THE LIFE OF DANIEL BOONE, published by Stackpole Books, 1998, is a unique book about an eighteenth century explorer, written by a nineteenth century biographer, and edited by a twentieth century author. How does it come off? Not too bad! In fact, this is probably the most authoritative account of the renowned frontiersman we will ever see.
I have a special interest in the subject. Daniel Boone is my great, great, great, great grandfather. No, I won’t bore you with my own genealogy. Suffice it to say, I descended through Jesse Bryan Boone, Daniel’s eighth child, who died the same year as Daniel — 1820.
Including notes and index, THE LIFE OF DANIEL BOONE is a large volume totaling 596 pages. And those pages are loaded with rather small print plus drawings and maps. But don’t let that discourage you from taking a peek at this one of a kind work.
If you would like a quick summary of the book, read the Preface. In eighteen pages, Belue appraises the character of Daniel Boone, what he did, and what he thought of his own fame. We discover Boone was a skilled woodsman, hunter, trapper, explorer, scout, militia commander, judge, and county representative. And he was a natural leader.
In his introduction, Ted Belue describes him as: “charismatic, quiet, even-tempered, and rarely willing to utter criticism even of those who opposed him. Boone’s genteel ways were the sort that universally garner respect and attract.” That plus his lack of guile and a sense of honor earned Daniel Boone a solid reputation.
But what did he think of himself? Belue quotes Boone’s own words: “Many heroic exploits and chivalrous adventures are related to 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. It is true that I have suffered many hardships and miraculously escaped many perils, but others of my companions have experienced the same.”
Daniel Boone was modest. He comes across as a good man, one we would like to have on our side in a crisis.
Next we turn to the chronicler of information on Boone and his times. The self-appointed biographer, Dr. Lyman C. Draper, born September 4, 1815, showed exceptional insight for his day. Nineteenth century storytellers had no qualms at all mixing fantasy with truth. If it spiced up the story, a good myth even seemed preferred over mundane facts.
Against this concoction of history and legend stood Draper with his grand vision of saving facts from oblivion. While the evidence was still available, and the people who remembered the events were still living, he wanted to separate fact from myth, correct misconceptions, and get as close as possible to the truth about frontier history.
In his youth, Draper selected twenty subjects to save from mythology. Besides Daniel Boone, other subjects meriting Draper’s attention included George Clark, Anthony Wayne, Daniel Morgan, and Dunmore’s War.
From 1843 to 1852, Draper traveled the trails Boone had explored, seeking interviews and gathering data on the frontiersman. But the project never turned into a book. He died in 1891 lamenting he had not finished the “Life of Daniel Boone.” Since 1854, Draper’s manuscript remained in the archives of the State National Society of Wisconsin.
In 1990, historian Ted Franklin Belue decided that Draper’s huge manuscript, rich in details of Boone and frontier life, should be available to the public. Thus the book began.
Belue presents Draper’s work much as it was left by the biographer nearly one and a half centuries earlier. Belue’s changes to Draper’s transcript were minor. He eliminated excess commas and made military titles and abbreviations consistent with modern usage.
Belue wrote the introduction and provided us with a series of notes at the end of each chapter following Draper’s original notes. The editor concluded his introduction by reminding us that what we are holding in our hands had been hidden away since 1854. “Read it. Savor it. Take time to get to know Lyman Draper, his methods, his point of view, the tenor of his times, and his man, Daniel Boone.”
Good advice. But to that I might add, there are three men in this book who are best understood in the context of their times: Boone, Draper, and Belue. Of the three, Boone is by far the most straightforward. Simply put, he was an adventurer who couldn’t rest until he saw what lay beyond the next hill. His life was an ongoing search for Eden, an unspoiled hunter’s paradise.
In Kentucky, he found much of what he was seeking. But civilization, which he himself helped usher in, quickly ruined what he considered most appealing. So off he went in search of a new unblemished wilderness.
The real Daniel Boone was a man of courage, skill, and good fortune who nevertheless suffered much over his 85 years. He was no Fess Parker. He wasn’t a big man. He killed few Indians and despised those who attempted to portray him as a fearless Indian-killer.
Occasionally we are struck with the quaintness of the times. Sentimentality, not “cool,” was the predominant mood of the eighteenth century. Here’s a prime example. When Boone led a party of men from Boonesborough, they managed to rescue his own daughter, Jemima, and two other girls from a combined force of Shawanoes and Cherokees.
How did Boone propose to celebrate the event? He said: “Thank Almighty Providence, boys, we have the girls safe — let us all sit down and have a hearty cry.” And they did! That direct quote somehow never made the Daniel Boone TV series.
Now let’s consider the compiler of information, Dr. Draper. What should I say about this mother lode of facts and opinions, and what should I leave for you to discover for yourself? I will limit myself to three observations.
Draper’s style will certainly catch your attention. A few pages of Draper comes across as quaint and charming. Then again, several hundred pages of him is downright tedious. For modern tastes, it’s a bit too much: too wordy, too flowery, and too sentimental. But wasn’t that typical for the period? Yes, I believe it was.
Draper reflected his time in other ways too. The mood of the mid-nineteenth century was a positive one. They were as assured of themselves, their culture, and their values as we are uncertain of ours in the early twenty-first century
Dr. Draper championed Manifest Destiny. Anglo-Americans were marching westward taking their civilization in tow. At times Draper seems to be more of a cheerleader than a historian. But, as Belue points out, Draper never had a historian’s perspective. He couldn’t distinguish the trivial from the significant. So his notes are full of minute details of no particular interest.
Despite all of his faults, Draper preserved much of historical interest which would be lost without his efforts. That is his real contribution. Unfortunately, he never did get around to exploring Daniel Boone’s latter years. This entire volume is dedicated to the first half of Boone’s life.
Belue, unlike Draper, is a historian. By and large, he displays the objectivity and evenhandedness that Draper lacked in his manuscript. But is one major respect Belue reveals that he too is a man of his day.
The term “American Indians” has now been changed to the politically correct term “Native Americans.” Belue is numbered among those who believe what Caucasians did to Native Americans was morally reprehensible. What Belue espouses is, in effect a moralistic view of history.
Our question for Mr. Belue is: How did those Indians tribes obtain their lands? Well, they acquired them by driving off, killing, or assimilating other tribes who had the land before them, as they had in turn done to those who preceded them.
The history of Britain was no different. Picts lost their land to the Celts, who in turn were driven away by Anglo-Saxons, who in turn were conquered by the Normans. Larger tribes, more aggressive people displaced others and took their territory. What Anglo-Americans did to Native Americans is what mankind has been doing to each other throughout recorded history — no more, no less.
Draper’s manuscript details deceptions and atrocities committed by both sides, as well as acts of friendship and good will offered by both. Here Draper appears to be objective. Belue agrees.
A couple of centuries after the events, it is easy for us to lob criticism at the frontier settlers. After all, they won, didn’t they? But what were those eighteenth century settlers really like? What were the eighteenth century Indians like? This book, the most authoritative document we have for this period, opens our eyes to the timbre of the day. Before condemning the settlers, perhaps we should ask ourselves: if you and I were in constant peril, how altruistic would we be?
The LIFE OF DANIEL BOONE is a book worth reading. This volume is our passport back to the eighteenth century frontier America. It’s a time of great beauty and danger, unbelievable opportunity and hardship, plus numerous acts of courage, savagery, and cowardice. It is an exciting period. See for yourself.
Filed under: Genealogy book review