Daniel Boone’s name is synonymous with the American frontier, which he explored and helped open to settlement. A skilled hunter and trapper, Boone blazed trails through the wilderness, fought and befriended Native Americans and witnessed America’s transformation from 13 colonies to 23 states over the course of his lifetime. Get the facts on the legendary frontiersman, including how he became internationally famous and what he really thought of coonskin caps.
His family came to America to escape religious persecution.
In 1713, Daniel Boone’s father, a weaver and blacksmith, journeyed from his hometown of Bradninch, England, to the colony of Pennsylvania, established by William Penn in 1681 as a haven for religious tolerance. Like Penn, Squire Boone belonged to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a group whose members faced persecution in England for their beliefs. In 1720, Squire married fellow Quaker Sarah Morgan and Daniel, the sixth of the couple’s 11 children, was born in 1734 in present-day Berks County, Pennsylvania. In the 1740s, two of the oldest Boone children wed “worldlings,” or non-Quakers, and were disowned by the local Quaker community. After Squire Boone refused to publicly apologize for the second of these two marriages, he too was kicked out of the Quakers. He subsequently left Pennsylvania with his family in 1750 and traveled by wagon to the colony of North Carolina, where in 1753 he purchased two tracts of land near present-day Mocksville.
Boone blazed a trail to Transylvania.
In 1775, Boone and a group of some 30 woodsmen left to complete a 200-mile trail through the wilderness to the Cumberland Gap—a natural break in the rugged Appalachian Mountains—and into Kentucky. Boone had been hired for the job by Richard Henderson, a North Carolinian who along with a group of investors planned to establish a colony called Transylvania in an area comprising much of present-day Kentucky and part of present-day Tennessee. After Boone blazed the trail, which became known as the Wilderness Road, he helped establish one of Kentucky’s earliest settlements, Boonesborough, which became Transylvania’s capital. The Transylvania colony was short-lived; in 1778, the Virginia General Assembly voided the deal Henderson had struck with the Cherokees for the land. Nevertheless, the Wilderness Road became the gateway by which an estimated 200,000 settlers journeyed to the western frontier by the early 19th century. Among those emigrants was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, who in 1779 traveled the Wilderness Road from Virginia to Kentucky, where America’s 16th president was born in 1809.
Boone was held captive by Native Americans.
In February 1778, while Boone was traveling with a group of Boonesborough men along Kentucky’s Licking River, he was captured by a group of Shawnees. The Indians took him to their village in Ohio, where he was adopted by Shawnee chief Blackfish to take the place of one of his sons who’d been killed. Boone, who was given the name Sheltowee, or Big Turtle, was treated relatively well by his captors—he was allowed to hunt and may have had a Shawnee wife—but they kept a close eye on him. In June 1778 he managed to escape and make his way back to Boonesborough, where he warned residents that the natives, upset because settlers had moved onto their Kentucky hunting grounds, were planning to attack. That September, over the course of nine days and nights, a group of Shawnees and other Native Americans laid siege to Boonesborough, but the outnumbered settlers managed to hold them off. The victory at Boonesborough helped spark a new wave of emigrants to Kentucky, some of them personally recruited and led there by Boone.
He was an international celebrity during his lifetime.
Boone was transformed from a local hero into someone who was internationally famous when his story was included in a book, “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” published in 1784. The book was written by John Filson, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher turned Kentucky land speculator, in an effort to lure settlers to Kentucky. The author, who interviewed Boone, presented the frontiersman’s adventures in what were supposedly his own words, although the embellished language belonged to Filson. The book proved popular in both America and Europe, where readers were captivated by Boone’s story. After Boone’s death in 1820, his legend continued to grow with the publication of such best-selling works as “The Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky,” released in 1833. In this sensationalized account of Boone’s life, author Timothy Flint portrayed him as a ferocious Indian slayer who engaged in hand-to-hand combat and swung on vines to elude capture; in reality, Boone had friendly relationships with a number of Native Americans and claimed to have killed just a few of them.
Boone was unlucky when it came to real estate.
Although Boone helped open up Kentucky to thousands of settlers, he ultimately was unsuccessful when it came to securing his own piece of the pie. During the 1780s and 1790s, he worked as a surveyor in Kentucky while also investing in real estate. However, his efforts as a land speculator failed to make him rich. Boone ended up getting swindled in some deals and in other cases failed to properly register his land claims. He got hit with lawsuits for selling property to which he didn’t have valid title and also got sued for producing faulty surveys. Boone even received death threats after his testimony in various court cases resulted in people losing their land claims. Boone tried, but largely failed, at other business ventures as well. He owned a store and tavern in Limestone (present-day Maysville); served as a supplier of ginseng root (the market eventually collapsed, leaving him in debt); and bought horses with the intention of reselling them (before this could happen a number of the animals escaped). By the late 1790s, Boone had soured on Kentucky and decided to leave.
Later in life, he left the U.S.
In 1799, Boone, then in his mid-60s, moved with his extended family from Kentucky, which achieved statehood in 1792, to present-day Missouri, then under Spanish control and known as Upper Louisiana. The Spanish, who wanted to encourage settlement in the area, welcomed Boone with military honors and granted him 850 acres of land in the Femme Osage district, west of St. Louis. They also waived the requirement that all immigrants had to be Roman Catholic and made Boone a syndic, or magistrate, of the Femme Osage district, responsible for settling disputes among settlers.
In 1800, the Spanish ceded the Louisiana Territory to France, and three years later the U.S. gained control of it with the Louisiana Purchase. Boone subsequently lost his land claims because he hadn’t followed the proper procedures to gain permanent title to the land. After the frontiersman petitioned Congress, President James Madison signed a bill into law in 1814 giving Boone his 850 acres; however, he soon had to sell the property to pay off Kentuckians who’d heard the news about the grant and traveled to Missouri to collect on old debts. Missouri became America’s 24th state in 1821, a year after Boone’s death.
He didn’t wear coonskin caps.
Boone has often been portrayed sporting a hat made from the skin and fur of a raccoon, but in fact the frontiersman thought this type of headgear was unstylish and instead donned hats made from beaver. According to Boone biographer John Mack Faragher, the myth of the coonskin cap can be traced to a full-length portrait of Boone made in 1820 by Chester Harding, who authentically depicted the frontiersman wearing leggings, moccasins and a fringed hunting shirt and holding a beaver hat. The painting was displayed in the Kentucky capitol for several decades until it deteriorated. Harding later cut out Boone’s head and pasted it onto a different background; however, a record of Boone’s outfit was preserved thanks to artist James Otto Lewis, who had produced an engraving of Harding’s original painting. Lewis hired an actor, Noah Ludlow, to help sell prints made from the engraving, and when Ludlow later performed a show that required him to dress like a frontiersman he modeled his costume after Boone’s wardrobe in the engraving. Unable to find a beaver hat, he substituted it with a coonskin cap. Ludlow’s performances were a success and the coonskin cap’s association with Boone stuck.
Boone might not be buried in his official grave.
Boone died on September 26, 1820, in present-day Defiance, Missouri. He remained active into old age, unsuccessfully volunteering to fight in the War of 1812 and going on his last big hunt just a few years before he passed away. Boone was buried in a graveyard near Marthasville, Missouri, next to his wife, Rebecca. In 1845, the owners of a cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky, convinced the Boones’ descendants to allow Daniel and Rebecca’s remains to be reinterred in the Bluegrass State. The Frankfort cemetery was new and its owners were interested in drumming up publicity; they also promised to erect a monument to Boone at the new burial site.
An elaborate reinterment ceremony was held, featuring the governor of Kentucky and other dignitaries. However, charges eventually surfaced that Boone’s Missouri grave had been poorly marked and the wrong remains were dug up and reburied in Kentucky. In 1983, a forensic anthropologist examined a cast made of Boone’s supposed skull before the reburial and announced it was possibly that of an African-American man rather than a Caucasian one. When a second forensics expert later studied the cast of the skull, though, she decided it wasn’t in good enough condition to serve as the basis for any scientific conclusions.