Daniel Boone's place in American history is unique and secure
Daniel Boone's place in American history is unique and secure. He set the general pattern which later western heroes followed, personified the epic move westward, and "Kilt a bar" that became a myth. The prototype for Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Paul Bunyan, and the American cowboy, he has not been outshone by more spectacular or successful adventurers. Boone was the American Moses who led us into the Promised Land.
That he was also a modest man who claimed to have killed only one Indian, an illiterate man who had difficulty writing his own name, and an unsocial man who drifted westward in search of elbow-room, only heightens his achievement. It also raises the question: how is it that Boone has been exalted, more than such equally brave companions as Squire Boone, Harrod, McAfee, and Logan?
His fame rests both upon the quality of his life and acts, and upon historical circumstances. Boone had the good fortune to be active when many writers and intellectuals, influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, dreamed of the noble savage who was free from the shackles of society and convention. Despite its coonskin trim and backwoods flavor, Boone's image is modeled after the Enlightenment "natural man." John Filson's biography (translated into French in 1785 and into German in 1790) spread Boone's fame. Here was the innately good man of the forest; a rustic Ben Franklin. His very weaknesses (aggressive individualism, mania for solitude, non-conformity) appealed to his admirers. Even Lord Byron was impressed, as his Boone tribute in Don Juan shows. He sums up Boone's life, to which he devoted seven stanzas of Canto Eight, thus:
"Boone lived hunting up to ninety;
And what's still stranger, left behind a name
For which men vainly decimate the throng
Not only famous, but of that good fame
Without which glory's but a tavern song,--
Simple, serene, the antipodes of shame,
Which hate nor envy e'er could tinge with wrong."
Later, Boone made an admirable hero for the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830's. He remains today the unsurpassed pathfinder of a nation which no longer has a western frontier.
The elevation of Boone was the triumph not only of the times, but of five Americans who fostered his reputation. John Filson, Timothy Flint, James Fenimore Cooper, Lyman Draper, and Dan Beard were largely instrumental in establishing him as a major American hero. He would probably have achieved high status even had lesser men championed his cause, though he himself did little to publicize his exploits. Not to discredit Boone (who was a sterling man) nor to make heroes of his publicists (who were less heroic) is this analysis made; but to illuminate the relationship between the great man and those who revere him.
Boone was born near Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the sixth son of Squire and Sarah Boone. The promise of religious freedom had caused Daniel's grandfather to leave England and settle twelve miles north of Philadelphia. Eventually he moved to Oley Township, now Berks County, Pennsylvania. The Boones were born wanderers, always answering the call of that something which manages to stay just beyond the ridge. Young Daniel got little education even for that place and time. Later he made some attempt to further his training and improve his highly individualistic handwriting. Uncle John Boone tried to guide Daniel in bookish ways, but gave up because Daniel lacked interest. To John Boone, Squire Boone made the much-quoted (probably apocryphal) statement in defense of his son: "Let the girls do the spelling, and Dan will do the shooting." Daniel was early exposed to the wilderness, and became familiar with wild life in the dense Pennsylvania woods. He learned his forest lore while caring for his father's cattle on twenty-five acres located miles from the main farm. That task he neglected, and the herd was usually left to wander at will.
Dan Boone was fifteen when his parents left home and headed for the Valley of Virginia. For a year and a half they lived near Harrisonburg before moving to Rowan County, North Carolina. (A nearby Virginian neighbor was John Lincoln; his great-grandson would share America's top heroic honors with George Washington, whose ancestors were by then well established on the Northern Neck.) Daniel Boone married young after having almost shot his wife-to-be while "fire-hunting" for deer. In those days, the hunter would flash a torch until he attracted a curious deer; light reflected in the animal's eyes revealed his target. Boone once caught sight of gleaming eyes and raised his long rifle to shoot, but discovered just in time the figure of Rebecca Bryan. She rushed home to tell her father she had been chased by a panther. Later on, at the proper moment, she rushed into the panther's den.
The young couple had been married three years when Boone took his wife and two children to Virginia to avoid the Indian uprising brought about by wanton killings of Cherokees. They settled in Culpeper County, where he made a living hauling tobacco to Fredericksburg. But this was no life for a man of Boone's temperament; so he sold his property and left with six families and forty men for Kentucky. The party was attacked by Indians near Cumberland Gap. Six were killed, including Boone's son James, who was in the rear of the main party. Such memorable tragedies as this merely added to Boone's fame. Virginia's governor chose him to warn the surveyors in the Kentucky territory of the impending uprising. Boone and "Big Mike" Stone covered eight hundred miles in sixty-two days, going as far as the Falls of the Ohio. After that Daniel was placed in command of Moore's Fort in the Clinch River Valley. In 1775, he was commissioned by Colonel Richard Henderson to hack out the Wilderness Road to Boonesborough, where he built the fort that has been re-built for plays and movies a thousand times.
Here he and his companions resisted several savage attacks and rescued Jemima Boone and the Calloway girls, who had been kidnapped by the Indians. Later Daniel himself was captured at Blue Licks, adopted as a son by the Shawnee Chief, Blackfish, and given the tribal name, "Big Turtle." The following year he escaped in time to warn his comrades at Fort Boone of an Indian raid. These were ideal episodes for the legend-makers, who found good hunting in the tales of the Dark and Bloody ground.
In later life Boone's chief concern was contesting the loss of land which he had improperly entered. Ejectment suits deprived him of his holdings. Dismayed, the old hunter left the Kentucky that later considered him its special saint, and moved west. Eventually he reached what is now Missouri, where his son Daniel lived. There he became magistrate of the district. Once again his holding was voided, this time by the United States land commissioner; but in 1814 Congress confirmed his claim. He traveled back to Kentucky to pay off his debts and (says tradition) ended up with fifty cents. He stayed only long enough to transact his business. Then he headed west again to spend his last years with his son Nathan. Admirers traveling into the wilderness to see the frontier sage wondered why he preferred to live his life out on the cutting edge of the frontier. His supposed answer was in keeping with Rousseau's natural man. "It was too crowded back East. I had to have more elbow-room."
Boone's uneventful later years did not dull his earlier achievements, nor diminish the respect with which Americans viewed him. James Audubon recorded after interviewing him: "The stature and general appearance of this wandered of the western forests approached the gigantic. The very motion of his lips brought the impression that whatever he uttered could not be otherwise than strictly true." This appraisal is all the more remarkable when we note that Boone was only five feet eight inches tall. Audubon viewed Boone as more than a historical figure. The component parts of the myth were recognizable even then: a Promised Land beyond the mountains; land-hungry families who considered it a new Eden; someone leading the people westward; a lone wanderer guiding his generation on a God-sanctioned mission.
That scores of people had preceded Boone in Kentucky--Couture, Walsh, Nairns, Morgan, Finley, and Stone, for example-served but to enhance the Boone saga. Their achievements were laid at his feet. Some have lamented this and seen it as a gross injustice. Actually it is a normal process with heroes; their lives polarize many of their contemporaries' feats and accomplishments. Certainly in Boone's case, as Clarence Alvord put it, "popular fancy was granted opportunity for unrestrained imagination in creating myth, which age so hallowed that even well trained historians have hesitated to submit it to the violet rays of scientific analysis." 2
Boone himself tried in vain to discredit the idea that he never relished civilization. Actually he got along reasonably well with his neighbors, and sought companionship, particularly in his old age. Boone was no sulking misanthrope. With his native capacity for leadership and decision, his enduring stoicism despite setbacks, and his love of the outdoors, he epitomized the unmachined men of our frontier. These qualities are particularly appealing in our own twentieth century, now that science and technology have brought on perplexing problems. Americans look with nostalgia at the image of a man most happy when farthest away from multiple gadgets, factories, and smokestacks of civilization. An apt epitaph for Boone is Mark Twain's last line of Huckleberry Finn: "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." So had Daniel.
The first writer to perceive epic qualities in the Boone story, and to record them, was an early schoolmaster and explorer named John Filson. Born on a southeastern Pennsylvania farm in 1747, Filson was struck by the vision of frontier adventure. At the close of the Revolution he moved west, spent a year in Kentucky as a school teacher, and secured several thousand acres of land. He wrote The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky. The appendix, called "The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone," is the first authentic sketch of Boone. Florid and pedantic, it purports to be an autobiography, though meditations in "sylvan shades" about "the ruins of Persepolis or Palmyra" were about as familiar to the real Boone as discussions of the latest coiffures at Versailles.
Only Daniel's illiteracy saved him the shock he might have got from reading such a line as this: "The diversity and beauties of nature I met with in this charming season expelled every gloomy thought . . . At a vast distance I beheld the mountains lift their venerable brows and penetrate the clouds." Small wonder that the book made much more of an impression at Versailles than it did at Boonesborough. The 1785 translation couched in Chateaubriandlike prose, became popular among French writers and courtiers. Though later scholars have considered Filson's story pompous and inaccurate, it was endorsed by Boone himself, both as being the best account of his life, and as "not having a lie in it."
The book's popularity can be gauged by the number and variety of editions it enjoyed. Five years after the first printing in Wilmington, Delaware, it appeared in Paris as Histoire de Kentucke, Nouvelle Colonie a l'ouest de la Virginie; in Philadelphia as the Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone, One of the Original Settlers of Kentucke; and in Leipzig as Reise nach Kentucke und Nachrichten von dieser neu Angebauten Landschaft in Nordamerika. After that, excerpts and paraphrases cropped up almost continuously.
Among Filson's other accomplishments were the publishing of the Kentucky Gazette, and the laying out of Losantville, which grew into Cincinnati. There was an ironic as well as a tragic note to his death. The man whose pen had caused so many Indians to bite the dust was himself tomahawked while traveling up the Little Miami River in October, 1788. And there was no Daniel Boone to save him.
In 1934 Kentucky's Filson Club celebrated its semi-centennial and the sesquicentennial of the Filson volume, which the club's president called "one of the most important in American pioneer history, the foundation of Boone's reputation." Filson was following the great trail blazer through the unpredictable realm of Public Acclaim. To Timothy Flint, as to Parson Weems before him, history was a means of conveying moral ideas and edifying stories, not a scientific recounting of past events. When Weems finished describing Washington, and Flint Boone, their subjects had haloes. Born near North Reading, Massachusetts, Timothy Flint graduated from Harvard in 1800. Sharing the fate of most of his classmates, he became a preacher. Soon he agreed with his congregation that his was not the theological bent. While supposedly preparing sermons, he was reading Chateaubriand. While thinking of Biblical analogies, he was dreaming of frontier heroism and collecting autographs of early pioneers. "There is a kind of moral sublimity in the contemplation of their adventures and daring," he wrote. "They tend to reinspire something of that simpliciyt of manners, manly hardihood, and Spartan energy and force of character which forms so conspicuous a part of the nature of the settlers of our western wilderness."
He learned about Boone, "the Achilles of the West," through Daniel's grandson, Albert Gallatin Boone. While inaccuracies dot Flint's biography, Albert always maintained that it was the best of the Boone accounts. Some vividness comes from Flint's romantic conception of Boone as a walking embodiment of coonskin individualism, and America's unique contribution to history. In his mind he saw Boone as he saw William Weldon in his own novel, Shoshonee Valley: "disgusted with social and civilized life, and anxious to purge his own soul by lonely treks into the interior." To cleanse his own spirit, Flint traveled thousands of miles in the west, suffering from fever and ague, always moving restlessly on. His was indeed a life of quiet desperation, of endless wandering and adoration. Only the strength of his own hero worship sustained him.
Unlike the Parson, Flint did not hit upon any legend remotely comparable to that of George Washington and the cherry tree. The event of Boone's life which comes closest is the killing of a bear, and the subsequent carving on a birch tree, "D. Boon kilt a bar." How many trees have been subjected to real knifes, and how many bears slain by imaginary Daniel Boones, historians dare not guess.
Flint pictures, without historical justification, his hero slipping tartar emetic into the whiskey bottle of his Irish schoolmaster, and this becomes the episode which ended Boone's brief schooling. In his last chapter Daniel takes up the creed of the noble savage. "Such were the truth, simplicity, and kindness of his character, there can be but little doubt, had the gospel of the Son of God been proposed to him, in its sublime truth and reasonableness, that he would have added to all his virtues, the higher name of Christian." When some objected to such fabrication on Flint's part, he replied with an unanswerable line that Parson Weems might have endorsed: "Like Pindar's razor, the book was made not for use but to sell."
And sell it did. Fourteen editions appeared between 1833 and 1868. Flint's stories were retold by others and his fanciful Boone dialogues plagiarized so blatantly, that even the typographical errors were copied without much correction. The Trailblazer most people read about today came first from the brain of Timothy Flint and has been public property ever since.
Against the forces of evil the "sinewy sons of Enterprise" prevailed, pushing on into the "rude featured Wilderness". Finally reaching the Mississippi, they envisaged a time when "Freedom's Cities and Republics too" would prosper. As poetry it was a bit embarrassing; but it suggested a nice mythology.
The author who best moulded the fictional image of Boone was born in his father's village of Cooperstown, New York and raised near the eighteenth century frontier. James Fenimore Cooper's literary career began on a playful wager, but his novels soon established him a serious American writer. William Thackeray thought Cooper's Leatherstocking a better fictional figure than any invented by Scott, one to rank with Uncle Toby, Sir Roger de Coverly, and Falstaff. And Leatherstocking, like his fellow creations Hawkeye, Natty Bumpo, and Deerslayer, was a thinly-disguised Boone.
Cooper specifically acknowledged his debt to the Boone stories and based part of The Last of the Mohicans on Daniel's rescue of his own daughter and the two other white girls from the Cherokees. He said Boone went beyond the Mississippi "because he found a population of ten to the square mile inconvenient." While there is some question of the extent to which Cooper drew directly from Boone's life, it is certain that he used him as a model. Like Boone, Leatherstocking had a historic mission. Both appealed to an America intoxicated with the heady wine of Manifest Destiny, typifying moral stamina, courage, and will-power. Cooper's paragon looked and dressed like the real Boone: he was tall, leathery and solemn. His long rifle was as essential for a public appearance as his trousers. So was the coonskin hat, sitting casually on his noble head. The Old World could--and did--contemplate him in admiration.
The Leatherstocking Tales presented vividly and convincingly the struggle for empire in the forests, modeled actually on Boone's struggle for survival. Utterly simple and admirable, Leatherstocking demonstrated that it was not polish or costume that made for greatness. What a man was inside, not how he appeared, really mattered. In this way the country cousin, America, justified herself to that debonair rake, Europe.
During Boone's own lifetime he served as model for such books as James Hall Legends of the West and Robert Montgomery Bird Nick of the Wood. In the hands of a writer as skillful as William Gilmore Simms, clever variations of the theme appeared. Boone's reputation rose like smoke from a mountain cabin on a crisp, still December morning.
In the National Capitol, Horatio Greenough portrayed the contest between civilization and barbarism as a death struggle between Boone and an Indian brave. He set an artistic prototype. Many chose to use this figure, but only one artist painted Boone from real life. This was Chester Harding, who traveled to Missouri to see Boone in 1819. John J. Audubon, Thomas Sully, Alonzo Chappel, W. C. Allen, Reuben Macy, J. B. Langacre, and Y. W. Berry did portraits; but George C. Bingham best reflected Boone's symbolic importance in "The Emigration of Daniel Boone." This showed the old man leading a group of eager settlers into the new Eden. It epitomized American thinking on the subject and the leader.
Walt Whitman added considerably to the growing cult of the coonskin Moses. A Long Islander, Whitman fell in love with the western mirage, and then with the west, which he visited in 1848. His 1855 volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was a loud and indiscriminate yes. In it even a mouse was miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels. The stereotyped hero who roamed through its cacophonous pages was closely related to Boone:
"Come my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready, Have you your pistols? have your sharp-edged axes? Pioneers! O pioneers! Have the elder races halted? Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!"
Thus Whitman glorified the kind of leader of which Boone was the original, praising the trailblazer's exploits in vigorous and explosive verse. He said well what many already believed: the true America was west.
Boone has long been a favorite with our historical novelists. Winston Churchill's protagonist in The Crossing ( 1903) meets Sevier, Boone, and Kenton in a fictional account of the Wilderness Campaign. Elizabeth Maddox Robert The Great Meadow ( 1930) uses the spirit of Daniel Boone as a motivating factor. The family of Berk Jervis travels from Virginia to Harrod's Fort, where its members are separated by an Indian attack. The intervention of Boone brings about their final reunion. Stewart Edward White' The Long Rifle ( 1932) has as its central figure Andy Burnett, who inherits a long rifle from his grandfather's friend, Daniel Boone. The list of novels also includes D. M. Henderson Boone of the Wilderness, C. H. Forbes Lindsay Daniel Boone, Back-woodsman Horatio Colony Free Forester, A. B. Guthrie The Big Sky, Caroline Gordon's Green Centuries, Katherine Clugston Wilderness Road, and Felix Holt Dan'l Boone Kissed Me.
More than all of these writers, however, it was dilatory Lyman C. Draper who brought Boone into historical prominence. Young Draper inbibed tales of frontier heroism from his father in nineteeth-century western New York state, and read even more of them during his years at Graanville College in Ohio. He became Peter A. Remsen's protege, and collected material for the latter's histories and biographies. Eventually Draper moved to Wisconsin. There, as Secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, he set to work in 1854 to make its archives one of the most important in the nation.
For half a century the meticulous Draper used his limited funds and support to assemble 478 bound volumes covering the years 1735-1815. No one is better represented in them Daniel Boone about whom 39 volumes center; five embody Draper's longhand life of Boone up to 1778--still the most detailed and authoritative ever written. Sixteen contain information on Boone furnished by descendants, neighbors, and friends. Others deal with inscriptions, stories, and legends. They prove that Boone was the subject of apocryphal stories even in early manhood, and specify places that claim to be the one where "D. Boon Kilt a bar." There are "eye-witness accounts" of Indians being killed by Boone, in contrast to Boone's own statement that he killed only one Indian in all his life; letters from Boone's relations and associates; original documents and surveys; and notes and allusions pertaining to his life. While gathering these, Draper contacted all the direct and collateral descendants of Daniel Boone, and was authorized to do a biography. He collected a variety of documents unequalled for any frontier figure, and opened them up for historians and text-book writers. His material supplied valuable testimony about Boone's status among his contemporaries. Draper impressed a group of people who might not have been touched by Filson, Flint and Cooper. He made Boone a respectable subject of scholarly historical probing. Dusting off the coonskin hat, Draper found an exalted position for it in the academic hat-rack.
Draper's obsession with details eventually became a curse, and his procrastination an albatross. "I have wasted my life in puttering, but see no help for it," he wrote. "I can write nothing so long as I fear there is a fact, no matter how small, as yet ungarnered." He was fascinated by the physical exploits of men he would have emulated, had not an undersized body and a desk job rendered such things impossible. Like Timothy Flint he found atonement in endless travel, copy work, and the dream world of vicarious adventure. How dark and somber it can be under the lengthening shadow of a great man!
In 1854 Draper and B. J. Lossing entered a contract for the joint authorship of a Boone biography. Draper's dallying prevented the partnership from maturing. It lasted, on paper, for fifteen years, during which Lossing published some Boone material on his own. Draper finally completed King's Mountain and Its Heroes in 1883. Exacting in scholarship but discursive in style, it embodied the romantic concept that frontiersmen, fresh from the farms, could defeat the disciplined regiments of the British tyrant. In 1889 Draper did a perceptive essay on the collection of autographs (a phase of the hero-building process in which he was a past master), but he never completed another book. No crumb from a hero's table was too small or insignificant for this little man. Like T. E. Eliot's memorable J. Alfred Prufrock, Draper wondered how he should begin, and how he should presume. Yet he did the archivistic job so well that, so far as the early frontier is concerned, no one need undertake it again.
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