Daniel Boone

by Patricia Miller, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Early accounts of the adventures of “Col. Daniel Boone” made him a folk hero of the early republic and fed the romantic imagination at home and abroad. Much of the source material for later tales of his life came from historian Lyman Draper’s unpublished biography of Boone, which mixed accounts of his frontier exploits with interviews of people who knew him.

Now published as “The Life of Daniel Boone” (Stackpole, 1998), it has been skillfully edited by Ted Franklin Belue. John Mack Faragher’s “Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer” (Henry Holt, 1992) depicts Boone as a hero “of a new, democratic type, a man who did not tower above the people.” This theme of Boone “the common man” is echoed in Michael Lofaro’s “Daniel Boone: An American Life” (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), which also emphasizes the role of Boone and his fellow “long hunters” in opening up the trans-Appalachian west and beyond. Biographers agree that Boone was a peerless woodsman and a natural-born leader whose personal integrity made him a poor land speculator.

Nor was he a successful farmer. Instead, his “wanderlust strikes a vein running deep in the American character,” according to Robert Morgan‘s “Boone: A Biography” (Algonquin, 2007). Although he led many settler parties west and blazed the Wilderness Road into Kentucky, Boone’s inclination was to escape civilization, hunting alone or with a few family members. And there was plenty to hunt. Reginald Horsman’s “Feast or Famine: Food & Drink in American Westward Expansion” (University Press of Missouri, 2008) describes the great profusion of game available and how American Indians often shared their knowledge of food sources with explorers and trappers. Although Boone clashed with Indian hunting parties and suffered the loss of two sons in Indian skirmishes, he was respected by Indian leaders and worked to maintain good relations with them.

Boone was 65 when he arrived in the Missouri Territory. In “American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier From Borderland to Border State” (Indiana University Press, 2006), Stephen Aron describes how quickly white migrants flooded into Boon’s Lick Country to grow hemp and tobacco. Boone died the year before Missouri became a state in 1821, and by then the Missouri frontier was closing and the Shawnees and Osages were scattering. Meredith Mason Brown, in “Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America” (Louisiana State University Press, 2008), points out that “inadvertently, Boone helped the spread of slavery into Missouri” as migrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia brought their slaves with them.

However, although Boone’s name might have helped settle the upper Louisiana Purchase, his frontier exploits were not unique. Tony Horwitz maintains, in “The Devil May Care” (Oxford, 2003), that “chronic restlessness” characterized the New World’s settlers. Horwitz’s profiles, selected from the “American National Biography,” include Simon Kenton, who saved Daniel Boone from a tomahawk at Boonesborough. Kenton himself faced “two escapes from immolation at the stake.”

Few wilderness accounts can match John Wesley Powell’s “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” (National Geographic, 2002), recounting his 1869 scientific expedition down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. As Powell’s wooden boats were being smashed against the canyon walls, John Muir was traveling through the Sierra Nevada. Muir’s search for a “simple ascetic existence” led to trips to the Gulf of Mexico and to Alaska, which are described in Donald Worster’s “A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir” (Oxford, 2008). Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, dedicated his life to conserving the wilderness, believing that through nature humanity came closest to God. President Theodore Roosevelt’s robust appreciation of the strenuous outdoor life motivated him to set aside more than 230 million acres of wild America, a story recounted in Douglas Brinkley’s rousing biography of the “Wilderness Warrior” (Harper, 2009).

Conserved areas aside, in the past century even the most inhospitable parts of America have been tamed and subdivided, as evident in the aerial photographs of Alex S. Maclean’s “Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point” (Abrams, 2008). It was an impulse to escape this modernity that made Eustace Conway choose a “natural life in the woods” — at great personal cost, as told in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Last American Man” (Viking, 2002). Young Chris McCandless also left material trappings behind in “search of a raw transcendent experience,” as recounted in John Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” (Villard, 1996). Sadly, McCandless discovered the Alaskan wilderness was no more forgiving now than it had been for Daniel Boone’s brother-in-law, whose bones were found in the hollow trunk of a tree five years after he, too, disappeared into the wild.

Use the links in the library's subject guide to learn even more about Daniel Boone, his family and his legacy.

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