Daniel Boone was a man of average stature, but his mythic presence continues to loom over frontier history. Turns out, he WAS a “big, big man” — if not exactly “the rippinest, roarinest, fightinest man the frontier ever knew.”
Exhibit A for the case that Daniel Boone remains America’s premier Frontier Partisan, at least in the public consciousness, is the publication within the past year of no less than three volumes on the old hunter. The most recent is Bob Drury & Tom Clavin’s Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, which publishes today, April 20.
Drury & Clavin’s book is getting a big push from a major publishing house — Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press imprint, who sent me an advance reader’s copy. The writing duo is kind of a big deal, having had a big hit with their tome on Red Cloud’s War, The Heart of Everything That Is.
They took a “life and times” approach to the Boone story, rather than coming at it as straight biography. They set the Boone story in its broader context, as part of the decades-long struggle for the Ohio River frontier. Remarkably, we’re half-way through the book before we get to the settlement of Kentucky. It was a good call. A straight biographical approach really isn’t needed. Honestly, I doubt we’re going to get a biography that supplants John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, which is now 28 years old.
My friend HP from Hillbilly Highways offered his take, which affirms my own view:
“Drury and Clavin do a good job providing context (there is an entire Boone-less chapter on the French and Indian War), they strike the right balance between triumphalist and revisionist views, they seem careful with their history, and they are unabashed about telling some of the many wild stories that surrounded Boone.”
There has been a tendency to diminish Boone in the effort to provide a more realistic portrayal than the Frontier Titan image that accreted around him in the 19th and 20th centuries. He certainly was not the warrior that Simon Kenton was, and it’s true that there were other, far lesser-known, men in Kentucky who were his equal as a woodsman. But Drury & Clavin rightly recognize that Daniel Boone was the real deal. First and foremost a hunter, he really was an expert woodsman, and he was chosen as a leader by his peers for very good reason. He was an ace Frontier Partisan.
As very real danger and the threat of all-out war loomed over the brand-new Kentucky settlements in the spring of 1776, Boone was active in the woods. Drury & Clavin write:
“Within this tense atmosphere, whenever an incident occurred — a stray surveyors mangled body discovered, a family burned out of their isolated cabin, a hunter unaccounted for — it was always to Boone whom even the most experienced backwoods hands looked for guidance. ‘Old Daniel’s on the track’ became a familiar refrain around campfires along the river. Boone’s innate ability to wisp through the forest in order to separate viable threats from mere rumor lent him an unmatched mystique…”
Focused as it is on the “fight for America’s first frontier,” Blood and Treasure does not follow Boone across the Mississippi to his long home in Missouri. For that story, we have Ted Franklin Belue’s Finding Daniel Boone: His Last Days in Missouri & the Strange Fate of His Remains. Again, not a conventional biography.
Belue’s book is a delightful, idiosyncratic exploration of Boone’s later years in Missouri and the strange history of his mortal remains.
Boone’s time in Missouri is almost always treated as an afterthought to his career in Kentucky, as it is in Blood and Treasure — but Boone sojourned longer in the Missouri territory than he did in Kentucky, North Carolina or Pennsylvania. Belue gives this portion of his long and storied life its due, and wraps it in a travelogue and meditation on his own and our culture’s interaction with a man who, despite being written about more than any other frontiersman, remains elusive and misunderstood.
Boone: An Unfinished Portrait, by Daniel Firth Griffith, is another animal entirely. Griffith is an advocate for regenerative agriculture, interested in “natural citizenship, holistic management, and wild ecology.” As such, his approach to Boone is a meditation on the frontiersman’s relationship with wilderness and wildness. While it runs the biography, the Unfinished Portrait explores a lot of literary and philosophical terrain. It reads a bit like an academic thesis, which is off-putting to some folks, and — while not violating the history — this is a kind of reimagining of “Daniel Boone” for a more ecologically aware and sensitive age.
Not the book you want to read if you’re only going to read one book on Boone (that remains Faragher), but an interesting sidetrail.
It’s rich doin’s for folks like me, who can’t seem to escape the shade of the old hunter. Nor would want to.