In Search of the Real Daniel Boone
The master of the written word, Mark Twain, wrote: “Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” Apparently, Mr. Twain was writing of the man who opened the Western frontier of America, Daniel Boone. For many historical figures, the exact details of their lives can be a bit murky, shrouded in the mist of history and the passing of the centuries; the story of Daniel Boone is no different. Many books, articles, and even a television series tell of the many exciting exploits of this legendary frontiersman. But did they get the story right?
John Filson’s Biography
The first biography of Daniel Boone was written by the explorer and promoter, John Filson. His biography of Boone was a short sketch of the frontiersman’s life up until 1783 and had a rather lengthy title, The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke: And an Essay Towards the Topography and Natural History of That Important Country. The first appendix of the book was Boone’s biography titled, “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon.” The book first appeared in print in 1784, when Boone turned fifty. Filson’s book was based on an interview with Boone the previous year. Boone’s appendix was purported to be a firsthand account written by Boone of his hunts, settlement, and Indian fights, from the 1769 battle of Blue Licks and Clark’s expedition into the Shawnee villages in 1782. The appendix on Boone contained some loquacious exaggerations and undoubtedly was not written by Boone.
So why did Boone spend so much time with Filson telling his tales? Maybe the answer is as simple as both men were significant Kentucky land holders, Boone much more so than Filson. However, Filson had no small investment in Kentucky land as he had invested heavily the proceeds from his father’s estate and now had claims to over twelve-thousand acres in this new frontier. The publicity from the book did help sell the untamed wilderness to brave souls from distant lands; however, Filson disappeared, believed to have been killed by Indians, before a land boom materialized. The new settlers arriving in Kentucky didn’t help Boone either, as he had already given away parts of his land holdings to relatives, sold it to pay creditors, or lost the land to a stronger claimant. Daniel Boone was a great frontiersman, no doubt, but he proved to be a very poor business man—dying nearly broke!
Filson’s book was quite successful, selling out the American edition. The book was later adapted by another publisher, borrowed with no royalty payment as there was no copyright protection at the time, and was translated into French and German. The book circulated widely in Europe and was reprinted several times. It was believed to be responsible for many German immigrants who subsequently came to Kentucky.
Boone was amazed by an incident that occurred in 1797 demonstrating just how the book had made him so well known in Europe. While canoeing on the Ohio River with his dog and gun, he was hailed by a young English traveler in a flatboat. Upon introductions, the English traveler explained, “extremely happy in having an opportunity of conversing with the hero of so many adventures.” The traveler then promptly produced the adapted version of Filson’s book and began to read aloud to Boone. The startled frontiersman retorted and “confirmed all that was there related of him.” This book would help to turn Daniel Boone into a living legend who purportedly almost singlehandedly conquered the American frontier.
Boone’s Attempts at an Autobiography
As the fame of the woodsman grew so did the hunger for an authentic biography. Realizing the opportunity to help fund his sagging finances, Boone dictated an autobiography to his grandson. Unfortunately, it was lost in a canoeing accident on the Missouri River during the war of 1812. After the loss of the first autobiography, he dictated the story of his life and adventures to a grandson-in-law named Dr. John Jones. The plan was for Jones to prepare the manuscript for the publisher and the proceeds would go to Boone to help support him in his old age. Boone’s son, Nathan, said the manuscript was never completed because of Boone’s long hunting trips, frequent illnesses, and his moving about to the homes of his children. Jones died suddenly in the 1840s and the incomplete manuscript was never found.
The Historian Lyman Draper’s Attempt at a Biography
Nearly two decades after Boone’s death in 1838, Lyman C. Draper, at age twenty-three, decided his life’s work would be to research and write the history of the American frontier through a series of biographies of the lives of the pioneers, beginning with Daniel Boone. As Draper put it, Boone “is generally acknowledged to be the pioneer of the West.” Draper set about his enormous task of collecting any documents related to the Old West, and Boone particularly. He interviewed the older men and women who had stories to tell and, as Draper put it, these were “treasured up in the memory of aged Western Pioneers, which would perish with them if not quickly rescued.” By the time of his death it is estimated that he traveled over fifty-thousand miles, mostly on foot or on horseback, talking to old-timers, copying or purchasing old manuscripts or documents from those who had witnessed the westward expansion of America. He spent considerable time interviewing Nathan Boone and his wife Olive along with countless other relatives of Daniel Boone. Draper was slight man only five foot and one inch tall and weighing all of 101 pounds. Though small in stature he was strong in spirt and tenacity as he assembled the world’s largest collection of manuscripts relating to the Ohio Valley and the Northwest Territory.
Draper was an excellent cataloger of data but not much of a writer. He took extensive notes—over three hundred pages of his interviews with Nathan and Olive Boone—and launched into a massive biography of Boone. He was the type of man who got distracted by details. One historian who knew him well, Gold Thwaites, described Draper and his writing habits, “It was ever the same story. Ever planning, never doing.” Draper stopped working on the Boone book in 1856 after completing over eight hundred pages covering Boone’s life far as the siege of Boonesborough in 1778. Though he would not finish the book, he kept collecting material about Boone and other frontier figures up until his death in 1891. Toward the end of his life, Draper commented, “I have wasted my life in puttering. I can write nothing so long as I fear there is a fact, no matter how small, as yet ungarnered.” Draper’s work was not a waste, as the vast array of information he collected on Boone and other pioneers became a significant gift to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Draper’s Biography Is Finally Published
Fast forward a hundred-plus years to the Wisconsin Historical Society archives as Ted Belue rummages through Draper’s massive collection of Boone material to find Draper’s eight-hundred page biography. Belue is a history teacher at Murray State University in Kentucky, and he took up the task of transcribing and annotating Draper’s rambling manuscript. Draper’s biography The Life of Daniel Boone, though it only covers Boone’s life up until 1778, captures his colorful exploits, including his blazing of a trail through the Cumberland Gap and his construction of the first permanent settlement, Boonesborough, in the “Far West.” The book is a treasure trove, not only of Boone’s life but of early America, Indian-Anglo wars and relations, the fur trade, and the British presence in colonial America.
Life of Daniel Boone, The
Daniel Boone on the Small Screen
The 1960s TV series “Daniel Boone,” which was loosely based on Boone’s life, starred Fess Parker wearing a coonskin cap—the sort that the real Boone didn’t wear—and was popular, lasting six seasons. The theme song for the show went, “From the coonskin cap on the top of ol’Dan to the heel of his rawhide shoe; the rippin’est, roarin’est, fighting’est man the frontier ever knew.” At the time of the original airing of the weekly TV series, I remember being enthralled with the adventures of Boone and his Indian friend Mingo. As an elementary school aged boy, I thought Daniel Boone was the total package: He wore a coonskin cap, carried a gun, got in fights he always won, lived in a log cabin, and had a lovely wife, Rebecca (played by Patricia Blair).
Like most television shows and movies, the drama and story line fell a bit far from the truth, but it was a good story. Brought up as a Quaker, Boone was taught to avoid violence and only fought and killed when necessary. Even though he had to watch as his oldest son was tortured to death by Cherokee Indians, he realized, just like every other race, there were good and bad Indians—some were friends, some were enemies. But by no means was he a wholesale “Indian killer” as depicted in some early biographies. His personality could hardly be described as “rippin’est and roarin’est” as he was known to be a kind and thoughtful man. Someone who knew him when he lived in Boonesborough, the state of Kentucky’s first non-Indian permeant settlement, described him as “a remarkably pleasant good natured mannerly man.” Judge David Todd, a member of a leading Kentucky family, said of Boone, he “was a plain, gentlemanly man, good memory, mild, and equable. No ruffian, nor did he partake near as far as I have seen of the slovenly backwoods character.”
Where Is Daniel Boone Buried?
Maybe you would like to go and pay homage to this great American, possibly lay some flowers on his grave. Guess what? This is a mess too. Boone died in 1820 while staying at his son Nathan’s house and was buried next to his wife in the Bryan family graveyard not far from St. Louis, Missouri. The story doesn’t end here. Twenty-five years later, owners of a new cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky, sought to honor Boone and at the same time promote their new cemetery by moving his bones back to the state he helped found. The chairman or the reinterment committee was John Brown, who also happened to be the chairman of the Frankfort Cemetery Company. Brown pledged “a monument…to which every Kentuckian can point with pride, as marking the spot where the ashes of this pure, noble, and fearless pioneer have been placed by the descendants of his early friends and comrades.” The cemetery organizer wrote to Nathan Boone promising the most beautiful resting place for his parents. The full court press was on as letters of support were sent to Boone’s relatives in Missouri from many dignitaries of Kentucky, among them a U.S. senator, governor, two former governors, and the attorney general. The cemetery engaged William Boone, still living in Kentucky, to work out the details with Nathan and the other Boone relatives in Missouri.
After all the details were worked out with the transfer of the remains, the reinterment committee hired three local men to remove the bones. The small graveyard contained around thirty graves of Daniel and Rebecca’s extended family members as well as their slaves. In the private cemetery that held their remains, the graves were poorly marked; however, there were gravestones for Daniel and Rebecca that had been erected in the mid-1830s, nearly two decades after their deaths. A St. Louis newspaper reported that the “coffins were entirely rotten,” but the workmen gathered what bones they could find that were still intact and hauled them to Kentucky.
The cemetery and Frankfort’s leaders held an elaborate procession and ceremony for the burial of the remains. The night before the bones were placed in fancy coffins, two plaster casts of Boone’s skull were made. The elaborate reinterment ceremony took much of the day as an estimated crowd of between fifteen and twenty-thousand showed up for the event. All the attending dignitaries gave a speech, from the governor down to the owner of the cemetery, lauding the adventures of the great man. After a closing prayer and a benediction, the coffins were lowered into their new graves and the pallbearers and onlookers helped fill the graves. Apparently having the famous Boones in the cemetery was good for business as the new cemetery began to sell plots briskly.
Now the plot thickens as many Missourians claimed that the bones reinterred in Kentucky were not those of Daniel Boone but rather those of a slave buried in the same cemetery. One of the two castings of the supposed skull of Daniel had survived in the Kentucky Historical Society and in 1983 the forensic anthropologist Dr. David Wolf examined the plaster cast. He said the forehead of the skull was not typical for a Caucasian male and, “The general shape of the brow ridges are more black than white.” Dr. Wolf further added, “The occipital bone is more pronounced, protruding or bun-shaped, which is a black feature.” Though Dr. Wolf’s analysis is hardly definitive and has been disputed by others, it does cast doubt on exactly where Daniel Boone is interred.
Maybe the story of where the real Daniel Boone is buried can finally be put to rest. In June 2010, an official document filed by the Friends of Daniel Boones’ Burial Site in Missouri now concede that some of the bones dug up in Missouri and moved to Kentucky are those of Daniel Boone. Their contention is that only “large” bones made it to Kentucky and, “His heart and brain remain where he was buried.” Throwing a little salt on the wound, the paper also adds that Boone left Kentucky on bad terms and swore he’d rather die than set foot there again.
Brown, Meredith Mason. Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America. Louisiana State University Press. 2008.
“THE BODY IN DANIEL BOONE’S GRAVE MAY NOT BE HIS.” The New York Times. July 21, 1983.
Johnson, Allen and Dumas Malone (editors). Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1930.
“Boone’s Bones Brouhaha.” https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/28950. Accessed January 23, 2019.
Cernich, Karen. “Taking Care of Daniel Boone.” http://www.emissourian.com/features_people/feature_stories/taking-care-of-daniel-boone/article_d7b789bb-2099-50be-bc31-e209902b3946.html Accessed January 23, 2019.
The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784). An Online Electronic Text Edition.” http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/3/ Accessed January 23, 2019.