- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003


By Michael A. Lofaro

University Press of Kentucky, $25, 216 pages


Settlers were trickling over the Appalachian Mountains long before the great westward expansion initiated by Lewis and Clark at the dawn of the 19th century. Even prior to the American Revolution, the wild and game-rich Ohio and Tennessee Valleys attracted frontiersmen, Daniel Boone the foremost among them. Michael Lofaro’s detail-laden “Daniel Boone: An American Life” puts in historical perspective a life much shrouded in folklore and myth.

Born to devout Quakers Squire and Sarah Boone in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1734, young Daniel wandered the woods and learned the skills appropriate to the life he would live. His formal education was short, though he was literate. “Let the girls do the spelling,” said Squire Boone, referring to his 11 sons and daughters.

Boone first enters the historical record at age 21, when he served with Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock’s British army during its disastrous defeat at the battle for Fort Duquesne at the start of the French and Indian War. Braddock was killed during the bloody engagement in the thick woods. Among Boone’s surviving compatriots was the 23-year-old Col. George Washington.

Around this time Boone married Rebecca Bryan (who would bear him 10 children) and the couple settled in the Yadkin Valley of present North Carolina. But a distaste for farming and a wanderlust driven by his need for “elbow room” sent him on solitary hunting journeys through the southern Appalachians. With five companions in 1769 he crossed over Cumberland Gap into present Kentucky, an Edenic wilderness and the contested hunting grounds of a half dozen Indian nations. After some political maneuvering with Virginia authorities and land speculation, Boone, his extended family and other pioneers emigrated to Kentucky in 1775 and founded Boonesborough, one of the earliest permanent settlements.

What followed was two decades of intermittent Indian warfare on this “dark and bloody ground,” which cost the lives of two of Boone’s sons (James and Israel) and a brother (Edward). The crafty frontiersman himself managed to escape numerous encounters over the years, and seemed to have an uncanny ability to think like an Indian and avoid capture and death even when traveling alone. Though one time his skill and luck failed him.

Boone’s most famous scrape occurred in February, 1778 when he was alone and “boiling salt” (salt was indispensable for the curing of meat) at a remote salt lick. He was kidnapped and marched to the Shawnee village of Chillicothe north of the Ohio River, where he was held prisoner for five months.

During this time he managed to get himself adopted as a son to the headman Chief Blackfish, who named him “Shel-tow-ee” or “Big Turtle.” Boone engaged in a delicate diplomatic game involving Blackfish and British officers present who were planning an attack on Boonesborough. He had both the chief and the British convinced he would himself deliver the fortified town’s surrender in the interest of avoiding bloodshed. Instead, at the right opportunity, Boone escaped for a long run for his life,arriving exhaustedin Boonesborough to warn its citizens and prepare for the fort’s ultimately successful defense in the summer of 1778.

Assuming him dead in these trying times, most of his family had fled to Virginia. Indian war (the disastrous Battle of Blue Licks in 1782 was a major setback to settlement) would not end until General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s victory over the Shawnees and their allies at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo, Ohio in 1794.

Despite Indian unrest Kentucky continued to attract settlers through the 1780s and ‘90s, while Boone occupied himself with commercial fur trapping, mercantile trade and land speculation. Even in his sixties he would disappear for weeks on much-loved hunting and trapping trips. In 1796 the trail that Boone had blazed through Cumberland Gap was widened for wagon travel, and to the frontiersman’s dismay this “Wilderness Road” sparked a Kentucky land rush.

In 1799, after correspondence with Don Zenon Trudeau, the governor of Spanish Louisiana, Boone arranged for land grants, and headed another pioneer movement west to the St. Charles area of present Missouri. Here he spent his last years trapping beaver, and hunting buffalo on the expansive prairies along the Missouri River.

He was the patriarch of a large extended family and community, and a constant source of advice concerning his hard-won wilderness smarts. In 1804 the passing Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery availed themselves of that expertise, Lewis writing that the people “yeald passive obedience to the will of their temporal master, the Commandant.” One thinks that Boone — then 70 — wistfully yearned to go with them, and might have were it not for his age.

He was famous by then, and a few years later sat to have his portrait painted by the young John James Audubon. The picture shows a man with a gaunt, handsome face, and a regal mane of white hair. He lasted until Sept. 26, 1820, dying at 85 as the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade got underway, and the far West was beginning to be fully explored.

His life was the link between the time when Americans gazed upon the leafy Appalachians as the wild frontier, and those who likewise stared in wonder at the snowy peaks of the Rockies. In James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Prairie” (1827), the author’s hero Natty Bumppo is now a frontier patriarch who has abandoned the thick eastern woods of his youth for the wide Missouri plains because “… he found a population of ten to the square mile, inconveniently crowded.” I wonder who Cooper had in mind when he penned that American classic?

Michael Lofaro’s compact biography of Daniel Boone gives us that American icon all bone and sinew and without a trace of myth. It’s a worthy addition to the literature of Manifest Destiny.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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