Folklore is not history, and mythmakers hate complications. Finally we have a reliable life of Boone through the considerable efforts of John Mack Faragher, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College whose earlier book Women and Men on the Overland Trail (1979) won the American Historical Association’s prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award. Daniel Boone should earn him even greater accolades, for as a work of accessible history it has few contemporary peers.

A straightforward chronological narrative, Daniel Boone opens with the birth on October 22, 1734, of the son of a Quaker frontiersman. Squire Boone, who had emigrated to America from England 21 years earlier. As a boy in the upper Schuylkill valley of Pennsylvania, Daniel Boone learned the necessary country skills, so excelling in marksmanship that his neighbors hired him to do their hunting for them. He may have done his job too well, for as a young man Daniel found the hillsides already devoid of game. Coincidentally. Squire Boone was excommunicated from the Society of Friends in 1750 after Daniel’s brother Israel married a “worldling,” and the family no longer had reason to remain in the Quaker homeland. They relocated to a farmstead on the Yadkin River not far from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from which Daniel began to operate a professional hunting concern that took him into the Appalachians for months at a time.

Faragher details the worldly education that Boone’s business required, pointing out how the frontiersman figure emerged as one of America’s first heroic types. Most emigrants to the United States had little knowledge of hunting, the domain of the European nobility, and thus the hunter enjoyed a special status; the backwoods hunter had to acquire a knowledge of Indian wavs, languages, and law (“the hunting wav of life that developed in the backwoods depended on Indian knowledge and skill,” Faragher notes), making him an intermediary between Europe and Native America and enhancing his reputation even more. Boone quickly became something of a local celebrity, and when the French and Indian War broke out General Edward Braddock sought the 21-year-old’s services for the British cause.

As in Pennsylvania, overhunting depleted the stock of wild game in Blue Ridge country. In 1773 Boone led his family to Kentucky, where he had often limited, but a Cherokee attack that killed his son James forced him to return to North Carolina for two years. In 1775 he served as scout for the company building the Wilderness Road, during which service he selected the site of Boonesborough (now Boonesboro) on the Kentucky River near present-day Lexington. When the Revolution came Boone was suspected of harboring Tory sentiments, both for having helped the British war against the Shawnee nation and for failing to express sufficient exuberance for the American cause. Still, his neighbors respected him, and at one point after the Revolution he was simultaneously a lieutenant colonel in the Kentucky militia, a representative in the Virginia state assembly, and a county sheriff, having been elected to all three posts.

His fame continued to grow. In 1783 one John Filson, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, made the still-hazardous journey westward along the Ohio River into the deep woods to find Boone and the next year published a thoroughly romanticized book called The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. . . . The book failed to sell widely in the United States but was quickly translated into several European languages. Soon intellectuals like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were holding Daniel Boone up as the model of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “natural man,” and Lord Byron devoted several stanzas of his epic poem Don Juan to the frontiersman, calling Boone “happiest of mortals any where.”

But Boone, as Faragher points out, was far from a noble savage. He loved to read, often quoting from the classics or reading books like Gulliver’s Travels to his companions around the campfire (on a map of Kentucky you will find Lulbegrud Creek as evidence of Boone’s love for Swift’s book). Later writers would cite Boone’s famous inscription “Cilled a bar on tree in the year 1760” as evidence of his marginal literacy, but, as Faragher notes, he was no more lax in his orthography than most of his contemporaries. Often portrayed as a violent country bumpkin—perhaps through association with the Lowland Scots migrants who came to America a decade after the last wave of Quakers—Boone was in fact careful of his grooming and appearance, a man of even disposition in whose household, a visitor reported, “an irritable expression was never heard.” Indeed, Boone practiced Quaker tolerance, and as an old man, at the height of his fame, he frequently objected that he had only killed three Indians in his lifetime.

Boone may have been a great hunter and explorer, but in other pursuits he was less than self-sufficient. He often worked as a surveyor for land companies, traveling as far as New Orleans and eastern Texas in their service. (He complained that he could never afford to live anywhere those companies claimed territorial rights.) He wasn’t much of a surveyor, Faragher notes; his own son Nathan admitted that Boone could deal with rectangles well enough but little more, and the irregular pattern of land holdings in Kentucky attests to his lack of skill. Nor does Boone seem to have been much of a businessman; at one point he owned some hundred thousand acres of land but lost most of it to swindlers. Boone later remarked to a visiting journalist that “while he could never with safety repose confidence in a Yankee, he had never been deceived by any Indian, and he should certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of civilization.”

Still, the stories multiplied. The contradictory man who “contained multitudes”—the admirer of Indians who participated in their destruction, the slaveholder who cherished liberty, the devoted family man who prized solitude and would disappear into the woods for years at a time—was reduced to a simpleminded stalwart in his own lifetime. “Nothing embitters my old age more,” Boone said, “than the circulation of absurd stories. . . . Many heroic actions and chivalrous adventures are related of me which exist only in the regions of fancy. With me the world has taken great liberties, and yet I have been but a common man.” The “common man” finally had enough of his own legend, and in 1799 he removed his large extended family to Femme Osage, Missouri, then under Spanish rule. He had another incentive to quit the land he had helped settle: in 1791, Faragher tells us, a hunter killed the last Kentucky buffalo, and by the end of the century big game was scarce everywhere in the territory. Boone’s celebrated habit of moving beyond the mountains when the smoke of a neighbor’s chimney could be seen was an invention of later biographers, but he did object to being unable to provide for his family.

When death claimed Daniel Boone on September 26, 1820, at the age of 85, he was still very much alive as a figure of American folklore. As publicly disgusted as he had been with Kentucky, some of his bones were dug up 25 years after his death and reinterred under a monument in Frankfort, the state capital; the Kentucky politicians who engineered the move rightly reckoned that many visitors would descend on the site, and to this day the monument remains a popular tourist attraction. Thereafter scarcely a decade went by when some new biography or novel featuring Boone did not appear (Faragher docs not say it, but James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales surely owe a great deal to the Boone legend). In our time many people learned of Boone through the immensely popular TV show of 1964 to 1970, in which, Faragher notes, Fess Parker simply reprised his portrayal of Davy Crockett in an earlier Disney movie, making the comparatively gentle Boone “the rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew” and extending the legend even farther from the truth.

The real Boone is far more interesting than the mythical image, and thanks to John Mack Faragher’s lively book we finally catch sight of him. Daniel Boone is full of surprises, full of tragedies, and full of life. A model of biographical writing, it will surely be the standard life of the frontiersman for a long while to come.


[Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt) 429 pp., $27.50]