October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
John Filson first brought the frontier hero to notice, giving him fine words that made him the idol of the romanticists
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:
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:
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.
Boone and his companions, John Finlay, John Stewart, Joseph Holden, James Monay, and William Cool, wandered about Kentucky in peace until the twenty-second of December. On that day, he and John Stewart, while on “a pleasing ramble,” were captured by some Indians, who rushed out of a canebrake upon them; and for seven days they were held prisoners. But at the end of that time, in the dead of night “when sleep had locked the senses” of their captors, Boone gently woke his companion and both stole away to their camp. There they found their companions “dispersed and gone home” but in their stead, Daniel’s brother, Squire, who, with another adventurer, had come from North Carolina in search of Daniel. He had arrived at an inauspicious time, for the Indians, who resented the escape of their prisoners, recaptured John Stewart and killed him.
Daniel was pleased to see his brother and to share with him some of the natural and simple joys of the life in the wilderness:
Here is the natural man, innately good, freed from the tensions of society and from the shackles of convention, finding supreme happiness in the simple life. That these were Boone’s own words, few believed; but that they expressed his philosophy was assumed by the readers who elected Boone the popular hero of the Romantic revolution.
Gilbert Chinard, a student of the American influence on French literature, has marveled at Boone’s philosophical powers and was forced to distinguish him from the French “philosophes en chambre":
Squire Boone returned to North Carolina on the first of May, 1770, leaving Daniel alone in Kentucky. Never, confessed Daniel, had he been under any greater necessity of exercising philosophy and fortitude. But the beauties of nature soon “expelled every gloomy and vexatious thought.” After gaining the summit of a commanding ridge—there is considerable doubt that a spot exists in Kentucky from which all the scenery described below is visible—but let him continue—
It was not until the twenty-fifth of March of the next year that Boone returned to his family in North Carolina. He sold his farm and, on the twenty-fifth of September, 1773, set out again for Kentucky, accompanied by his own and five other families. The enthusiasm of this hopeful beginning, however, soon subsided, for on the tenth of October they were attacked by Indians. Six men, including Boone’s eldest son, fell. This misfortune overtook them as they were approaching the Cumberland Mountains, which Boone described as follows:
How this coonskin hero, entirely innocent of letters, knew that Persepolis and Palmyra were in ruins is a minor mystery; but like the romantic, natural man of his age, he had acquired an incredible store of classical allusions. If Filson’s book was more popular in Versailles than in Boonesborough, it is small wonder.
After this attack by the Indians, Boone stopped with his family on the Clinch River, where he remained until—in June, 1744—Governor Dunmore of Virginia asked him to run an 800-mile errand: to proceed to the Falls of the Ohio and conduct a party of surveyors into the interior of Kentucky. Returning to his family after 62 days, Boone was immediately placed in charge of three garrisons of Dunmore’s troops that were marching against the Shawnees. As soon as this tour of duty was finished, he again undertook the settlement of Kentucky, this time associating himself with Richard Henderson and the famous Transylvania Company.
As a result of this association, Boone became the founder of the fort that bears his name to this day, now a lonely, somnolent village between the Kentucky River hills, where the events of history are something less than a memory. To the site of Boonesborough, he brought Rebecca, his wife, and his daughter, Jemima, on the fourteenth of June, 1775, and they were “the first white women that ever stood on the banks of the Kentucke river.”
The Indians persisted in their attempts to harass them out of the land; and, on the fourteenth of July, 1776, they captured Boone’s daughter and the two daughters of Colonel Callaway. Boone and eight men from the fort immediately pursued them and three days later overtook the party, killed two of the Indians, and rescued the girls.
With the coming of reinforcements from North Carolina and a band of 100 Virginians, whom the Indians feared, calling them the Long Knives, open warfare ceased; but the red men continued their insidious forms of annoyance. On the seventh of February, 1778, while he was engaged in making salt at the Blue Licks, Boone, and some thirty others, were captured by the Indians. He was taken to old Chillicothe on the Little Miami River, and from there to Detroit, where the British governor, Henry Hamilton, offered a hundred pounds sterling for his release. The Indians refused the offer and took Boone back to their camp on the Little Miami, where, as a captive, he lived a life far different from that of prisoners in modern wars:
Returning from a hunting trip one day, Boone was alarmed to find that the Indians, in the strength of 450 choice warriors, were planning to march against Boonesborough. He escaped just before sunrise one morning and made his way to the fort, a journey of 160 miles during which he had only one meal. On the eighth of August, the Indian army appeared before the gates. They finally sent a summons to Boone to surrender in the name of His Britannic Majesty. Boone asked for a period of two days to consider the matter, during which time feverish preparations for defense were made within the garrison; and at the end of the period, Boone returned the answer
The hero had defied the enemy. After attempts at subterfuge and a nine-day assault, to which the fort failed to capitulate, the enemy raised the siege and departed.
The crescendo of the Indian wars increased as station after station was attacked. On the fifteenth of August, 1782, about 500 Indians and Canadian French attacked Bryant’s Station near Lexington. In language strangely reminiscent of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Boone describes the battle:
The pursuit of the fleeing savages ended in the bloody Battle of Blue Licks, “the last battle of the Revolution.” On one of the rolling hills south of the Licking River, overlooking the Blue Licks, the carnage of the fifteen minutes of fierce fighting was ghastly. Sixty white men, including two colonels—Todd and Trigg—and Boone’s second son fell. Four of the seven men taken prisoners were barbarously murdered by young warriors being trained in the arts of cruelty. Boone in reflecting on the horror of the battle described the panic and the slaughter and concludes with the laconic statement, “many widows were now made.”
This terrible battle was the end of serious Indian troubles in Kentucky. General Clark’s expedition against them beyond the Ohio left them with little taste for further warfare in Kentucky; and “the great king beyond the waters,” being disappointed in his expectations, had no more reason to encourage their depradations. The settlement of Kentucky was secure. Boone, reviewing the long and harrowing struggle, reflects on his mission and his sacrifice:
One would hardly have been surprised had this wilderness scout closed with a paraphrase of
Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.