Daniel Boone, Frontier Icon
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Baby boomers grew up on the 1964 Daniel Boone tv series and the theme song. Some of you may even be able to sing along: “Daniel Boone was a man. Yes, a big man! With an eye like an eagle and as tall as a mountain was he!”
The song became a favorite campfire song of the Boy Scouts of America in the 1960s. And rightly so, since the precursor of the Boy Scouts of America was the Sons of Daniel Boone, a youth program founded by Daniel Carter Beard in 1905. Their uniform was based on the fringed buckskin of the frontiersman and youth leader ranks were based on frontier names: Daniel Boone, Davey Crocket, Kit Carson, John James Audubon, Johnny Appleseed. When the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, Beard joined the BSA as a national scout commissioner and merged his group with the BSA. Daniel Boone’s iconic frontier persona as part of the American identity would continue to grow in the 20th century.
Daniel Boone—pioneer, frontiersman, explorer, soldier, entrepreneur, public servant—became one of America’s first folk heroes in the 1700s and would play a prominent role in the creation story of Americans as rugged individualists: tough, honest and brave. He was born to Quaker parents on November 2, 1734, the sixth of 11 children, in what later became the state of Pennsylvania. (He was born near the homestead of Abraham Lincoln’s great-great grandfather, Mordacai Lincoln!)
As a boy, Boone helped support his family by hunting deer and trapping beaver and otter and selling pelts to the burgeoning fur market. Because his family lived on the edge of the frontier and were pacifists Quakers, they had friendly relations with the local Lenape Indians. Boone grew up with Indian boys and they taught him how to hunt and track.
As whites encroached upon western lands, Natives were pushed west and game became more scarce. Boone began hunting more and more west, as well, and first reached Kentucky territory in 1767, hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The land was inhabited by Iroquois, Delaware, Shawnee, and Cherokee and conflict with whites became more violent. But the fertile land beckoned settlers. In July 1773, Boone and his family and about 50 immigrants established the first settlement in Kentucky territory. But that October, Boone’s eldest son, James, was abducted by a Shawnee war party. To send a message to the white settlers, James Boone was gruesomely tortured to death and the settlers abandoned the settlement. But the incident was the beginning of Dunmore’s War with the Shawnee of West Virginia and Kentucky. It ended in 1774 with the Shawnee forced to cede their land.
As a hunter and trapper, Boone learned the best routes west and in 1775, he blazed the Wilderness Road from the territories of North Carolina to Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. He founded Boonesborough, one of the first settlements west of the Appalachians and opened the floodgates for pioneers. By 1800, more than 200,000 settlers had migrated to Kentucky and the western reaches of Virginia on Boone’s trail.
Boone served eight years in the Revolutionary War, from 1775-1783, reaching the rank of Colonel and losing his son, Israel, in the war. Daniel Boone’s service was in the frontier, mostly against British-allied Native Americans, especially the Shawnee. Boone fought with other settlers to defend Boonesborough against the Shawnee and won. Boone was then elected for three terms to represent that district in the Virginia General Assembly over an extended period.
On July 5, 1776, Boone's daughter Jemima and two other teenaged girls were abducted from Boonesborough by a Shawnee war party, who took them north toward Ohio. Boone pursued them and ambushed them two days later, rescuing the girls. James Fenimore Cooper in his classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), was based loosely on Boone’s life and included a scene rescuing his daughter.
In 1778, Boone and other men were captured by Shawnee Chief Blackfish and made to “run the gauntlet,” a torture process to test manliness. Boone was then adopted into the Shawnee tribe and Chief Blackfish’s family and given the name Sheltowee (Big Turtle). He later escaped.
Boone, with his wife Rebecca and their ten children, spent about 30 years speculating land between Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. During his lifetime, Daniel Boone had already become a living legend. Initially, Boone was very prosperous, but a series of deals failed and, in 1799, he sold all his land to pay his debts, and moved to Missouri.
Boone spent his final years in Missouri at the family home of his son, Nathan, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He continued to hunt and trap and explore the frontier of Missouri. In 1810, at the age of 76, Boone went with a group on a long hunt as far west as the Yellowstone River. And, in 1816, only four years before his death, a U.S. officer at Fort Osage, on the Missouri, wrote:
“We have been honored by a visit from Colonel Boon, the first settler of Kentucky; he spent two weeks with us ... He left this for the river Platt, some distance above. Col Boon is eighty-five years of age, five feet seven inches high, stoutly made, and active for his years; still of vigorous mind. He has taken part in all the wars of America.”
All his life, from early youth, Boone had an affinity for Native American cultures. Boone had grown up with Indian tribes and been adopted into the Shawnee culture. During his life, he was often attacked for being too sympathetic to Native Americans. When tribes were being decimated in the last half of the 1800s, some historians regarded his sympathies as a character flaw and even unpatriotic. In 1786 during the Northwest Indian War, Boone housed and fed Shawnee who had been captured and even negotiated a truce and prisoner exchange. Despite having lost two sons to the Shawnee, Boone continued to hunt with the Shawnee and other tribes in Missouri in his old age.
Today, numerous landmarks, statues, parks, cities, counties, trails, and organizations bear Boone’s name and commemorate his life. But, Boone himself left some curious landmarks in the form of inscriptions he had carved with a knife into trees, stones and cave walls marking places where he had killed bears in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. One of the earliest dates of these messages was 1760. A giant beech tree near Louisville, Kentucky, once read: “Danl Boone Kilt A Bar, Sept. 7, 1760.” Another in Jonesborough, Tennessee, read: “D. Boon Cilled A. Bar. 1760.” A segment of the tree bearing the inscription is now in a museum. These carvings became much heralded tourist attractions for little frontier towns.
Even in death, Daniel Boone was well traveled. Boone died of natural causes in 1820 and was buried next to his wife, Rebecca, in Missouri near present-day Marthasville, Missouri. But, in 1845, Kentucky relatives, miffed that the Kentucky frontier icon was not laid to rest in Kentucky, disinterred Daniel and Rebecca from their original Missouri grave site and reburied them near Frankfurt in Kentucky. But detractors claim they dug up the wrong bodies (a forensic anthropologist examined a plaster cast of Boone’s disinterred skull and announced it was most probably that of an African-American slave buried in the Missouri cemetery) and that Daniel and Rebecca remained in their original graves. Both the Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky and the Old Bryan Farm graveyard in Missouri claim to be Daniel Boone’s burial site. But...then... perhaps it is not inappropriate for a man who lived so many lives to have multiple grave sites as well!
PHOTOS: (1) An early 1830s portrait of Daniel Boone shown in a frontier landscape, by W. Higbee. (2) Engraving (circa 1861) by Alonzo Chappel of an elderly Boone hunting in Missouri. (3) An 1874 lithograph entitled "Daniel Boone Protects His Family" shows Boone as an Indian fighter. (4) George Caleb Bingham’s painting, “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap,” (1851–52) is one of the most famous depictions of Boone. (6 & 7 ) Numerous monuments have been constructed in Daniel Boone’s honor east of the Mississippi. (6) Statue of Boone at Eastern Kentucky University installed in 1967. Boone lived near today’s university grounds and first explored the terrain that is now Kentucky. (7) Bronze statue of Daniel Boone and his hunting dogs by Randall Jones at the Appalachian State University campus in honor of the 150th anniversary in 1999 of the university. (8 & 9 ) Daniel Boone died of natural causes in 1920 and was buried next to his wife, Rebecca, in Missouri near present-day Marthasville, Missouri. (8) Missouri gravesite. (9) But, in 1845, they had been disinterred from their original Missouri grave site by Kentucky relatives and reburied in Kentucky, near Frankfurt. But detractors claim they dug up the wrong bodies and that Daniel and Rebecca remain in their original graves in Missouri. Both the Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky and the Old Bryan Farm graveyard in Missouri claim to have Boone's remains. (10) Boone lived much of the later part of his life with the family of his son Nathan in this home near present-day Defiance, Missouri. (11) In 1934, The Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar was issued by the U.S. government commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth. The coin was minted from 1934 to 1938. (12) One of numerous carved inscriptions left by Daniel Boone (or impersonators!) on trees, rocks and caves in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. A giant beech tree near Louisville, Kentucky, read: “Danl Boone Kilt A Bar, Sept. 7, 1760."
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted November 5, 2019
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