Daniel Boone (1734-1820) is the most widely known of American frontiersmen. He served as the model for James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, and his adventures inspired incidents in hundreds of works of fiction. Even Lord Byron mentioned him in Don Juan. Without Boone the history of Kentucky would have been much different.
Boone was born near Reading, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, the son of hard-working but adventurous Quaker parents. He learned some blacksmithing but had very little formal education. Daniel appears to have been a scrappy lad who loved hunting, the wilderness, and independence. When his parents left Pennsylvania in 1750 bound for the Yadkin valley of northwest North Carolina, Daniel went along willingly.
There, on the cutting edge of the frontier, he was able to indulge his hunting prowess and love of the wilderness. In the following years he served as a wagoner with Gen. Edward Braddock’s ill-fated expedition to Fort Duquesne in 1755; married a neighbor’s daughter, Rebecca Bryan, in 1756; and in 1758 is believed to have been a wagoner with Gen. John Forbes who was hacking out the road to Fort Duquesne, which he rebuilt as Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh). Back in North Carolina, Daniel purchased land from his father but never seriously engaged in farming; he loved to roam. In 1763 he and his brother Squire journeyed to Florida, although for unknown reasons they did not stay.
Boone’s fame rests primarily upon his exploration and settlement of Kentucky. He was first in eastern Kentucky in 1767, but his expedition of 1769-1771 is more widely known. With a small party Boone advanced along the Warrior’s Path into an Edenic region. When the time came for the party to return he remained behind in the wilderness until March 1771. On the way home, he and his brother were robbed by Indians of their deerskins and pelts, but the two remained exuberant over the land known as “Kentuck.”
So much did Daniel love that “dark and bloody ground” that he tried to return in 1773, taking forty settlers with him, but the Indians drove them back. The next year he went again into the region carrying a warning of Indian troubles to Governor John Murray Dunmore’s surveyors. Even as Judge Richard Henderson was concluding the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals (March 1775) by which much of Kentucky was sold to his Transylvania Company, Boone was hacking out the Wilderness Road. As soon as he reached his destination, he began building Boonesboro, one of several stations (forts) under construction at that time.
For the next four years—through 1778—Boone, a captain in the militia, was busy defending the settlements. His leadership helped save the three remaining Kentucky stations, Boonesboro, Logan’s (St. Asaph’s), and Harrodsburg. These were stirring years of ambushes (such as Blue Licks in 1778), captures (Boone was seized but escaped from the Shawnees), rescues, and desperate defenses.
Although he was highly respected and served in the Virginia assembly, Boone was not a good businessman and he lost his Kentucky lands. In September 1799, he set out for Missouri where a son had preceded him. He settled in the Femme Osage valley where he continued to hunt and roam until his death. Twenty-five years later his remains and those of his wife were returned to Kentucky for burial.
Daniel Boone was helped to immortality through the writings of John Filson, whose The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke included an appendix containing “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon [sic].” The book was widely read in England and Europe as well as in America, and Boone became the model of the American frontiersman. But even if he had not been cast as a heroic figure in Kentucke, residents of Kentucky would still honor him as that state’s frontier hero.
John Bakeless, Daniel Boone (1939; reprint, 1989); Lawrence Elliott, The Long Hunter: A New Life of Daniel Boone (1976).
Richard A. Bartlett
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.