Always Looking –
John I. Blair
It Doesn’t Have To Be Daniel Boone
I have mentioned before in this column – more than once – that I’m a bit proud to be descended from Daniel Boone, the legendary frontiersman. Of course this connection reflects no merit on me personally; but it has given me a flesh-and-blood link to history that makes it far more than dusty books and fading pictures.
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of reading a fine book about Boone – Boone, a Biography by Robert Morgan (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007). Morgan has worked hard, going back to many early sources and as much first-hand narrative as possible, to present Daniel Boone as a very real person, both talented and flawed. And I started right off by learning a few unexpected details. The house presented as Daniel’s birthplace is a well-built stone house in Pennsylvania, not a log cabin. He never wore a coonskin cap in his life. For a few years he ran a store (in what is now West Virginia). Far from being an enemy of the Indians he learned much of his skills directly from them when he was a boy and young man, admired them and their culture, and was even (briefly) adopted into the Shawnee Nation after being captured by a war party in the Spring of 1778.
Daniel Boone was a complicated man who both worked hard for many years to bring settlement and farms to the frontier and hated seeing the wilderness vanish. He was a loving family man, husband, and father of many children, who could be gone from his home for more than a year at a time on hunting and mapping expeditions. He was raised a Quaker by his Quaker parents, taught from earliest age to seek peaceful ways to settle disputes, whenever possible, but could be a fierce fighter in defense of himself and his people. He was a kind man, famous for his gentleness, and generosity to others, yet he owned slaves. He had title to thousands of acres of land at various times in his career, but wound up rooming with one of his sons in Missouri. He was the consummate frontiersman, yet served as elected representative in the Virginia legislature. He dwelled in some of the most dangerous places in the new country of America, constantly at risk from animals, weather, and hostile natives; but managed to live to be 86 and died in bed. And he’s been considered both a true American hero and a traitor, depending on whom you believe. (“Hero” has generally won out.)
Daniel Boone was certainly not the only larger-than-life frontiersman in American history – not even the only one in early Kentucky. Simon Kenton, for example, who once saved Daniel’s life, deserves to be just as famous; and there were many others. Yet somehow Daniel came to be the archetype (look it up) for the frontiersman hero. Unlike Boone, Kenton never got movies or television shows produced about him, and rarely appears in novels. Maybe it’s the name – the Biblical Daniel braved lions; the nursery rhyme Simon was Simple. More likely, as Robert Morgan suggests, there was just something about the man himself that made Boone a legend, even during his lifetime. He appears to have been a natural leader, a born diplomat, and a raconteur (look that one up too). And people tended to trust him, often with their lives. Moreover (like Simon Kenton, who also lived into old age), Boone was, through skill and luck, a survivor.
If you want to learn more about Daniel Boone, a wealth of materials exists. Besides Morgan’s book (readily available, because of its recent date and good reception, from any good bookseller – I got mine at Half Price Books in Arlington), I recommend the long-unpublished biography by Lyman Coleman Draper, finally issued as The Life of Daniel Boone, Stackpole Books 1998. More than 150 years ago Draper amassed an amazing collection of original source materials about the trans-Allegheny frontier, now held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (which he directed for 32 years). Go to their web site at Wisconsin History to check for resources. Or directly to the Draper collection at Wisconsin History Draper collection
Some interesting websites related specifically to Daniel Boone include:
Fort Boonesborough Foundation
And there are a host of others.
But don’t think you have to have a famous historical figure in your family tree in order to find a doorway to history there. Almost anyone or anything can open that door if you are curious enough. Just for a couple of examples (again from my own story, which is the one I know best): unlike any of my close kin, I was born in Wichita, Kansas, the first native Kansan in my family. Why was I born there? In 1941, my birth year, World War II was beginning. (I was born just 6 months before Pearl Harbor.) Wichita, “The Air Capital of the World” as it styled itself then, was the home of several small aircraft factories that could be rapidly expanded into critical war industries in a highly sheltered location deep inland from vulnerable coastlines. Thousands of people from that part of the Midwest and Southwest moved to Wichita in the very early 1940s to work in those industries. And that’s why I’m a Jayhawk in a family of Okies and Missourians. History; and I myself am the doorway.
My older brother, on the other hand, was born in Woodward, Oklahoma, in 1938. Why there? Because Dad, fresh out of college with a mechanical engineering degree in a country mired in the Great Depression, had found work with the WPA, building small projects such as schools and water systems in the drought-ravaged outreaches of western Oklahoma, which happened to be his home country. More history, this time with my brother’s birthplace leading the way. Each of these simple genealogical facts – where and when we were born – can be an entry point into learning about major events in the fairly recent American past. Instead of looking at old photos of B-29 Super Fortresses or Dust Bowl refugees as oddities in books, I see them as part of my personal history.
Or if your family are more recent arrivals (as many are in our growing nation of immigrants), look for the links to history in other countries. History is everywhere there are people. Learn about some of the major migrations to America and their causes: the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s; the unsuccessful political revolutions and subsequent repression of 1848 in Central Europe; famine in southern Sweden in the 1860s; dire poverty and social unrest in southern Italy toward the end of the 19th century; the revolution in Mexico in 1910. Look around; some of those people in the history books are your people. It doesn’t have to be Daniel Boone.
©2010 John I. Blair
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