Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer

Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer

by John Mack Faragher

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Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History for 1993

In the first and most reliable biography of Daniel Boone in more than fifty years, award-winning historian Faragher brilliantly portrays America's famous frontier hero. Drawing from popular narrative, the public record, scraps of documentation from Boone's own hand, and a treasure of reminiscence gathered by nineteenth-century antiquarians, Faragher uses the methods of new social history to create a portrait of the man and the times he helped shape. Blending themes from a much vitalized Western and frontier history with the words and ideas of ordinary people, Faragher has produced a book that will stand as the definitive life of Daniel Boone for decades to come, and one that illuminates the frontier world of Boone like no other.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429997065
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/15/1993
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 283,428
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

John Mack Faragher is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History at Yale University. He is the author of Women and Men on the Overland Trail, for which he received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, and the acclaimed Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie.

Read an Excerpt

Daniel Boone

The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer

By John Mack Fargagher

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1992 John Mack Faragher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9706-5


Curiosity Is Natural

1734 to 1755

By the time he was fifteen, Daniel Boone had a reputation as one of the best hunters in the Pennsylvania countryside of his birth. An old folktale relates the boy's prowess. Boone and several of his friends are out hunting when suddenly they hear the piercing cry "from the throat of a ferocious panther." Looking up, they see it crouched in the branches above. The other boys flee in terror, but Daniel stands his ground, confidently levels his piece, and shoots the wildcat dead as it is about to spring upon him. Where did young Boone acquire this education in woodcraft? "Curiosity is natural to the soul of man" — with these words John Filson began Boone's narrative of 1784. Boone's was a curiosity that he fulfilled by striking out in new directions; certainly he did not acquire his skills from his emigrant family of English weavers.

Daniel's father, Squire Boone, came to America in 1713 when he was eighteen, with a brother and sister. The three of them were sent to reconnoiter the new American world by their father, George Boone, of the town of Bradninch, near Exeter, England. The Boones were members of the Society of Friends, and the young scouts went immediately to the town of Abington, twelve miles north of Philadelphia, where they had contacts among some of the recently arrived Quakers. Receiving favorable reports from his children, patriarch George Boone emigrated with the rest of the family four years later, and all of the Boones relocated ten miles to the northwest of Abington, where they "joined themselves to Gwynedd Meeting."

A few years later, in 1720, twenty-five-year-old Squire Boone declared his intention of marrying Sarah Morgan, five years his junior. After certifying Squire's "Cleanness from Other Women," an investigating committee of the local meeting approved the match and in September they were married "at a Solemn Assembly of ye People called Quakers." According to a contemporary, Daniel's father was a man of small stature, with a fair complexion, red hair, and blue-gray eyes; his mother was a large woman, strong and active, with dark eyes and black hair. Their firstborn was named for her mother; by the time Sarah Morgan was forty-six she had delivered a total of eleven children. Squire was a weaver, like his father, but with Sarah's help he also worked a tenant farm, raising subsistence crops and livestock.

In 1731 Squire and Sarah Boone moved their family to a location in the upper Schuylkill River valley known as "Oley," an Algonquian word for valley. Other Boones had settled there several years before, and the area had attracted Quakers as well as Swedes, Germans, and Scots-Irish. It was beautiful, gently rolling country covered by hardwood forests that opened to grassy meadows; the loamy soil took a plow gladly. Squire purchased 250 acres several miles south of the stone house of his father and with the assistance of kin and neighbors erected a one-room log cabin directly atop an outcropping of rock with a fresh spring. Eventually he enclosed the spring in a stone arch and laid a fine stone floor in the cellar. In this house, on the banks of Owatin Run, Daniel Boone was born on October 22, 1734.

As an Oley resident later remembered, the Boones were identifiable by their broad Cornish dialect and notable for their clannishness. Squire's farm was bounded on all but one side by the land of three brothers, and three others lived within a mile or two. His two sisters and their husbands were nearby as well. Daniel Boone later remembered how as a child he spent a great deal of time at the home of uncle John Webb, who would "greatly pet him." The Boones were local leaders. Grandfather George served for many years as justice of the peace, and when he became too old and frail to continue, the position passed to his oldest son, George, Jr. The Oley Quakers established a permanent monthly meeting, erecting a brownstone meetinghouse in 1737 on land donated by the Boones, just a mile or two from Daniel's boyhood home. Squire Boone became an overseer of the meetinghouse in 1739 and a few years later assumed responsibility as a trustee of the burying ground. When population growth led to the division of Oley township in 1741, the section in which the Boones resided was renamed Exeter, in honor of their English origins. Family life interpenetrated with civic life.

Like other families, of course, they had their conflicts with the Quaker meeting. Reading the Exeter minutes, nineteenth-century Boone biographer Lyman Draper found records of eighteenth-century Boones reproved for "belligerence" and "self-will," and the old Quaker mistress who showed Draper the manuscripts admitted that "strong drink, so common then, overcame one or more who had to be dealt with." She insisted, however, that "the Boones were active for good" and urged the historian to suppress any "sad stories" that might "annoy the very respectable family of Boones now living in this vicinity." More than a century after Daniel's family had left Exeter, community and family were still woven into a seamless fabric. And so it must have impressed the young boy, growing up amidst this close-knit network of kith and kin.

In his old age Boone repeated tales of his Pennsylvania childhood for the enjoyment of his grandchildren. These anecdotes constitute the first chapter of Boone's unwritten autobiography and offer the best explanation of how this first-generation American became the foremost pioneer of our history. In one tale, which refers to a period earlier than any of the others, Boone told of how his mother confined him to the house during an outbreak of smallpox. (This may have been during the widespread epidemic of 1738-39, which would have made him only four years old.) After a period of intolerable confinement, he and his six-year-old sister, Elizabeth, conspire "to take the smallpox, and when over it, be free to go where they pleased." That night they steal away to a neighbor's and climb into bed with young friends who had the disease. When, after a few days, he begins to show symptoms, his mother confronts him. "Now Daniel," says she, "I want thee to tell me the truth." Without hesitation or fear, he confesses the truth. "Thee nasty stinking gorrel!" she cries, "why did thee not tell me, so that I could have had thee better prepared?" Labeling her son the old English equivalent of a lout was about as harsh as she could be with him. In this story, old man Boone counterposed his childish willfulness against Sarah Morgan's maternal indulgence. It was a theme frequently reiterated in his tales. His mother favored him "above all her children," he once told a young hunting companion, and he in turn had been extraordinarily devoted to her.

Another story of his childhood begins with Daniel and his mother on the Schuylkill banks one spring at the annual shad run, she cleaning the catch, he nearby, napping on a flat rock by the river, hat pulled over his face against the afternoon sun. Two girls, caught up in the spirit of rough joking that characterized these festive occasions and tempted by his vulnerability, grab a pail of fish guts and dump them on the sleeping boy. He jumps up and, seeing the culprits, punches them both in the face. The girls run off in tears but are soon back with their mother, who harangues Sarah Morgan about such a son who would bloody girls' noses. Mother looks to Daniel. "They are not girls," he declares. "Girls would not have done such a dirty trick. They are rowdies." Sarah Morgan turns back to the angry woman: "If thee has not brought up thy daughters to better behavior, it was high time they were taught good manners. They got no more than they deserved." Boone smiled at the remembrance of a mother who stood with her son, where others might have stood with their sex.

Other fragments of oral tradition contain important hints about Boone's relationship with his father. When required to discipline his sons, Squire Boone would beat them until they asked for forgiveness, at which point he would put down the rod and reason with them, Quaker fashion. The system worked well with all of his sons but Daniel, who always endured the punishment in silence. A Boone descendant reported that "the father, wishing to gain his point in government, would appeal to Daniel, 'Canst thou not beg?' But he could not beg, leaving his anxious parent to close the matter at his pleasure." This tradition is reminiscent of a tale Boone himself told, in which he and a neighbor boy, one Henry Miller, engage in a verbal standoff that becomes a fistfight. Daniel, who very early in his life established a local reputation as the boy to beat, quickly gets the upper hand and, pinning his opponent to the ground, calls upon him to submit. "I give up, you are the best man," Henry cries out. From that moment the two are fast friends, keeping up a lifetime relationship despite the many miles and years that would separate them. Here the boy imitated his father's style, suggesting his deep paternal identification by embracing and befriending the subdued male. But, unlike Henry, Daniel himself would not submit, missing the opportunity for his father's embrace.

Boone also told of a time when he and Henry, who joined the household as Squire's apprentice, decide to meet their friends in some nighttime revel. Knowing his father would refuse permission to go, the boys wait until the family is asleep, then steal away on Squire's "best nag." Returning double-mounted and in high spirits, they attempt to jump the horse over a cow sleeping on the path, but as they approach at a full gallop the cow starts up and the horse stumbles and breaks its neck. Shaken and horrified, the boys return the saddle and bridle to their place in the barn and creep to bed, leaving the horse lying dead in front of the house. The next day Squire is dumbfounded at how a horse might have escaped from the barn and broken its own neck, but Daniel keeps silent. While he could confess easily and fully to his mother, he held back from his father. Boone would always possess a certain social reticence and maintain a self-imposed isolation that made him seem distant to other men.

Squire Boone had a weaving business in Exeter, with five or six looms, and he also kept a small smith's forge at the house, where he employed apprentice Henry Miller. Besides bearing and raising eleven children, Sarah Morgan managed the garden, henhouse, and dairy. By the time Daniel was ten years old the couple had purchased several dozen acres of grassland a few miles north of the homestead, where they grazed their herd of milk cows. In one of Boone's fondest memories, he and his mother drive the herd to this distant pasture, where there were cow pens and a small dairy house. From his tenth or eleventh year, mother and son spend each "grass season" together there, he tending the stock while she milks and churns during the day, then at night listening to her sing the old Welsh songs before the open fire. He fashions a sharp wooden shaft, which he calls his herdsman's club, and with it becomes expert at killing small game for their supper. The scene has a dreamlike quality — Daniel assuming the role of his mother's provider — and all the markings of an early adolescent fantasy. While it was a Welsh custom for the wife and mother to do her dairy work out at the pasture, she surely would have taken some of her younger children along. It seems scarcely possible that she would leave behind Boone's brother Squire Jr., still a nursing babe in the summer of 1745, or her youngest daughter, Hannah, born in August of 1746.

But this was the way Boone remembered it. As he looked back from the vantage of old age, he recalled those summers as the point when his life's course had been determined. His "love for the wilderness and hunter's life," he reminisced, began with "being a herdsman and thus being so much in the woods." It was Sarah Morgan's pattern to return to Owatin Run weekly, taking home butter and cheese to store in the cool cellar, but young Boone began to remain alone at the pasture, where he grew increasingly fond of solitude. When he was twelve or thirteen his father gave him what he later described as a "short rifle gun," probably a large-caliber European fowling piece. In two or three years of long summers roaming meadow and wood, he developed into an excellent marksman, his growing "love for the chase" frequently resulting in his neglect of the cows. It became common for him to be absent for several days during fall and winter, then suddenly to appear at the door with meat enough to supply the family for a week. Thus did the strapping boy find resolution for adolescent tensions, spending less time at his father's house and more time in the woods, a domain he identified with his beloved mother.

According to Boone family tradition, one consequence of this love for the woods was a neglect of book learning. A nephew related the tale that for a short time Daniel had attended a school taught by a dissipated Irishman who frequently retreated from the classroom to the woods, where he imbibed from a hidden bottle of whiskey. One day Daniel is chasing a squirrel, comes upon the bottle, and as a joke adds to it a powdered herbal emetic. Some hours later the Irishman is in agony and, recognizing the trickster by Daniel's barely suppressed snickers, attempts to cane the boy, but he is knocked to the floor by the robust youth. Daniel runs home, where Sarah Morgan rebukes him but does not force him to return, and so ends his formal education. This is boilerplate American folklore.

A second tale also hinges on Boone's resistance to corporal punishment, but it is somewhat more credible for the inclusion of specific references to members of the family. A bachelor uncle, John Boone, runs a subscription school attended by the neighborhood children, but Daniel intensely dislikes the confinement of the classroom and will not learn. John believes that his nephew's interest in learning can be piqued by a liberal application of the rod, bringing him into open conflict with Sarah Morgan, who knows better. "Dan would learn to spell if Sarah would leave me alone," Uncle John complains to his brother Squire. "It's all right, John," Boone's father reassures him, "let the girls do the spelling and Dan will do the shooting, and between you and me that is what we most need."

Both of these tales locate the roots of Boone's willful adult personality in his childhood resistance to authority. They also make reference yet again to the sympathy and protection of his mother. Most interesting is the polarity they set up between Boone's native accomplishments and the acquirements of civilization. The schoolmaster is tricked by young Daniel's familiarity with the woods, and Squire explicitly raises the contrast between shooting and spelling. Boone's talents, the stories suggest, rendered him ill-suited for school. But with reference to his physical prowess and his developed marksmanship, the tales have Boone already in his teens, leaving unexplained why his parents would have waited so long before initiating his education. Possibly schools were not organized in the district until the late 1740s; a German Lutheran preacher complained of their scarcity as late as 1748: "In Oley sind die Schulen sehr entfernt." But Boone later told his own children that he had never attended school a day in his life. It seems a logical inference that his parents decided quite early that, as the dialogue attributed to Squire implied, what the family needed most was his skills as a shooter, not as a scholar. The tales may have originated as attempts to absolve Squire and Sarah Morgan of any culpability for Boone's lack of formal education.

Actually, by the time Boone reached young manhood he had acquired a level of literacy that was the equal of most men of his times. In 1748, when he was thirteen, his older brother Samuel married a young Quaker woman, Sarah Day. She took young Boone under her wing, taught him to read, to spell a little, and to write in what was known as "a common farmer's hand." "He could at first do little more than rudely write his own name," related Boone's son Nathan, but with practice he gradually "added something to his acquirements as he grew up." During his middle years, when Boone worked as surveyor and trader, he honed his skills with lessons from a son-in-law. Many people have noted Boone's idiosyncratic spelling, but in fact it was no more awkward than that of most literate eighteenth-century Americans. He usually employed a sensible phonetic rendering of his native speech — "clark" for clerk, "sarvis" for service, "Indan" for Indian. His children and grandchildren testified to his lifelong love of reading, and in the company of frontiersmen he was often one of the few who could read or write. Moreover, despite Squire Boone's comment about teaching the girls to spell, most of the women in Boone's life were illiterate. A missionary who once visited Boone's wife, Rebecca, in North Carolina noted in his diary that "she can not read," and judging from their marks inscribed on indentures, deeds, and bills of sale, neither his mother nor his daughters ever learned to write. Within Boone's own household, therefore, his civilized accomplishments were fully acknowledged.


Excerpted from Daniel Boone by John Mack Fargagher. Copyright © 1992 John Mack Faragher. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Part One,
CHAPTER ONE - Curiosity Is Natural,
CHAPTER TWO - My Domestic Happiness,
CHAPTER THREE - In Quest of the Country of Kentucke,
CHAPTER FOUR - On the Banks of Kentucke River,
CHAPTER FIVE - Prisoners to Old Chillicothe,
CHAPTER SIX - A Vast Expence of Blood and Treasure,
Part Two,
CHAPTER SEVEN - Unable to Call a Single Acre His Own,
CHAPTER EIGHT - A Wanderer in the World,
Part Three,
CHAPTER NINE - God Never Made a Man of My Prisipel to Be Lost,
CHAPTER TEN - Left Until I'm Put in the Ground,
Sources of Quoted Material,
Copyright Page,

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