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Daniel Boone Was A Man?
By Scott Nicholson

The namesake of the town of Boone, NC, and a scattering of other places is often portrayed in a heroic light as synonymous with the pioneering spirit. But the man himself was a study in contrasts, according to John Mack Faragher, a Yale history professor and Daniel Boone’s most comprehensive biographer.

Boone was born in Pennsylvania in 1734 and was raised as a Quaker. He started hunting in his early teens and in 1751 he became a full time hunter when his family moved to the Yadkin River Valley in what is now Rowan County. Boone married Rebecca Bryan in 1756 and served with British troops in the French and Indian War. Boone is believed to have made his first visit to the North Carolina mountains in the winter of 1760, hunting from a cabin used by animal herders.

Boone, though he raised a large family, was solitary by nature and often preferred to go on extended hunting trips alone. Most of his Blue Ridge hunting trips took place in the 1760s and he settled his growing family near Wilkesboro. NC, in the late 1760s. However, he tended to call no place home for long, as evidenced by all the towns and counties that now bear his name in some form.

He helped found Boonesborough in Kentucky, which was the site of numerous conflicts with the Shawnee tribe. While hunting in the region, Boone was captured by the Cherokee, who along with the Shawnee and Catawba used the Blue Ridge as communal hunting grounds. Boone was released unharmed and stayed on mutually tolerant terms, if not outright friendship, with the Cherokee even during times of hostility.

His relationship with the Shawnee, however, had little geniality. In Kentucky, Boone was captured twice by the Shawnee, and the second time was held captive for five months before escaping. Two of his sons were killed in the "Indian Wars," as was one of his brothers. Boone himself couldn’t count the number of lives his rifle ended, though he was regarded as a lethal adversary by the Shawnee and a steady comrade by the armed settlers.

Though he ventured from his Quaker principles by becoming a soldier and despite rarely seeing the inside of a church, he often carried a Bible and also loved history. Faragher wrote that "Gulliver’s Travels" was Boone’s favorite book, perhaps not too surprising given Boone’s love of adventure. Faragher points out that much of Daniel Boone’s lore sprang from the typical embellishments of front-porch storytelling.

For instance, a popular iconic image portrays Boone carving his name into the bark of a tree, celebrating the shooting of a black bear. Faragher notes that a beech tree along the Watauga River was found with the carving, "D. Boon CillED A. BAr on tree in the YEAR 1760." The inscription was discovered in the 1770s and was almost certainly not carved by Boone. While tree carvings were not unusual among hunters, Boone always spelled his name with the "e" on the end. Boone was famous enough among hunters that it was probably the work of some early forger who was impressed with Boone’s reputation. A replica on display in the Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum in NC is probably a copy of a later imitation as well. That version reads "D. Boon Killd BAR o this tre 1775."

Though he received little formal education, Boone could write on a rudimentary level and later became a land speculator. His business sense wasn’t as sharp as his hunting eye, though, and he lost numerous lawsuits and land claims. While Boone was often held up as a role model of the early American spirit, much of his life wouldn’t pass muster among today’s politically correct revisionists.

Despite his love of personal freedom, Boone often owned slaves, though he was rarely wealthy. In fact, he first learned of the High Country’s bountiful lands from a slave named Burrell who had herded animals here. Boone owned a tavern and was fond of strong liquor. He was also involved in attacks on Shawnee villages in which women and children were killed. Perhaps the most tawdry of Boone’s legends are the accounts of neighbors who suggested that one or more of Boone’s children were actually sired by Daniel’s brother while Daniel was off on extended hunting trips or a captive of the Shawnee. Boone was said to accept the interfamilial blood with good grace, even hinting that he had fathered some Cherokee children while in captivity.

While Boone was built into a larger than life figure, he considered himself a solitary man who enjoyed the outdoors. When he was 50, his story was related in the biography "The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon" by John Filson, whom Boone assisted despite the misspelling of his name in the title. Filson’s account was florid and romanticized, and he took Boone’s firsthand stories and converted them into language the old hunter could scarcely comprehend.

Presuming to speak for Boone, Filson wrote, "Many dark and sleepless nights have I been a companion for owls, separated from the cheerful society of men, scorched by the summer’s sun, and pinched by the winter’s cold, an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness. But now the scene is changed: peace crowns the sylvan shade."

Boone couldn’t even escape controversy after his death in 1820. He was buried in Missouri, but his body was later dug up and returned to Kentucky. Yet rumors persist that his remains either never left Missouri or were actually moved to a secret location. Boone was also the subject of much fiction and served as the model for James Fenimore Cooper’s popular Leatherstocking novels of the early 19th Century. Depictions of Boone varied from a bloodthirsty and ruthless frontiersman who was more fearsome than any of the "savages" he fought to a gentle backwoodsman who wanted nothing more than reflective peace and an open space to hunt.

Boone’s most prominent cultural exposure came in the television series starring Fess Parker that ran for six seasons beginning in 1964. In the first three seasons, Boone’s sidekick was a half-breed Cherokee with an Oxford education. Later characters included a runaway slave and half-breed Cherokee whose bloodline was African-American rather than white. The show’s theme song extolled Boone as "the rippin’-est, roarin’-est, fightin’-est man the frontier ever knew," but also as a man who "fought for America to make all Americans free."

However, Boone’s only involvement with the American Revolution was in his combat with the Shawnee, who were often rewarded by the British for collecting scalps. Boone was even suspected of being a Tory who was loyal to the English Crown, though he was later cleared of court martial charges. Another show in the late 1970s called "Young Dan’l Boone" lasted only four episodes but provided the first widespread use of the colloquial name "Dan’l." Boone was never referred to as "Dan’l" until 20th Century folksy nostalgia led to the nickname.

He was also upheld as the embodiment of the white European’s westward push, even though Boone’s exploration was more of a fleeing from civilization than a desire to supplant native cultures or tame nature. While the North Carolina mountains' original tourist left nothing but a stack of stones, the ongoing and complex battle between growth and preservation, new and old, is a legacy that is fitting to the Boone name.

(Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission)

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