Daniel Boone

An American frontiersman and explorer, Daniel Boone (1734-1820) was the greatest woodsman in United States history. Hero of much farfetched fiction, Boone survived both legend making and debunking to emerge a genuine hero.

For all the myths about him, Daniel Boone was very much a real man born near Reading, Pa., on Nov. 2, 1734. At the age of 12 he became a hunter. He accompanied his family to North Carolina's Buffalo Lick on the Yadkin River in 1751 and, after working for his father, became a teamster and blacksmith. In 1755 he accompanied Brig. Gen. Edward Braddock as a wagoner on the ill-fated march to Ft. Duquesne. While on this march he met a teamster named John Finley, an old hunter, whose talk of the Kentucky wilderness eventually influenced Boone's career as a woodsman and explorer. When Braddock's command was destroyed at Turtle Creek (near modern Pittsburgh) by a French and Indian ambush, Boone fled for his life on horseback.

Early Expeditions

Daniel Boone married Rebecca Bryan on Aug. 14, 1756, and settled down in the Yadkin Valley, firmly believing that he had all the requisites of a good life—"a good gun, a good horse, and a good wife." But Finley's stories of fabled "Kentucke" never really vanished from his mind. In 1767 Boone led his first expedition as far westward as the area of Floyd County, Ky. On May 1, 1769, with Finley and four other companions, Boone opened the way to the Far West by blazing a trail through the Cumberland Gap. This trail soon became a highway to the frontier. As an agent for Richard Henderson and his Transylvania Company, Boone led the first detachment of colonists to Kentucky, reaching the site of Boonesborough on April Fool's Day 1775. There he began to build a fort to protect the settlement from the Indians, and that year he brought west another party, which included his own family.

Boone became the leader of the Kentucky settlement, as hunter, surveyor, and Indian fighter. He was a major of the Virginia militia when Kentucky was added to that state as an enormous county. The first of a series of misfortunes for Boone occurred in July 1776, when his daughter, Jemima, was captured by Shawnee and Cherokee tribespeople. He rescued her but 2 years later was himself captured by Shawnee tribespeople. Though he escaped and helped defend Boonesborough against Indian raiders, while on his way east with more than $20,000 in settlers' money (with which he was to buy land warrants) he was robbed of the entire sum. The settlers who angrily demanded satisfaction were repaid by Boone in land. But from this time on, Boone was dogged by debts, lawsuits, and land-record technicalities until, as one of his kin said—exaggerating slightly—at the time of his death he did not own enough land to make a decent grave.

Moving Westward

Moving to Boone's Station, the scout held a succession of offices, including lieutenant colonel of Fayette County, legislative delegate, sheriff, county lieutenant, and deputy surveyor. In 1786 he moved to Maysville and was elected to the legislature. Misfortune continued to dog him, however: he lost his land because it had been improperly entered in the records. In 1788 he abandoned his beloved Kentucky and moved to Point Pleasant in what is now West Virginia. He was appointed lieutenant colonel of Kanawha County in 1789 and its legislative delegate in 1791.

When Boone lost the last of the Kentucky lands that he had discovered, protected, settled, and improved, he also lost faith. He moved all the way west to Spain's Alta Luisiana (or Upper Louisiana, now Missouri), where he obtained a land grant at the mouth of Femme Osage Creek. He had moved because the "Dark and Bloody Ground" of yore was filling up with settlers and he did not like to be crowded; when asked why he had left Kentucky, he answered, "Too many people! Too crowded, too crowded! I want some elbow room." Actually, however, he hoped to settle on some land that would not be taken away from him by legalistic trickery. The Spaniards were pleased to have the famous Kentuckian as a colonist and gave him a large land grant, making him magistrate of his district. He must have viewed the subsequent annexation of Louisiana Territory by the United States with mixed emotions, including apprehension. His fears were justified when, once again, U.S. land commissioners voided Boone's claim. However, in 1814 Congress confirmed a part of his Spanish grant.

Daniel Boone's greatest satisfaction was neither in opening up new territory to settlement nor in becoming the subject of laudatory books but simply in being able to journey back to Kentucky about 1810 to pay off his outstanding debts; he was left with only 50 cents. After his wife died 3 years later, the famous Kentuckian spent most of his remaining years in quiet obscurity in the Missouri home of his son, where he died on Sept. 26, 1820.

Boone was moderately well known for the wilderness exploits that had been described in several books when Lord Byron devoted seven stanzas of his poem Don Juan to him in 1823. The poet made the recently deceased woodsman world famous, with the result that Boone became a target for belittlers and debunkers as well as mythmakers. The latter sought to inflate his real-life adventures; the former tried to destroy his legend. All failed because the difference between legend and reality in Boone's case was so small. If he was not a dime-novel superman in buckskins, he was an unsurpassed woodsman; and he was strong, brave, loyal, and, above all, honest. Although he was hardly the "happiest of men" (as Byron described him) and had been forced to flee from American land sharks to Spanish territory, he shrugged off his shabby treatment and accepted his fate without rancor. In short, the rough woodsman was something of a stoic. He was also a true gentleman and a great figure of American history.

Further Reading on Daniel Boone

John Bakeless, Daniel Boone (1939), makes it unnecessary to consult such older works as Reuben G. Thwaites, Daniel Boone (1902), and Ella Hazel A. Spraker, The Boone Family (1922). Good background studies of the American frontier include Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949; 3d ed. 1967) and America's Frontier Heritage (1966), and Thomas D. Clark, Frontier America: The Story of the Westward Movement (1959; 2d ed. 1969).