Ghost Writer To Daniel Boone

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Daniel Boone’s position in the pantheon of American heroes is due probably to merit and certainly to good fortune. The former has been questioned by a few historians; but the latter, although not often recognized explicitly, has never been denied. Although practically an illiterate, Boone told the story of his adventures in Chateaubriand-like prose to Americans and Europeans alike almost as soon as the Indian wars in Kentucky were over. This he was able to do because he had a ghost writer—John Filson.

Born on the banks of the Brandywine in Chester County, Pennsylvania, John Filson, an obscure school-master, appeared in the new settlements that were springing up on the meadowlands of Kentucky in the fall of 1783. Almost at once he began drawing a map of the region and writing a book about its prospects. Naturally he met Boone.

In the peace that followed the bloody warfare of 1782, the old wilderness scout was eager to tell the story of the conquest; and Filson wrote it down in what he pretended were Boone’s own words. In the late spring of 1784, Filson carried his manuscript back to Wilmington, Delaware, where it was published by James Adams under the title Kentucke. The next year it saw published in Paris and Frankfort—it was to go through three editions in Germany—and subsequent reprints appeared in both London and New York.

 

Thirty-three of the 118 pages of this quaint little volume are devoted to the Boone narrative; and, although the rest of the book contained eagerly desired information about the newest part of the New West, the story of Boone’s exploits was so popular that the entire work was referred to as “Filson’s Boone.”

As the prototype of the American hero, who, incidentally, embodied many of the virtues of the European natural man, Boone has directly and indirectly inspired many of the characters in American fiction. One of the first writers who became indebted to this legend was James Fenimore Cooper, whose Leatherstocking bore unmistakable similarities to Boone.

Also, whatever influence the Boone legend had abroad must be attributed to Filson. Since his book was published in France, Germany, and England, Europeans knew of Boone’s exploits only a year later than the Americans. The French, especially, with their interest in exoticism, must have found in this work a concrete and grand example of the natural hero. Whether they detected that he had been created, in part at least, in the image of their own ideal, is doubtful.

 

In orotund prose that certainly bore the stamp of Filson rather than Boone, the hero of the Indian wars begins his narrative by stating that he and his family were living on the Yadkin River in North Carolina, when a curiosity that “is natural to the soul of man” led him into the wilderness of Kentucky.

This natural curiosity must have been uncommonly strong in the Boone family. Daniel’s grandfather, George Boone, was an English Quaker, who migrated from his native Devon to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Daniel’s father, Squire Boone, started the trek westward by moving to Oley Township; later the family moved southward into the Shenandoah.

At the time Filson wrote the biography, Boone, who was fifty years old, had apparently reflected on his role in the course of empire:

The settling of this region well deserves a place in history. Most of the memorable events I have myself been exercised in; and for the satisfaction of the public, will briefly relate the circumstances of my adventures, and the scenes of my life, from my first movement to this country until this day.

Since there is certainly no evidence to indicate that Boone ever suffered any nostalgia for peaceful habitations, it is barely possible that Filson was engaging in some dry humor when he has this roving woodsman begin his story with:

It was on the first of May, in the year, 1769, that I resigned my domestic happiness for a time, and left my family and peaceful habitation on the Yadkin river, in North Carolina, to wander through the wilderness of America, in quest of the country of Kentucke.

But since Filson was devoid of a sense of humor, it must have been an incredible naïveté, or a punctilious regard for public opinion, that led him to begin the story with Boone’s expression of regret in having to resign his domestic happiness. Perhaps Daniel had remembered that his wife, Rebecca, had objected to his wandering off on a trip that was both unnecessary and uncertain. Perhaps she had resorted to “what will people say?” Out of fairness to her, when he spoke for the record he made it clear that his reason for leaving home was Homeric rather than domestic.