Life and Legends of Daniel Boone

Following a discussion of the problems with distinguishing between fact and legend, a historian friend suggested I read Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992). My own research into the life of Dafnis Panagides has sensitized me to the obstacles of dealing with the fallible memories of people recounting past events (The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio, 2022—available soon).

Daniel Boone, the son of Quaker parents who were kind to tribal people who stopped at their home in Pennsylvania, liked native peoples and learned much from them. Bored with farming, he took every opportunity to roam the woods, hunting. Faragher points out that in Europe, hunting was limited mostly to nobility; so pioneers in the Americas had to learn hunting skills from local Indians. Boone love to hunt so much that, after he married and started his large family, he would leave his wife and children to take care of their property and be gone for months (once for two years!) on “long hunts” deep into Indian territory where he knew he should not have been—supposedly to make money by harvesting deer for their hides and beaver for their pelts. He ate some of the meat but left most carcasses to rot. Like many pioneers, he gave little thought to how he depleted populations of deer, elk, buffalo, and beaver, or how his actions affected Indian tribes.

As an aside on terminology, I vividly remember a lecture on American Indians a few years ago, delivered by a professor from the Midwest. After the lecture, during the question-and-answer session, a zealous young coed sitting in the front row stood and indignantly demanded to know why he said “Indian” and not “Native American.” This highly educated professor, a member of a tribal group, said, “We Indians do not self-identify with the term Native American.” I suppressed a laugh. In all my dealings with tribal peoples in the West, I never heard them call themselves Native Americans. Typically, they referred to themselves as Flathead or Blackfeet or Lakota, or other indigenous groups. Often they simply said, “Indians.” I suspect that P.C. driven, white academics derived the title “Native Americans,” and others jumped on the bandwagon. I realize that early European explorers ignorantly referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as Indians, but I am not uptight about using it—especially in light of the fact that indigenous peoples often refer to themselves as Indians. But I digress.

Faragher’s carefully researched biography of Boone is a treasure trove of information, but he is not a creative a storyteller. I grew frustrated with his grammatical errors and unclear sentence constructions. Perhaps quoting semi-literate sentences written by Boone—often with hilarious spelling of words—proved to be a negative influence on Faragher. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from reading this biography. I became even more aware of how ruthlessly European pioneers pushed indigenous people off their land. They often called Indians “savages,” but their atrocities were as savage as anything the Indians did to European settlers.

Daniel Boone excelled in understanding Indians he encountered, and he was more ethical in his behavior than most of the land speculators who flooded into Kentucky in the late 1700s. But he also sought to get rich by selling thousands of acres of land and was frequently sued by others over land disputes. An inept businessman, he squandered many opportunities and ended up in poverty. When he had money, he purchased slaves to help with his work. In some ways, he was a pathetic individual, not the pioneer hero of the television show I watched as a kid. He excelled at woodcraft, was brave in battle, and at times was a good leader; but he foolishly dragged his family into the wilderness, where they suffered many deprivations, and some died in altercations with Indians who sought to drive the settlers back east. Many times I stopped reading to shake my head and say, “What an idiot!”

In this biography, Boone emerges as a magnanimous individual who was also clueless. His name is well known, but I doubt that most people realize the man’s many weaknesses. Although I am disappointed by the quality of writing, I am glad I read this biography because of all I learned about Boone and his time period—especially the ways European settlers in their zeal to grab land for farming dispossessed native peoples. To be sure, there were sociopathic Indians who hideously tortured and slaughtered white settlers. But the way settlers too often viewed Indians as sub-human provided excuses for revolting treatment of the native peoples. I am not trying to romanticize or idealize tribal cultures. They also had many humanitarian shortfalls. But I do not blame them for growing to hate Europeans.

In the last part of his book, Faragher recounts how writers of cheap novels transformed Boone into an Indian hating warrior against the red savages. Sadly, the reading public in the 1800s too often believed the nonsensical legends that filled these books—although Boone’s descendants condemned the works. As Boone was transformed into an American hero after his death, people used him as a means of promoting whatever views they personally held. Finally, carefully researched books like Faragher’s have corrected this misuse of an American pioneer who died in 1820.

My book on Saint Barnabas does similar separating of fact from fiction regarding the legends that arose centuries after the death of Barnabas when Orthodox clergy used him to advance their own political agendas.


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