On this day in 1820 the great pioneering frontiersman Daniel Boone dies quietly in his sleep at his son’s home near present-day Defiance, Missouri. The indefatigable voyager was 86.
Boone was born in 1734 to Quaker parents living in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Following a squabble with the Pennsylvania Quakers, Boone’s family decided to head south and west for less crowded regions, and they eventually settled in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. There the young Daniel Boone began his life-long love for wilderness, spending long days exploring the still relatively unspoiled forests and mountains of the region. An indifferent student who never learned to write more than a crude sentence or two, Boone’s passion was for the outdoors, and he quickly became a superb marksman, hunter and woodsman.
Never satisfied to stay put for very long, Boone soon began making ever longer and more ambitious journeys into the relatively unexplored lands to the west. In May of 1769, Boone and five companions crossed over the Cumberland Gap and explored along the south fork of the Kentucky River. Impressed by the fertility and relative emptiness of the land–although the native inhabitants hardly considered it to be empty–Boone returned in 1773 with his family, hoping to establish a permanent settlement. An Indian attack prevented that first attempt from succeeding, but Boone returned two years later to open the route that became known as Boone’s Trace (or the Wilderness Road) between the Cumberland Gap and a new settlement along the Kentucky River called Fortress Boonesboro. After years of struggles against both Native Americans and British soldiers, Boonesboro eventually became one of the most important gateways for the early American settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West.
Made a legend in his own time by John Filson’s “Boone Autobiography” and Lord Byron’s depiction of him as the quintessential frontiersman in the book Don Juan, Boone became a symbol of the western pioneering spirit for many Americans. Ironically, though, Boone’s fame and his success in opening the Trans-Appalachian West to large-scale settlement later came to haunt him. Having lost his Kentucky land holdings by failing to properly register them, Boone moved even further west in 1799, trying to escape the civilized regions he had been so instrumental in creating. Finally settling in Missouri–though he never stopped dreaming of continuing westward–he lived out the rest of his life doing what he loved best: hunting and trapping in a fertile wild land still largely untouched by the Anglo pioneers who had followed the path he blazed to the West.