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Robert Morgan is the author of the New York Times bestseller Gap Creek, as well as seven other novels and eleven books of poetry. A recent winner of the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he lives in Ithaca, New York, and teaches at Cornell University.
The Blue Valleys
The Mountains Won’t Remember Us
The Truest Pleasure
The Balm of Gilead Tree
Trunk & Thicket
At the Edge of the Orchard Country
Green River: New and Selected Poems
The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems
Boone: A Biography
Good Measures: Essays, Interviews, and Notes on Poetry
Boone: A Biography
Chapter One - The Mother World of the Forest
The Quakers of Devonshire lived as farmers and weavers in hamlets and mountain valleys. They had broken away from the official church and been punished by fines and ostracism, sometimes by prison and whippings. As Quakers they could not hold office or vote. As pacifists it was against their faith to serve in the army or navy. They could not attend school or train for the learned professions. As followers of George Fox, they called themselves Friends, and they did not have a hierarchy of clergy or ritualized service. They met in silence and spoke only as the spirit stirred them. The ties of neighbors and among the Friends were very close. Though often persecuted and exploited, they attempted to live lives of calm goodwill and honest work, farming and weaving linen and wool, blacksmithing and helping one another.
The Boones were Quakers from Devonshire in the extreme southwest of England. Devonshire is one of the most beautiful counties of Great Britain, a place of highlands and moors covered with heather and bracken, high rocky hills, long pleasant valleys running down to the sea. The river Exe rises out of a bog in the north and runs through Brampton, Tiverton, Stoke Canon, Exeter. The Boone family had been settled in this area for at least two hundred years, living primarily around Exeter, an ancient town with buildings dating from Roman,
Saxon, Norman, and Tudor times. Exeter’s splendid cathedral dated from the eleventh century and had been rebuilt between 1280 and 1370 as a Gothic masterpiece.
Exeter had long been a center for the weaving and dyeing trades, producing a woolen cloth of serge weave. But it was also a market center where many goods as well as produce were sold near the cathedral. Smiths made guns, horseshoes, hinges, and tools for the village. George Boone II completed an apprenticeship as a blacksmith and married Sarah Uppey around 1660 before settling down to his trade at Stoke Canon. George II was a member of the Church of England, prosperous, entitled to a pew at the parish church. He was the father of George III, born in 1666, who became a Quaker.
The man who founded the Society of Friends, George Fox, was born in Nottinghamshire in 1624 to a Puritan family and was apprenticed to a shoemaker. At the age of eighteen he experienced a conversion, a call, and began to wander from town to town, valley to valley, witnessing and exhorting, encouraging drunkards and sinners to repent and reform. He supported himself by making shoes. In Nottingham Fox was jailed for intruding on a church service, shouting, “Truth is not in this meeting.” He was arrested in Derbyshire for preaching in the street. His message of humility and simplicity began to attract followers, and enemies, and in places he and his listeners were stoned. His flocks were primarily artisans and farmers. His followers were especially well received in the West Country, in Devon and Cornwall. But in much of England Quakers were accused of vagrancy and jailed. Fox himself was imprisoned for refusing to take off his hat in court. In prison he drew a large following among the inmates and local people.
Quaker communities became tightly knit. Before a Quaker could move away he had to get a “certificate of cleanness” from his meeting, declaring his faith and good character. Quakers were expected to visit the sick and bereaved, talk with the troubled, and discuss problems and plans in the family and community. To marry, they had to obtain approval of the committee of Friends and were forbidden “to keep company” or marry outside the community of Quakers. They had to avoid all gambling, music, frivolity. But because Quakers were known to be trustworthy in their dealings, they gained the respect of society and their businesses prospered.
George Boone II chose the weaver’s trade for his son George III, who was born in the sixth year of the Restoration, 1666. George III established his weaving business in the village of Bradninch, where he had probably served his apprenticeship. In 1687 young George married Mary Maugridge, from an old Bradninch family. Mary, the daughter of John Maugridge, was baptized in Bradninch in 1668. She gave birth to her third child, Squire Boone, in 1696. The other children were George IV, baptized in 1690; Sarah, 1692; Mary, 1694 (d. 1696); Mary, 1699; John, 1702; Joseph, 1704; Benjamin, 1706; James, 1709; and Samuel, 1711. It would seem the Boones always had large families. George III and Mary Maugridge Boone joined the Friends Meeting in nearby Cullompton sometime after 1702.
After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, the woolen trade declined. There was widespread unemployment in Devon. Norwich and Yorkshire had begun to produce a less expensive kind of wool cloth. This decline in their business almost certainly influenced the Boones to think of immigrating to the New World. George IV, Sarah, and Squire Boone traveled to Pennsylvania as early as 1713, and George IV and Squire soon joined the Friends Meeting there.
It would seem the younger Boones were sent to Pennsylvania to scout out opportunities for George III, and the rest of his family soon followed. But before he left Devonshire for America, George Boone III wrote out a confession to the local Society of Friends. The handwritten copy still exists in the Devon Hall of Records in Exeter. In the letter he admits a number of failings:
I am constrained to make mention of this my transgression not without grief but with trouble and sorrow of heart for this my wickedness—which was keeping of wild company and drinking by which I sometimes became guilty of drunkenness to the dishonour
And then he goes on to confess another shortcoming:
I fell into another gross evil which I also confess to my great shame and sorrow that I did so little regard the Lord and the dear mercies of the Lord, but went on in another gross sin by which the honour due unto marriage was lost, for the marriage bed was defiled.
Bradninch, 29th of the 12th month, 1716
Many Quakers had already gone to the New World in the 1600s. William Penn, the son of an admiral highly respected by King Charles II, had been inspired by the “inner light” as a youth and was expelled from Oxford University for refusing to attend Anglican services. He became associated with George Fox and preached on the Continent. He served as trustee for Quakers immigrating to the New World. By 1678 there were hundreds of Quakers from Yorkshire living in New Jersey.
Some had already crossed the Delaware into what would become Pennsylvania, where Swedish immigrants had earlier built settlements. The headquarters of the Quakers in America was established at
Burlington, New Jersey, in 1677. George Fox visited the community there to encourage the members.
On March 4, 1681, Charles II, to settle a debt claim to William Penn’s
late father, granted Penn a charter to twenty-eight million acres, all lands west of the Delaware River between forty and forty-five degrees and extending five degrees west. The king named the region Pennsylvania in honor of the late admiral. William Penn himself came to the colony in 1682. Penn’s proprietary land agent granted tracts of land to immigrants on generous terms. After a parcel was surveyed, the purchaser paid an annual quitrent of a penny an acre. Land could be bought outright, fee simple, at the price of one hundred pounds for five thousand acres. Settlers started to pour into the colony. Between 1682 and 1684, fifty ships arrived in Philadelphia, bringing settlers from London, Bristol, Ireland, Holland, and Germany. A number of Welsh began to arrive.
The Welsh immigrants tended to settle near each other in what was called the Welsh Tract, forty thousand acres with towns named Merion, Radnor, Haverford. The only physicians in the colony at this time were members of the Welsh community.
Edward Morgan of Bala, a Welsh Quaker who had arrived in 1691, settled with his family in the Moyamensing District of Philadelphia County. Nine years later they moved to Towamencin Township near Gwynedd. Here Squire Boone, who would become the father of
Daniel Boone, met Edward’s daughter Sarah. A Friend’s meetinghouse had been established at Gwynedd in 1701. George III and Mary Boone had moved there soon after they arrived in America.
The Morgans of Merionethshire in North Wales had become Quakers soon after George Fox visited there in 1657. Morgan is one of the most common names in Wales, along with Jones. Edward Morgan belonged to the tenth generation descended from Llewelyn Ap Morgan. That part of Wales is renowned for its mountain crags and mists. In the seventeenth century its main businesses were sheep grazing; knitting stockings, gloves, sweaters; and making wigs. Writing in the 1180s the historian and priest Giraldus Cambrensis described Merionethshire as “the roughest and rudest of all the Welsh districts. The mountains are very high, with narrow ridges and a great number of very sharp peaks, all jumbled together in confusion. If the shepherds who shout together and exchange comments from these lofty summits should ever decide to meet, it would take them almost the whole day to climb up and down again.”
Quakerism had taken root in that part of Wales following the preaching of Morgan Lloyd and John Ap John. Since the times of the Druids, the Welsh had been a people who loved music and praise. One of their own in the fifth century, named Morgan, had called himself Pelagius, translating Morgan (“of the sea”) into Latin, when he rose
to high office in Rome and preached a doctrine denying original sin. He gained many followers, until he was denounced as a heretic by Augustine of Hippo. The Welsh had always loved a religion of praise, and independence, preferring to seek peace, liberty, and happiness on their own terms and in their own rugged world.
When George Fox visited Wales, he found a small, though receptive, audience for his “quietism” and pursuit of the “inner light.” Fox’s best reception was in the mountains of Merionethshire, and there he invited his listeners to come to Pennsylvania to take part in the “holy experiment” with freedom and brotherhood on the banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill. Edward Morgan and his family had answered that call.
When George III and Mary Boone arrived in Pennsylvania in 1717 with their six younger children, Mary, John, Joseph, Benjamin,
James, and Samuel, they first lived with their son George IV and his wife, Deborah Howell Boone, in Abingdon. Before winter they moved to the Quaker community of North Wales. George IV had presented the certificate “of his orderly and good conversation” from Cullompton, Devonshire, to the Friends’ Abington meeting on “8 mo. 26, 1713.”
It was at Gwynedd, near Oley, that Squire Boone and Sarah
Morgan were given permission to marry on the thirtieth day of the Sixth Month in 1720. Quakers referred to the months by numbers to avoid using the pagan names such as January and February. Earlier that same year George III had been required to confess to the Gwynedd Monthly Meeting his “forwardship in giving his consent” to the marriage of his daughter Mary to someone “Contrary to the Establish’d order amongst us.” This was not the last time a Boone would be asked to confess and apologize to the Friends for the behavior of his children.
Squire Boone has been described as a rather small man, with fair skin, red hair, and gray eyes. Sarah Morgan was taller than most women, with black eyes and black hair, strong and active. The marriage
of Squire and Sarah is described in the Gwynedd Friends Meeting Book:
At a solemn assembly of the said people [Quakers] . . . the said Squire Boone took the said Sarah Morgan by the hand (and) did in a solemn manner declare that he took her to be his wife, promising to be unto her a faithful and loving husband, until death should separate them, and then and there in the said assembly Sarah Morgan did likewise declare.
In April 1718 George III moved his family to Oley, in Berks County, where his older daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Jacob Stover, had been living for three years. The new meetinghouse in Oley was named Exeter, after the town back in Devonshire. The stone building still stands and is used as a meetinghouse. George III bought four hundred acres of fine meadowland and forest. By 1728 George III had built a mill at Exeter, and we have the impression of years of prosperity. But after a period of peaceful relations with Indians, the area was suddenly threatened by Shawnees. George Boone wrote to the governor requesting help: “Our condition at present looks with a bad vizard, for undoubtedly the Indians will fall down upon us very suddenly, and our inhabitants are generally fled, there remains about 20 men with me to guard my mill.”
Many settlers were so frightened they left their homesteads. Within days eleven Indians, painted for war and carrying weapons, arrived near Van Bibber’s Township, going door to door demanding provisions and drink. A posse of twenty local men gathered to pursue the warriors. The leader of the Indian band refused to negotiate and fired on the settlers, wounding two before fading into the forest. The settlers took refuge in a mill, possibly George Boone’s. The Shawnees were on their way to join a party of Delawares in a campaign against the
“Flatfeet,” as the Catawbas were sometimes called. In all they wounded five settlers in what luckily turned out to be the only ever hostile encounter between whites and Native Americans in the Philadelphia area.
Because of their cooperation, craftsmanship, division of labor, and hard work, the Quakers were well adapted for frontier life. They were used to being frugal, self-reliant, resourceful. They raised their own sheep and flax, spun their own wool and linen, wove their own cloth. In the Philadelphia area the Quakers were in the majority and became the leaders of the colony.
The Boones were leaders of their community. Squire Boone became a trustee of the Oley Monthly Meeting, and his brother George IV and his wife, Deborah, deeded land for the Quaker burial ground. George III was a justice of the peace. Several Boones served as delegates to the quarterly and annual meetings of the Friends. The strong sense of community and brotherhood among the Quakers helped sustain them through the hardships of the frontier. They provided care and aid to the sick or struggling. At the same time they were strict about the conduct of their members, requiring violators to make a written confession of errors and acknowledgment of justice. The confessions were posted on the door of the meetinghouse.
Squire Boone was a weaver and blacksmith. He also farmed his land and ran a gristmill, and he had a substantial herd of cattle. A man of many parts, hardworking and talented, Squire was neighbor to Mennonites, Swedish Lutherans, Presbyterians, Huguenots, and Moravians as well as Quakers. Though he grew increasingly independent and liberal in his thinking, he was a man of patience and common sense. And like his father before him, he was touched with restlessness, curiosity, an urge to move on.
Among the Boones’ neighbors in the area were the extensive Lincoln family. “Boones and Lincolns several times intermarried. Sarah Lincoln sister of John Lincoln who was the gr[eat] grandfather of President Lincoln, married William Boone son of George Boone and Deborah (Howell) Boone by Friends Ceremony 8th mo 27th 1761.” Anne Boone, daughter of Squire’s brother James, married Abraham Lincoln on July 10, 1760. Because Lincoln was not a Quaker she was condemned by the Friends Meeting. Their daughter Mary later married a James Boone. Both Boones and Lincolns are buried in the yard of the Exeter Meeting House. The Boones and Lincolns would be acquainted later also in Virginia and Kentucky.
Squire and Sarah’s sixth child, Daniel, was born November 2, 1734 (October 22, Old Style). From the very beginning the family sensed that Daniel was different from the other children. Lively, apparently tireless, curious, when very young he helped out in the family trades of blacksmithing, milling, and farming. But family lore has it that from the very first Daniel liked to roam in the woods. Oley was mostly forest then, a green world of rolling hills and small streams, and from his childhood Daniel preferred to rove and study the ways of the wild. He seemed born to be an outdoorsman and hunter, the way John Keats
was born to be a poet. One early biographer described the infant
Daniel playing with his father’s powder horn and rifle where they had been laid down after a hunt.
Daniel’s closest relationship was with his mother, tall Welsh Sarah, with her black eyes and cheerful disposition. From his birth she seemed to favor Daniel of all her children, tolerating his pranks, his tendency to slip away into the woods for hours, for whole days. The bond between mother and son was intense, affectionate, inspiring. It seems she put her fondest hopes in this independent, sometimes wayward boy driven by enthusiasms for the wild and curiosity about the world beyond the farm, beyond the river. Daniel’s uncle John Webb took a particular interest in the boy also, “keeping him and petting him for weeks together” at his house with his own four children.
In October of 1744 Squire Boone bought twenty-five acres of land five miles north of his home in Oley. That was where he pastured his livestock, and from the age of ten Daniel accompanied Sarah there in summer to look after the cattle and sheep. From spring until fall he lived with her in a cabin in the woods. For the rest of his life Daniel would look back on those summers as an idyllic time. He was assigned to keep an eye on the herds and help with the cows, while his mother milked and made butter and cheese. Once a week they carried the milk and milk products on foot back to the homestead. For Daniel the forest was his mother world, a place of shadows and mystery, infinite diversions and pleasure; the settlement and town were the masculine world of trade and business, meetinghouse, authority and strictness. He would always be closer to the mother world than to the father world. His deepest affinity was with the forest and the streams.
Daniel spent much of those summers exploring the nearby and not-so-nearby woods. Though he had little formal schooling, he studied the ways of animals, of deer and bear, foxes and panthers. He learned to read signs, tracks and droppings, broken twigs, bent-down grass, torn moss. As an early biographer, W. H. Bogart, phrased it, “He learned lessons of the snow and the leaves and moss, and to detect, with a quick eye, the tread of foot.” From Sarah he seemed to have inherited a Quaker calm and patience, a sense of intimacy with place and weather, with all life, including Indian life and Indian ways. He delighted in solitude. It is likely that most of the milking and work with the dairy was done by his mother, since milking and butter making were considered women’s work.
From the beginning, the complexities and contradictions of Daniel’s
character seemed evident. He loved most to spend time alone in the woods, observing and learning, tracking and trapping and killing game. Indians still lived in the neighborhood when Boone was a boy. One Indian, a close friend of George Boone, built a cabin on Boone’s land, lived to an old age, and was buried close by. The local Shawnee Indians liked him because he respected their ways and admired their knowledge of the land and forest. There was almost a Franciscan humility and reverence for life in the young Boone, yet he was a hunter, a killer of the wild animals.
And though he was a Quaker, Daniel was a fighting Quaker. The stories of his youthful pranks and fights, told by Boone’s son Nathan to Lyman Draper in 1851, make it clear the young Daniel was no pacifist. Once two sisters, carrying a bucket of fish guts to empty during the shad run, saw Daniel sleeping under a tree. Unable to resist the
temptation, they dumped the contents of the bucket on his face. Brushing the slimy entrails out of his hair and eyes, the young Daniel jumped up and bloodied the girls’ noses and sent them home howling. Within minutes the girls’ mother stormed into Sarah Boone’s kitchen and accused Daniel of attacking her daughters. But the peaceable Quakeress would not tolerate the tirade against her son. “If thee has not brought up thy daughters to better behavior,” she said, “it is high time they were taught good manners. And if Daniel has given them a lesson, I hope for my part that it will in the end do them no harm. And I have only to add that I bid thee good day.”
The young Daniel often demonstrated a tendency to wander off without much concern for the worry his absence might cause others. However much he loved his mother, and however much he later loved his wife, Rebecca, his urge to hunt and wander and explore always came first.
From the time he was a boy Boone had a flair for the dramatic. He seemed to know instinctively how to make himself noticed, remembered. As a young man he began to create for himself the role of Daniel Boone, and he spent much of his life perfecting that role. Despite his later protestation that he was “but a common man,” he seemed aware from early in his youth that he was not just playing himself but a type, what Emerson would later call a Representative Man. Boone would embody in his actions and attitude the aspirations and character of a whole era.
At least once, Daniel became so distracted by his own explorations that he forgot the hours of the day, his home, the fact that he was supposed to help his mother. Before it got dark, Sarah had to round up the cattle herself and do the milking, strain the milk, and put it in the springhouse to stay cool. Calm and prayerful, she worked at churning butter from clabbered milk. But when Daniel did not come home by the next morning and still had not returned by noon, she had no choice but to walk the five miles back to town to get help.
A search party was formed and they combed over the Oley Hills all the way to the Neversink mountain range northwest of the Monocacy Valley. They found no sign of Daniel that afternoon. But starting out early the next morning they traveled farther and spotted a column of smoke. Late in the afternoon they reached the source of the smoke and found Daniel sitting on a bearskin and roasting fresh bear meat on the fire. When asked if he was lost, he said no, he had known where he was all along, on the south shoulder of the hill nine miles from the pasture. The search party accused him of scaring his mother and forcing them all to waste time looking for him. But he calmly answered he had started tracking the bear and didn’t want to lose it. And besides, here was fresh meat for everybody.
Whether this story is true, or just one of the legends that grew around Boone in later life, it reveals as much about the way he was perceived and remembered as it does about his character. People later recalled that even from his boyhood there was a sense that Daniel had been singled out. The story of the search party echoes the story in Luke 2:49 of the twelve-year-old Jesus lost from Mary and Joseph. The boy is finally found in the temple conversing with the elders. When he is questioned and scolded, he explains that he has been “about his Father’s business.” The sense of the story is that Boone had already found his calling and his destiny. It is clear he also knew how to make a memorable impression.
For Boone there was something erotic about the woods, a playground, a place of sometimes dangerous pleasure. And some would later suggest that with his lifelong passion for hunting, there was a part of Boone that never quite grew up.
Boone’s cunning and love of pranks are also recorded in many of the childhood anecdotes Lyman Copeland Draper and others collected later. One tale Boone himself liked to repeat in old age concerned his confinement to the house during an outbreak of smallpox. His mother would not let him or his sister Elizabeth outdoors to play. Sick of the imprisonment, young Daniel and Elizabeth decided to catch the smallpox themselves and get it over with so they could go out to play as usual. That night they slipped away to a neighbor’s house and crawled into bed with friends who were infected with smallpox, then returned home before daybreak.
When a few days later the red marks began to appear on him, Sarah grew suspicious. “Now, Daniel,” she said to her son, “I want thee to tell thy mother the whole truth.” Daniel readily confessed the initiative he had taken. “Thee naughty little gorrel,” she cried, “why did thee not tell me before, so I could have had thee better prepared.” Sarah called him an Old English word for knave but was too affectionate to punish him. It was the kind of story Boone as an old man liked to recall of his beloved mother.
Squire Boone, however, was not so indulgent with his sons. When he punished them he would swing the strap until they begged for
forgiveness. Then he would quit whipping and talk with them
calmly. But Daniel was more stubborn than his brothers and endured the punishment in silence. “Canst thou not beg?” the frustrated father would ask. But Daniel would never answer, leaving Squire to make up his own mind when the punishment was sufficient. Even as a boy Boone showed the stoicism and self-control he was later renowned for.
While he roved the woods and tended his father’s cattle, Daniel cut and carved a stick which he used to kill animals — rabbits and squirrels, possums and wild turkeys. Before he owned a gun Boone was already a hunter, with the patience, sharp eye, and deadly aim of the successful hunter who learned something new every day as he went into the woods again. He was proud of his skill at cleaning and dressing
a turkey. Often he cooked outdoors for himself and Sarah, hanging the bird on a stick over the flames, turning it to bake on all sides. With a piece of curved bark he caught the drippings, which he used to baste the turkey. When his mother asked how he had learned to do that, he said merely that an Indian had told him how it was done.
When Daniel was almost thirteen he was given his first firearm, a “short rifle gun” with which he roamed the nearby Flying Hills, the Oley Hills, and the Neversink Mountains. The Flying Hills were named for the flocks of turkeys that lived there. The rifle was probably made by Squire Boone, who, besides keeping six looms busy with hired hands, farming, and running his blacksmith shop and mill, was also a gunsmith. His skill at making and repairing guns was passed down to his fourth son. It would be an essential, lifesaving skill in later years, in the wilderness beyond the mountains.
As a blacksmith Squire Boone had taken an apprentice named Henry Miller, two or three years older than Daniel. Henry and Daniel
soon got into a fistfight, and then, as often happens with those who begin by fighting, they became lifelong friends. Henry taught Daniel blacksmithing and gunsmithing, as he learned the skills himself. Together they hunted and fished and played pranks on neighbors and on other members of the Boone family. Once they overloaded a rifle that was to be lent to a neighbor named Wilcoxen. Wilcoxen, who knew little about guns, was to pick up the already loaded rifle in the morning for a deer hunt. During the night the boys took out the lead ball, added six times the usual amount of powder, and replaced the bullet.
As soon as the neighbor took the rifle away, the boys realized what they had done. A seriously overloaded rifle might well explode, injuring Wilcoxen, perhaps even killing him. Sick with guilt and dread, they listened as he stalked off into the woods. Later they heard a report like the blast of a cannon and, running toward the sound of the blast, were relieved to see Wilcoxen stumbling out of the woods, his face bruised and bloody from a cut on his forehead. He said the recoil of the gun had thrown him to the ground.
When he heard the story, Squire Boone answered that the load had been so light he could have rested the gun on his nose without hurting it. Daniel and Henry asked Wilcoxen if he had killed the deer, but the poor man was so surprised by the force of the blast he hadn’t noticed his target. But Wilcoxen recovered his dry wit and commented that he thought “it was a pretty dear shot.” The boys ran into the woods and found the deer and brought it to the neighbor, who likely after that learned to load his gun for himself.
Because of the family’s strict Quaker principles, the Boone children were not allowed to attend parties or dances. But Daniel and Henry heard of a frolic to be held in a distant town, and giving each other courage, or daring themselves, they decided to borrow Squire Boone’s horse in the night and ride away to the dance. After an evening of celebration, perhaps after sampling some of the local hard cider, they decided to jump the horse carrying both of them over one of Squire’s cows sleeping in the pasture. The cow awakened and started to rise, rear first, just as the horse began its leap. Daniel and Henry slammed to the ground shaken but unhurt, but the horse broke its neck and died. The boys returned the bridle and saddle to the barn and crept back into the house as if nothing had happened. Squire never solved the mystery of how a healthy horse could let itself out of the barn and break its neck in an open pasture.
One of the pranks credited to Boone and Henry Miller was taking apart piece by piece the wagons of neighbors who had scolded them and placing the wagonwheels on the ridgepoles of the owners’ barns. But these may have been Halloween tricks more than acts of revenge.
Daniel began to acquire a reputation for prowess, cunning, and willpower. From an early age he could walk miles without getting tired and swim any river or pond. He could outrun other boys and he always seemed to win fights and wrestling matches. With bow and arrow he always seemed to win shooting matches, and with a rifle he was without peer. If he and his friends played “Hunt the Indian,” he always found the Indian. If it was his turn to be the Indian, he disappeared and could not be found. Once he and Henry and other boys were carrying their rifles in the woods and surprised a panther sunning on the riverbank. It screamed and started to charge. The other boys ran, but Daniel stood his ground, leveling his sights at the bounding cat. Just as the creature was about to leap at him, he fired and the cat fell dead at his feet.
There has been much debate about Boone’s education. Late in life he told his children he had never had one day of schooling. A nephew later told a story of young Daniel attending a school taught by an Irishman who was both fond of the bottle and handy with the cane. The teacher frequently repaired to the woods for a sip from his hidden jug. One day while squirrel hunting Daniel found the bottle and laced the liquor with an herbal emetic. Later, as he was wracked by violent heaves and spasms, the teacher noticed Daniel giggling and realized he was the culprit. Attempting to whip the boy, the sick Irishman got knocked to the floor by the independent youth. Sarah Boone rebuked her son for violence but didn’t force him to return to school.
Whatever the truth about his schooling, the fact is that Daniel Boone could read and write. As a militia officer, storekeeper, land agent, surveyor, magistrate, and legislator he wrote thousands of letters and reports, many of them still in existence. And he enjoyed reading, especially history books, the Bible, and later Gulliver’s Travels. There is reason to believe he knew Robinson Crusoe quite well. But his spelling was erratic, even imaginative. The orthography of his many notes and letters, bills and survey accounts, is part of the legend. Lyman Draper reports that Boone was actually taught to read and write by his brother Samuel’s wife, Sarah Day. Draper offered his own description of Boone’s writing: “He could at first do little more than write his own name in an uncouth and mechanical way. To these humble beginnings, he added something as he grew up, by his own practical application . . .
His compositions bear the marks of a strong common sense, yet, as might be expected, exhibiting defects in orthography, grammar and style, by no means infrequent.”
Draper applies strict, Victorian standards to Boone’s handwriting and spelling. Another story relating to Boone’s education, or rather lack thereof, concerns his bachelor uncle John who kept a subscription school nearby and was liberal in applying the rod. Daniel refused to attend, and Sarah took his side, critical of excessive caning. John complained to his brother Squire.
“It’s all right, John,” Daniel’s father answered. “Let the girls do the spelling and Dan will do the shooting, and between you and me that is what we most need.” Whether the story is true or not, it implies a very common course of events, as educated immigrants to America found little opportunity or time for education for their children. The second generation of the immigrants often had less education than the first. “They took the powder horn and left the ink horn at home,” the biographer W. H. Bogart later wrote. From infancy Daniel had been exposed to daily readings from the Bible, and it is likely its words made a lasting impression on him “in the mighty solitudes of his after years.”
There were few schools in the area of Oley at the time. But the fact is all the other Boone sons received a respectable education. As far as we know only Daniel avoided school and the rules of grammar and spelling. It would seem his parents early on recognized his skills as a hunter and woodsman who provided the family with venison and turkey, squirrels and rabbits, as well as hides and furs. It was practical to let him do what he did better than anyone else.
Later in his life, in a moment of great danger, Boone would write sentences such as, “Your company is desired greatly, for the people are very uneasy, but are willing to stay and venture their lives with you, and now is the time to flusterate their [the Indians’] intentions, and keep the country whilst we are in it.” This letter, written to Richard Henderson on April 1, 1775, as Boone and his men were hacking out Boone’s Trace after being attacked by Indians, shows he had some command of language, as well as a flair for making up words and spelling. We don’t know, of course, how much help he had with the letter from his son-in-law Will Hays.
However poor or creative Boone’s spelling was, he did know how to spell his name, always with an e at the end, proving that the famed inscriptions such as “D. Boon Cilled a bar on tree in the year 1760” were almost certainly made by someone else.
Young Daniel’s greatest teachers were the woods themselves and the Indians he watched and questioned and imitated. We talk often of the impact of the white culture on the Native Americans, but the influence of the Indian culture on the white was just as significant. As John Mack Faragher has pointed out, in Europe hunting was the preserve of the nobility. Most of those who came to America learned to hunt from Indian ways. Not only did the settlers and hunters learn much about hunting and trapping and survival from the Indians, they also learned the use of herbs and roots and berries, medicines, the lay of the land and courses of rivers to the west.
The Boone family, like William Penn himself, had always been known to be friendly to the Indians. George III had organized a rescue of two Indian girls who had been kidnapped. Indians passing through the neighborhood were often invited to eat and drink and stay the night at the Boone home. In 1736 a chief called Sassoonan, “King of the Schuylkill Delawares,” stayed at the Boone homestead with a party of twenty-five.
Relations between Indians and whites in Pennsylvania were more peaceful than in the other colonies. In the woods along the Schuylkill above Philadelphia, white hunters who lived like Indians were seen frequently along the trails and beside the streams. Indians of many different tribes mingled in the hills and villages north of Oley, Tuscaroras and Tutelas, Conoys and Nanticokes, Shawnees and Susquehannocks and Delawares. One nearby Indian village, called Manangy’s Town, was later renamed Reading.
Besides the minor outbreak of fighting in 1728, there were no Indian raids on the southeastern Pennsylvania frontier in the eighteenth century. It was a time when the Indians were learning from the Europeans to use firearms, wear woven cloth, build log cabins, use metal tools, and drink whiskey. And from the Natives the white hunters learned the ways of the American woods, the best techniques for hunting deer and bear and trapping beavers, mink, and otter. From the Indians the hunters learned to prepare bear bacon and jerk from venison. They learned to cure deer hides and buffalo hides and bearskins. And they learned the beauty and value of furs, the glistening pelts of beavers that populated almost every stream in the forest. The pelts of mink and otter, fox and muskrat, raccoon and pine marten, were also useful and beautiful, warm and silky to the touch. Most luxuriant of all was the otter, its fur deep and dark and sparkling, soft as a whisper to the fingertips, shining with mystery. In the Old World fur was reserved for royalty. In the North American forests fur was there for anyone with the skill to take it.
The hide of the deer was used mostly for clothing. Scraped and tanned, softened and smoothed, buckskin was common as khaki is now. Deer hides were such a familiar item of frontier trade that the Spanish dollar, worth about one hide, came to be called a buck. Buckskin served many purposes on the frontier, used for clothes, strings, and pouches. Prepared right, it was soft and pliable. However, when wet, buckskin tended to become very heavy, and it shrank as it dried out.
The American long rifle, developed by German gunsmiths in Pennsylvania, was the weapon of choice for hunters of both races. It was light and sturdy and could be accurate at up to two hundred yards in the hands of a skilled marksman. But both white and Indian hunters used other firearms as well—British muskets, Dutch shotguns, pistols. A man’s rifle was his most important companion in the forest. The saying was he should select a rifle as carefully as a wife.
As they interacted more and more with the whites, Indians changed their customs and dress. With the traditional buckskin leggings and breech clout, the Indians often wore the long linen hunting shirts donned by the white woodsmen. The log cabin and stockade were almost impossible to build without metal tools. For centuries the Indians had lived in shelters made of poles and bark, hides and brush. But once the Indians had metal axes and saws, adzes and augers, they too made log dwellings, similar to those the whites built. It is said that Indians preferred to notch their logs on the underside, while whites notched theirs on the top.
It has long been observed that white and Indian communities on the frontier mirrored each other in many ways. From the Indians the whites learned herbal medicines, hunting techniques, crops fitted to
the local climate and soil, preparation of hides and furs, geography of the regions farther west. From the whites the Indians acquired firearms, metal tools, whiskey, cloth, small grains, and a number of diseases that killed more Natives than all the wars combined.
It was in this world of mingling Indian and European cultures that Daniel Boone’s character and aspirations were formed. He became an expert marksman, tracker, and trapper. He never forgot a trail or place he’d seen. But at the same time he was part of a large close family, loyal and affectionate, good natured and often funny. He loved to enjoy himself and be with friends before vanishing into the woods again, emerging days later with bear meat, a deer, pelts to trade. These two sides to his character seemed to be there from the first. From childhood he seemed to inhabit a “middle ground” between white and Indian cultures. And he served at times as a kind of double agent, his loyalties complex and divided between his several worlds and kinships.