In many respects John Mack Faragher's "Daniel Boone" is less a conventional biography than a vivid parable of frontier life. Important and difficult questions about our role as a people in shaping the recent development of this continent are posed in these pages. Faragher's honesty, fairness and sensitivity in "reading" Boone's life supply not so much a definitive answer to such provocative and unsettling questions, as a sense that in confronting them we are being accompanied by a trusty, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide.
A professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, Faragher is the author of "Men and Women on the Overland Trail," which received the Frederick Jackson Turner award, and the widely acclaimed "Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie." He is an accomplished scholar who approaches this job--the first full-scale biography of Boone since Richard Bakeless' classic study done in the 1930s--well-equipped with the methods of contemporary anthropology and cultural history. His unblinking registration of the harsh, often squalid and not infrequently brutal aspects of pioneer life reveals much unvarnished truth beneath the stereotypical frontier images. While crediting the efforts of the advancing settlers in carving out a nation, Faragher never allows us to forget that this nation is being carved forcibly from the traditional lands of indigenous peoples. And, in his extensive use of folklore and oral transmission as sources, he deftly explores the intimate relation between popular myth and national identity, observing tellingly how the Boone story's curious "inherently elusive quality" has allowed Americans to discover in it many significant truths about their deeper aspirations, regrets and longings.
Daniel Boone was born in 1734 in a one-room log cabin in the upper Schuylkill River valley of Pennsylvania. The Boones, a family of immigrant Cornish Quaker weavers and tenant farmers, congregated in that valley, and were notable for their clannishness--a strong extended-family bonding that interpenetrated with community life in ways that for Daniel became a template of civic responsibility, counterbalancing and over the years often conflicting with the image of freedom represented for him by the solitary life of the wilderness.
The first and perhaps most accurate and lasting of many legends to attach themselves to Boone's name was his reputation for woodcraft. The forest was his classroom. His famous illiteracy was no more than a myth--he knew how to read well enough to enjoy many fireside hours in lonely wilderness encampments with his favorite book, "Gulliver's Travels," that Ur-text of 18th-Century geographical curiosity--but he had little patience with orthodox education, and could not abide school for long. As a strapping lad of 15 he was already known as one of the best backwoods hunters in the region of his birth.
Given a "short rifle gun" by his father in his 12th or 13th year, he became an excellent marksman, his growing "love for the chase" soon inducing him to neglect the cows and take off on his own into the woods, reappearing with enough game to supply the family with meat for a week.
Quaker traditions of tolerance lay behind a family attitude in the Boone clan of respect toward the natives who inhabited the woods surrounding their Schuylkill settlements.
The adult Boone, as Faragher shows, though often finding himself forced into the reluctant role of "Indian fighter" (usually in defense of his family's lives or his own), was never an "Indian hater." On this point the biographer cites Boone's own simple declaration in old age that he had "never delighted in shedding human blood" and had "avoided it whenever he could"; he had taken some Indian lives, he acknowledged, but was "very sorry to say that I ever Killed any, for they have always been kinder to me than the whites." Even when directly (and sometimes violently) contending with native peoples for the abundant natural riches of the forests, Boone managed to regard them as no worse than friendly rivals, and was able without particular inconvenience to live as they did--or even to live among them in one period of four month's semi-voluntary "captivity" during which he became a Shawnee chief's adoptive son.
In the late 1740s, after the Boones' Pennsylvania community ties were dissolved by the expulsion of his father from the Quakers, Daniel guided kith and kin on the first of several clan migrations he would lead in his lifetime, southwest over the Allegheny trail into backcountry North Carolina. Within two decades, increasing settlement of Carolina had forced the Boone clan further west, across the Blue Ridge into the fertile, Edenic country of Kentucky. Boone conducted the advance party of a great migratory wave--it would soon swell to some 300,000 settlers, many of them following his trans-Appalachian route--over the Wilderness Road, which he cut himself into that promised land of blue grass and abundant buffalo.