Saturday, September 26, 2020

This Day in Western History (Death of Daniel Boone, Restless Frontier Legend)

Sept. 26, 1820—Half a continent away from his Berks County, Pa., birthplace, Daniel Boone died quietly in his sleep at age 86 near present-day Defiance, Mo., still yearning to hunt far from the thousands who had followed his lead into the interior of the vast North American continent.

Partly because as a child I watched Fess Parker playing him for six seasons on TV in the 1960s, I associated Boone for years entirely with Kentucky. It would be a long while before I realized he also spent considerable time elsewhere—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, present-day West Virginia, and Missouri.

Many myths already existed about this legendary American frontiersman, and I’m afraid Parker’s TV series dispelled few of them and maybe even added some more. (He probably preferred practical wide-brim felt hats and wool and fabric to the coonskin caps and buckskin in which he’s usually depicted, for instance—and was hardly an Indian fighter, since, by his own admission, he only killed three men throughout his long life.)

It is true that he established the settlement Boonsboro; escaped from captivity by Native-Americans (and helped his daughter do the same); and clashed with the British in the American Revolution.

Other aspects of Boone’s life are not as well known, but explain much of his nomadic life:

*Slaveholder: Despite being raised by Quakers, Boone owned slaves in adulthood—as many as seven at one point. Slaves were used to help farm at Boonsborough, and were among the casualties he died during Native American attacks. At the same time, a slave named Burrell guided the frontiersman in the 1760s as he looked for a potential settlement; another, Adam, owned by another settler, told him about the death of Boone’s son James in a 1773 Indian attack, enabling the grief-stricken father to recover the remains; and an ex-slave, Pompey, was able to save his life when Boone was captured by the Shawnee in 1778 by translating his pleas to Chief Blackfish.

*Land speculator: Like other major figures in the early republic—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and financier Robert Morris—Boone was an active land speculator. In Boone’s case, his inability to provide adequate written documentation led to heavy debt, loss of his properties, a warrant for his arrest, and a permanent move out of Kentucky in the 1790s.

*Public official: Hardly the solitary figure of so many legends, Boone was, like his father, Squire Boone, a leader. Aside from his role in helping settle Kentucky, he was a member of the Virginia legislature and, in his 70s, a justice in the new territory of Missouri.

*Legend in his own time: Unlike a frontiersman of the second generation, Davy Crockett, was not interested in generating publicity for himself. But legends began to accrue about him even in middle age. John Filson started the process in 1784 with an appendix about the hunter in Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Very problematically, the “interview” with Boone sounded suspiciously flowery. By the end of his life, the English poet Lord Byron extended his legend across the Atlantic by including him as a character in the epic Don Juan.

In encountering Boone’s grandchildren decades later, historian Francis Parkman hailed their famous ancestor’s “quiet and tranquil spirit.” Quiet, even given his disgust with the court system in Kentucky, taciturn, perhaps; but tranquil? That’s not a word I would use to describe someone with Boone's wanderlust.

While slightly romanticized, Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait of Boone in the 1890 book he wrote with friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales From American History, offers a judicious appraisal of this pioneer:

“The toil and hardship of his life made no impress on his iron frame, unhurt by intemperance of any kind, and he lived for eighty-six years, a backwoods hunter to the end of his days. His thoughtful, quiet, pleasant face, so often portrayed, is familiar to every one; it was the face of a man who never blustered or bullied, who would neither inflict nor suffer any wrong, and who had a limitless fund of fortitude, endurance, and indomitable resolution upon which to draw when fortune proved adverse. His self-command and patience, his daring, restless love of adventure, and, in time of danger, his absolute trust in his own powers and resources, all combined to render him peculiarly fitted to follow the career of which he was so fond.”

No comments: