“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.”
Daniel Boone (1734-1820) was already a legend long before Fess Parker portrayed him in the television show Daniel Boone, which aired from 1964-1970. While Parker’s portrayal of Boone was essentially a reprise of his portrayal of Davy Crockett, the mythologizing of Boone’s life and exploits had begun during Boone’s own lifetime. In 1784 John Filson’s highly fictionalized and sensationalized “autobiography” made Boone into an international celebrity. In 1813 Daniel Bryan (Boone’s nephew) wrote a book-length, epic poem about him entitled “The Mountain Muse” (although Boone himself thought it “a disaster of inaccuracy”). It is also highly probable that James Fenimore Cooper based his character Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo on the life and adventures of Daniel Boone. Later, his life as a frontiersman and explorer would serve as the inspiration for the founding of the Boy Scouts of America.
'Tis true he shrank from men even of his nation,
When they built up unto his darling trees,--
He moved some hundred miles off, for a station
Where there were fewer houses and more ease;
The inconvenience of civilisation
Is, that you neither can be pleased nor please
Lord Byron wrote these lines about Boone in his poem Don Juan. They epitomize the way in which Boone, as a hunter, explorer, and frontiersman, came to represent a version of the Enlightenment’s “natural man,” someone who was in tune with nature and who shunned civilization. Ironically, this idealized vision of Boone as simple and authentic led to a caricature of him as uncultured, unsophisticated, and “[t]he rippin'est, roarin'est, fightin'est man / [t]he frontier ever knew!”
Boone himself flatly denied he ever shunned civilization: “Nothing embitters my old age [like] the circulation of absurd stories that I retire as civilization advances…” Although he received no formal education, he did enjoy trappings of “civilization” such as books and reading. He often brought books along with him on his travels, reading aloud to his companions around the campfire. One of his favorite books to read was Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Boone was a hunter and, although he was a devoted family man, he was often away from home for many months at a time on “long hunts.” These hunts took him into Tennessee on numerous occasions and at least two trees have been discovered on which he carved his name. One was located near Jonesboro, but it fell in 1920. Another was discovered near Jackson.
One of the many folktales that sprang up about Boone tells of how he “hunted” his wife Rebecca. While hunting deer at night, he mistook her for a deer and nearly shot her. The moonlight showed him that the “prey” he was tracking was not a deer, but a young woman. He followed her to her house, where he was welcomed in by the father and subsequently introduced to the daughter.
Waterfall on Boone Creek,
Washington County, Tennessee, 1941,
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Daniel Boone is said to have escaped from
some Native Americans by hiding under the waterfall.
Like many frontiersmen during the Colonial period in American history, Boone had numerous clashes with Native Americans. Perhaps the most famous occurred in 1776 when his daughter Jemima and two other girls were captured by a band of Shawnee. Boone, leading a group of men from Boonesborough, Kentucky, tracked them for two days before catching up with them. Boone and his men ambushed the Shawnee’s camp at night and rescued the three girls. This event is most likely the basis for a similar scene in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
The Netherland Inn near Kingsport marks the start of the Wilderness Road. In 1775, Boone set out with 30 men to cut a 200-mile road (although it was actually more of a trail) through the wilderness to the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky. While not a legend per se, this feat is legendary both for its difficulty and because, up to that point, the Appalachians had blocked westward expansion. The road opened up new territory beyond the mountains for settlement. As such, it became an integral part of the American mythos of “Manifest Destiny” and national narrative of westward expansion.