some of the settlers forgave Boone the loss; others insisted that he repay the stolen money, which took him several years to do.
A popular image of Boone which emerged in later years is that of the backwoodsman who had little affinity for "civilized" society, moving away from places like Boonesborough when they became "too crowded". In reality, however, Boone was a leading citizen of Kentucky at this time. When Kentucky was divided into three Virginia counties in November 1780, Boone was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Fayette County militia. In April 1781, Boone was elected as a representative to the Virginia General Assembly, which was held in Richmond. In 1782, he was elected sheriff of Fayette County.
Meanwhile, the American Revolutionary War continued. Boone joined General George Rogers Clark's invasion of the Ohio country in 1780, fighting in the Battle of Piqua on 7 August. In October, when Boone was hunting with his brother Ned, Shawnees shot and killed Ned. Apparently thinking that they had killed Daniel Boone, the Shawnees beheaded Ned and took the head home as a trophy. In 1781, Boone traveled to Richmond to take his seat in the legislature, but British dragoons under Banastre Tarleton captured Boone and several other legislators near Charlottesville. The British released Boone on parole several days later. During Boone's term, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, but the fighting continued in Kentucky unabated. Boone returned to Kentucky and in August 1782 fought in the Battle of Blue Licks, in which his son Israel was killed. In November 1782, Boone took part in another Clark expedition into Ohio, the last major campaign of the war.
Although the Revolutionary War had ended, the border war with American Indians north of the Ohio River soon resumed. In September 1786, Boone took part in a military expedition into the Ohio Country led by Benjamin Logan. Back in Limestone, Boone housed and fed Shawnees who were captured during the raid and helped to negotiate a truce and prisoner exchange. Although the Northwest Indian War escalated and would not end until the American victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the 1786 expedition was the last time Boone saw military action.
Boone began to have financial troubles while living in Maysville. According to the later folk image, Boone the trailblazer was too unsophisticated for the civilization which followed him and which eventually defrauded him of his land. Boone was not the simple frontiersman of legend, however: he engaged in land speculation on a large scale, buying and selling claims to tens of thousands of acres. The land market in frontier Kentucky was chaotic, and Boone's ventures ultimately failed because his investment strategy was faulty and because his sense of honor made him reluctant to profit at someone else's expense. According to Faragher, "Boone lacked the ruthless instincts that speculation demanded.
Frustrated with the legal hassles that went with land speculation, in 1788 Boone moved upriver to Point Pleasant, Virginia (now West Virginia). There he operated a trading post and occasionally worked as a surveyor's assistant. When Virginia created Kanawha County in 1789, Boone was appointed lieutenant colonel of the county militia. In 1791, he was elected to the Virginia legislature for the third time. He contracted to provide supplies for the Kanawha militia, but his debts prevented him from buying goods on credit, and so he closed his store and returned to hunting and trapping.
In 1795, he and Rebecca moved back to Kentucky, living in present Nicholas County on land owned by their son Daniel Morgan Boone. The next year, Boone applied to Isaac Shelby, the first governor of the new state of Kentucky, for a contract to widen the Wilderness Road into a wagon route, but the governor did not respond and the contract was awarded to someone else. Meanwhile, lawsuits over conflicting land claims continued to make their way through the Kentucky courts. Boone's remaining land claims were sold off to pay legal fees and taxes, but he no longer paid attention to the process. In 1798, a warrant was issued for Boone's arrest after he ignored a summons to testify in a court case, although the sheriff never found him. That same year Kentucky named Boone County in his honor.
Boone served as syndic and commandant until 1804, when Missouri became part of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase. Because Boone's land grants from the Spanish government had been largely based on verbal agreements, he once again lost his land claims. In 1809, he petitioned Congress to restore his Spanish land claims, which was finally done in 1814. Boone sold most of this land to repay old Kentucky debts. When the War of 1812 came to Missouri, Boone's sons Daniel Morgan Boone and Nathan Boone took part, but by that time Boone was too old for militia duty.
Boone spent his final years in Missouri, often in the company of children and grandchildren. He hunted and trapped as often as his failing health allowed. According to one story, in 1810 or later Boone went with a group on a long hunt as far west as the Yellowstone River, a remarkable journey at his age, if true. Other stories of Boone around this time have him making one last visit to Kentucky in order to pay off his creditors, although some or all of these tales may be folklore. American painter John James Audubon claimed to have gone hunting with Boone in the woods of Kentucky around 1810. Years later, Audubon painted a portrait of Boone, supposedly from memory, although skeptics have noted the similarity of this painting to the well-known portraits by Chester Harding. Boone's family insisted that he never returned to Kentucky after 1799, although some historians believe that Boone visited his brother Squire near Kentucky in 1810 and have therefore reported Audubon's story as factual.
Boone died on September 26, 1820, at Nathan Boone's home on Femme Osage Creek. He was buried next to Rebecca, who had died on March 18, 1813. The graves, which were unmarked until the mid-1830s, were near Jemima (Boone) Callaway's home on Tuque Creek, about two miles (3 km) from present day Marthasville, Missouri. In 1845, the Boones' remains were disinterred and reburied in a new cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Resentment in Missouri about the disinterment grew over the years, and a legend arose that Boone's remains never left Missouri. According to this story, Boone's tombstone in Missouri had been inadvertently placed over the wrong grave, but no one had corrected the error. Boone's Missouri relatives, displeased with the Kentuckians who came to exhume Boone, kept quiet about the mistake and allowed the Kentuckians to dig up the wrong remains. There is no contemporary evidence that this actually happened, but in 1983, a forensic anthropologist examined a crude plaster cast of Boone's skull made before the Kentucky reburial and announced that it might be the skull of an African American. Black slaves were also buried at Tuque Creek, so it is possible that the wrong remains were mistakenly removed from the crowded graveyard. Both the Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky and the Old Bryan Farm graveyard in Missouri claim to have Boone's remains.
|Many heroic actions and chivalrous adventures are related of me which exist only in the regions of fancy. With me the world has taken great liberties, and yet I have been but a common man.|
Daniel Boone remains an iconic figure in American history, although his status as an early American folk hero and later as a subject of fiction has tended to obscure the actual details of his life. The general public remembers him as a hunter, pioneer, and "Indian-fighter", even if they are uncertain when he lived or exactly what he did. Many places in the United States are named for him, including the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Sheltowee Trace Trail, and two counties: Boone County, Missouri and Boone County, Kentucky. His name has long been synonymous with the American outdoors. For example, the Boone and Crockett Club was a conservationist organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, and the Sons of Daniel Boone was the precursor of the Boy Scouts of America.
Like John Filson, Timothy Flint also interviewed Boone, and his Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky (1833) became one of the bestselling biographies of the 19th century. Flint greatly embellished Boone's adventures, doing for Boone what Parson Weems did for George Washington. In Flint's book, Boone fought hand-to-hand with a bear, escaped from Indians by swinging on vines (as Tarzan would later do), and so on. Although Boone's family thought the book was absurd, Flint greatly influenced the popular conception of Boone, since these tall tales were recycled in countless dime novels and books aimed at young boys.
Much of Daniel Boone's life was written about by William Henry Bogart in his book Daniel Boone and the hunters of Kentucky.
Thanks to Filson's book, in Europe Boone became a symbol of the "natural man" who lives a virtuous, uncomplicated existence in the wilderness. This was most famously expressed in Lord Byron's epic poem Don Juan (1822), which devoted a number of stanzas to Boone, including this one:
Byron's poem celebrated Boone as someone who found happiness by turning his back on civilization. In a similar vein, many folk tales depicted Boone as a man who migrated to more remote areas whenever civilization crowded in on him. In a typical anecdote, when asked why he was moving to Missouri, Boone supposedly replied, "I want more elbow room!" Boone rejected such an interpretation of his life, however. "Nothing embitters my old age," he said late in life, like "the circulation of absurd stories that I retire as civilization advances….
Existing simultaneously with the image of Boone as a refugee from society was, paradoxically, the popular portrayal of him as civilization's trailblazer. Boone was celebrated as an agent of Manifest Destiny, a pathfinder who tamed the wilderness, paving the way for the extension of American civilization. In 1852, critic Henry Tuckerman dubbed Boone "the Columbus of the woods", comparing Boone's passage through the Cumberland Gap to Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World. In popular mythology, Boone became the first to explore and settle Kentucky, opening the way for countless others to follow. In fact, other Americans had explored and settled Kentucky before Boone, as debunkers in the 20th century often pointed out, but Boone came to symbolize them all, making him what historian Michael Lofaro called "the founding father of westward expansion".
In the 19th century, when Native Americans were being displaced from their lands and confined on reservations, Boone's image was often reshaped into the stereotype of the belligerent, Indian-hating frontiersman which was then popular. In John A. McClung's Sketches of Western Adventure (1832), for example, Boone was portrayed as longing for the "thrilling excitement of savage warfare." Boone was transformed in the popular imagination into someone who regarded Indians with contempt and had killed scores of the "savages". The real Boone disliked bloodshed, however. According to historian John Bakeless, there is no record that Boone ever scalped Indians, unlike other frontiersmen of the era. Boone once told his son Nathan that he was certain of having killed only one Indian, during the battle at Blue Licks, although he believed that others may have died from his bullets in other battles. Even though Boone had lost two sons in wars with Indians, he respected Indians and was respected by them. In Missouri, Boone often went hunting with the very Shawnees who had captured and adopted him decades earlier. Some 19th century writers regarded Boone's sympathy for Indians as a character flaw and therefore altered his words to conform to contemporary attitudes.
In the 20th century, Boone was featured in numerous comic strips, radio programs, and films, where the emphasis was usually on action and melodrama rather than historical accuracy. These are little remembered today; probably the most noteworthy is the 1936 film Daniel Boone, with George O'Brien playing the title role. Audiences of the "baby boomer" generation are more familiar with the Daniel Boone television series, which ran from 1964 to 1970. In the popular theme song for the series, Boone was described as a "big man" in a "coonskin cap", and the "rippin'est, roarin'est, fightin'est man the frontier ever knew! This did not describe the real Daniel Boone, who was not a big man and did not wear a coonskin cap. Boone was portrayed this way because Fess Parker, the tall actor who played Boone, was essentially reprising his role as Davy Crockett from an earlier TV series. That Boone could be portrayed as a Crockett, another American frontiersman with a very different persona, was another example of how Boone's image could be reshaped to suit popular tastes.