- Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America
- Louisiana State University Press, 375 pp.
The Demystification of Daniel Boone
Do Americans really believe in the tall tale anymore? In recent years, we’ve pulled our country’s larger than life figures from their pasts, ushered them into the public arena and cheerfully hacked their legs off. Let’s see you dunk now, Davy Crockett.
There are a number of reasons, of course, for the amputations. For one, our society doesn’t give much credence to tales anymore, especially in history. Breathless feats of derring do? Save the sap for the kids. Give us warts and pimples and a blister or two; we want the truth.
And we don’t want just one truth, oh no, we want multiple truths. Post-colony, post-feminism, post-Obama, American history is no longer a clear trajectory from point A (chaos) to point B (enlightenment). Instead we see it as a mishmash of Venn diagrams, circles overlaid and underlaid and intersecting at random points. Even John Henry is apt to get lost in the muddle.
Plus, many of the outlandish figures from the frontier and the West can sometimes be unwelcome ancient relatives at the 21st century table. It is no accident that Crockett and Daniel Boone, Oakley and Calamity Jane were favorites of the 1950s. With the Russian Bear growling in the woods, a few white sharpshooters in rawhide seemed like just the ticket.
Now, though, we are as much the bear as the sharpshooter. And with the memories of baby boomer movies and television fading, so too are the myths. Perhaps in a hundred years, we will no longer even remember them.
All of which is a very roundabout introduction to Meredith Mason Brown’s Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America, an account that seeks to keep the memory of the man alive.
Note man, not legend, for Brown strips away any romantic illusions we might have about the period from the very start. From birth to earth, Boone led an uncomfortable, violent and sometimes downright gory life. Far from leading settlers into the promised land, he sowed the seeds of Eden’s destruction. His is the story of a man born to the wrong time, and to the wrong people.
A proverbial hick from the sticks, Boone grew up on the edges of colonial America, when it was everyone for themselves. From his early days he was more comfortable following tracks in the woods than those of the plow and made his living primarily by hunting. Even marriage to a feisty woman named Rebecca couldn’t tie him down.
The man who said that all that one needed to be happy were a “good gun, a good horse, and a good wife” first heard about the fabled hunting grounds of Kentucky, a land where buffalo still roamed and the grass went on forever, while acting as a wagon driver for the disastrous Braddock expedition of 1745. Blundering into Native American territory in an attempt to capture a series of French forts, Braddock and his British troops were slaughtered and Boone nearly missed making his appointment with manifest destiny.
But Boone, if not lucky in all things, was lucky in living. He escaped death and soon set off exploring (leaving his wife Rebecca alone to mind the kids, a pattern he would repeat throughout his life). The expedition taught him two things: respect your enemy and follow up on a good lead:
Boone did not go to hunt in Kentucky to fulfill a lifelong objective of opening up new territory for white settlement…Boone wanted to go to Kentucky because he had heard from John Findley and others that land was rich and the wild game plentiful. He enjoyed hunting, he made his living hunting, and like most American settlers, he was interested in getting good land cheap.
Throughout this history, Brown treads the middle of the road in both his style and his opinions. His is a dispassionate biography, more focused on the period than the personality. Boone comes across as a cheerful opportunist who didn’t care to think too far ahead, a man with no head for politicking but a strong matter-of-fact approach to leadership and organization. When he decided to settle the new land in 1773, he was inspiring enough to have a sizeable crowd go with him, including his wife, now toting a five-month-old baby and deserving of a book in herself.
Of course, it wasn’t a new land to the Cherokees and Shawnees and other tribes who had a claim to age-old hunting grounds. And for all his judiciousness, Brown still writes of Indians and virgin territory. Though careful to explore the various motivations of the interested parties, the Native Americans remain the other in this book – a force that Boone would frequently encounter during the first years of the state’s colonization. They were not the only force, either. Kentucky at the time of the Revolutionary War was a muddle of competing interests. The Transylvania Company, with Boone’s help, was attempting to gain a monopoly by purchasing vast tracts from the Cherokees. Speculators and boosters soon joined the fray. Existing state and national governments had an opinion. It was a mess.
A mess then compounded by the war, when the British suddenly became the enemy and forged alliances with Native American tribes anxious to prevent any more American exploration. It is here that Brown comes into his own; his accounts of the sieges and hand-to-hand combats that marked frontier warfare are the most vibrant part of the book, backed up by a large amount of research that pervades the narrative.
Between 1775 and 1782 some 860 Kentuckians in the central bluegrass region alone died war-related deaths. Relative to the population during those years, that loss was seven times as great as the comparable number of war-related deaths in the thirteen coastal colonies.
It was brutal stuff. Massacres, scalpings, crops burned, winters with only salted meat to eat – and this on both sides. Again Boone survived this melee, but it took a great deal of guile to do it. When his daughter Jemima was kidnapped by a Cherokee and Shawnee war party, for instance, he needed his backwoods know-how to track them down quickly and shoot the offenders.
When kidnapped himself by the Shawnees (he had foolishly taken his men away from the fort of Boonesborough to gather salt), Boone managed to negotiate a settlement that involved handing over some of the men as captives to the British and himself returning to the fort to negotiate his surrender. Naturally, he reneged on the deal, escaping and fortifying Boonesborough in time to defend it against the siege. It was only after the defeat at the Battle of the Blue Licks, where Boone lost his son Israel, that he was able to lead a more peaceable life.
One gets the sense that the Shawnee saw in Boone something of a kindred spirit, despite his white man’s insistence on land deeds and poor hygiene. During his capture he was adopted into the tribe, called Sheltowee, “Big Turtle,” and cheered for his handling of running the warrior’s gauntlet. The life of a nomad was his true calling, but he remained trapped in his cultural skin. Though he had considerable empathy for the tribes in his later years, he never joined them.
Choosing the life of the white man didn’t do him much good after the war. Great leader and tracker he may have been, but he was a poor real estate agent. Bogged down in lawsuits and counterclaims, Boone was constantly moving away from creditors and trying new ventures. He ran a tavern, traded in ginseng, and continued to hunt. His land of plenty, of untrod pasture, was now overrun with eager settlers that he had attracted. There was nowhere to go but West.
Boone ended his days in Missouri, then held by the Spanish. By this point, he had become a legend, an honor prompted by the publication of John Filson’s “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon” in 1783. Boone apparently didn’t think much of this hoohaa – “with me the world has taken great liberties, and yet I have been but a common man” – and would retreat to the woods to hunt, rheumatism seizing his limbs, Rebecca or his son carrying his gun.
Maybe that’s where we should leave him, happily hiding in the shadowy woods, though after reading Brown’s account I wish somehow we might have one last chance to hole him up in a corner, if only for more quotes to liven up the text. For by avoiding an intimate portrait and bleaching out the colorful stories, Brown sets up the expectation that we will have the consolation of a grand vision, a sweeping narrative of change in America.
And we aren’t given it. Boone’s life remains a muddle of events (not helped by a number of flash forwards, when the narrative breaks to remind the reader that this person/event will feature in a future moment we are already presumed to know). Brown’s studious approach to his subject is an admirable example of historical methodology but it lacks a joyous spark. In the end, it seems, we may still need that tale.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.