Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Daniel Boone (1734 – 1820)

Boone became a legend in his lifetime. An adventurer, a man with many skills, much sought-after to tell about his wilderness experiences, he is a genuine American folk hero.

Forget the cartoonish coonskin hat. It was never part of his attire.

He is referred to as an icon.

Already as an adolescent, Boone had a reputation as an outstanding trapper and hunter. There was good money in furs and hides, not only for food but as a source of cash. They were good currency.

He established a reputation as an excellent surveyor.

Boone learned tough times early. Already in the French and Indian War, he was a teamster in Braddock’s disastrous campaign (1755), and barely escaped with his life. His exposure to danger never diminished throughout his years on the frontier.

The Appalachians were Boone’s frontier. He first reached Kentucky in 1767. His long life included extensive exploration and discovery, in a wilderness full of resources and beauty, before coal mining perpetually changed its face. He endured periods of extreme violence, great family tragedy, injustice and disappointments.

Many people, including his extended family, were part of his life, but I consider him ultimately a solitary man.

America has always had a frontier, always looking west. The boundaries of the original colonies were a challenging, dangerous area. Boone really extended the whole concept. He opened up territory which was formerly unknown to American colonists. Before and through our Revolution, we had to fight for and defend our frontiers, from the British, French, and continual attack by Native Americans.

Our struggles to maintain what little frontier we had settled was a war almost in addition to the battles of the American Revolution being fought further east. Actually, our frontier battles did not automatically cease when we signed our peace treaty with Great Britain. Few settlers had the courage to choose Kentucky as a future home. The ones who dared faced unbelievable hardships. Many left, never to return. Boone’s efforts were unceasing to establish some stability in the few settlements that existed. He saw periods of some success and also utter desolation.

America’s fascination and quest for frontier has always been a deep part of our psyche. We were never content to just develop the colonies as we knew them. The ultimate reason was our insatiable search for land, free, or cheap, able to be obtained through speculation or maneuvering. George Washington and Patrick Henry were heavy speculators.

Land was wealth, opportunity. If handled advantageously, land could make fortunes, and did. But if handled naively and poorly, land’s value would vanish overnight leaving the owner impoverished and full of debts.

Boone was a solitary hunter of great reputation. He moved his growing family continuously, often to very primitive conditions. Sometimes he was absent for years. His skills were great, but he had no head for business and apparently not a whole lot of interest.

Land claims, just as today, legitimate or phony, were a constant threat to the landowner. The larger the holdings, the more claims. Boone was careless. He neglected basic procedures such as paying taxes. Judgments were always being recorded against him. He was constantly in debt. Sometimes he managed to settle debts years after they were due, or others did. I think this carelessness was a definite flaw in his character. Being scrupulous in business details is not evil.

But Boone just wanted his life opening up a frontier. If too many settlers appeared to be coming, he became unhappy. He learned an early lesson in ecology. As more settlers came, Boone had to travel further and further into the wilderness to locate abundant game. Over hunting had produced its predictable results.

From 1775 – 1783, he was a militia officer in the Revolutionary War. From time to time, Boone also served in government, without much enthusiasm. His solitary tendencies and pleasant adaptability when required were not the qualities which he needed to wheel and deal in government. Maybe an astute business sense would have made him a more effective legislator.

I don’t think he was a vengeful person. In politics, participants remember their injuries to use as bargaining chips later.

His frontier years always exposed him to the dangerous proximity of Indians. In league with the British, they were constantly ready to capture or kill Americans. At one point, Boone was the captive of the Shawnees and even became an “adopted” son. He was not unhappy.

Even with all his hardships, Boone lived into his eighties, surrounded by family who took care of him. His stories from the frontier were very much in demand. He had finally moved to Missouri in 1799. Initially, he was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish and very honored and respected. The Louisiana Purchase changed his fortunes once again.

The American frontier was changing and expanding. No one was better equipped to deal with this than Boone. He had opened up our first western frontier in Kentucky decades before.

Please note: I don’t know how much interest exists about Daniel Boone today. Therefore, it is significant that a detailed biography was published in 2007; this will be briefly reviewed next. Also, a long-running TV series from the mid-sixties based fictionally on his life is available; it was very popular with children. TV doesn’t offer this kind of entertainment today, based loosely on history. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Meanwhile, back in the city, revolution stirs in Boston

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