Daniel Boone: Facts vs. Hearsay

A variety of Boone sources. Photo by author.

In Hollywood terms, biographies of Daniel Boone might be advertised as, “Based on a true story.” Daniel Boone being known as a legendary Kentucky trailblazer is an undisputed fact in American history.

That he was a backcountry militia leader during the Revolutionary War is a fact substantiated primarily by sketchy frontier rosters and pension statements taken in the early nineteenth century. These deposition statements by widows or elderly veterans of the southern campaigns make reference to (“captain” and later “colonel”) Daniel Boone or “Boon,” who by the date of the depositions was already becoming an American folklore legend. But how much of the sworn statements were true or simply “misremembrances” from occurrences a half a century before?  Or were they simply aging backwoodsmen who, if their legacy couldn’t be intertwined with a legend like Daniel Morgan, would certainly be happy being linked forever with Daniel Boone?

Secondary evidence abounds surrounding Boone’s militia life. Boone biographies (of which there are many… many) report how Boone was a “waggoner” (teamster) in Braddock’s ill-fated bloody ambush during the French and Indian War. The “eyewitness account” of Boone’s court martial connected with the defense of Boonesboro (or Boonesborough) was written fifty years after the trial.[1] In another tale, was Daniel Boone really captured by the infamous Banastre Tarleton? It sounds too good to be true. Slightly better secondary source material exists concerning Boone’s association with George Rogers Clark and the Battle of Blue Licks. A seasoned historian treats many nineteenth century “recollections” of American Revolution stories with a degree of suspicion. The remembrances might be a bit of nostalgia coupled with some family pride thrown in. It’s only when the recollections can be compared, and agree with original primary sources, that the recollections might be deemed reliable.

But that’s the problem with source material specifically about Daniel Boone. Sure, he was starting to become known on the Virginia-Kentucky border even in the 1770s. But he was far from the internationally-known folk legend that he would become. Boone spent his whole militia life in the backwoods country protecting settlers from Indian raiding tribes allied with the British. Records were rarely kept out there, and if so, were notoriously brief or inaccurate. Had Boone been deeply entrenched along the Atlantic seaboard with either the Continental Army or even the British Army, he at least would have been recorded for posterity in some definitive roster somewhere. But he wasn’t, and that’s where Daniel Boone the militiaman, separates from Daniel Boone the legend.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

A good historian, or “Historiographer”[2] as Washington sometimes called them, is always looking for material that is straight out of a person’s mouth or from his pen. That’s considered a primary source. When it comes to source material about the American Revolution, since there were no tape recorders or e-mails, we rely upon things like letters, journals, and diaries. In the “two sides to every story” area, if you’re familiar with whom a person was and what their feelings were, you would read the verbatim statement knowing that it came from that person’s point of view. But that’s the huge advantage of primary sourcing: “He was there. He saw it happen, felt it, experienced it on many levels.”[3]

A secondary source would be akin to hearsay. For instance, if a historian in 2016 wrote that he read that a historian in 1932 had seen in someone’s book in 1895 that the British fired the first shot at Lexington. That’s how myths get created and passed along until the myths are repeated as facts. (Even a newspaper from during the Revolutionary War might be considered a secondary source since papers then were often notoriously allied with Whig or Tory factions, and believe it or not, sensationalism was sometimes more important than printing the truth. Unlike today.)

John Adams and Primary Sources

The importance of primary source material is best explained by someone who was fanatical about leaving future Americans plenty of primary source stuff (and making sure it was all from his point of view), John Adams.

In January 1783, while in Paris, John Adams ran into the French historian and philosopher known as the Abbé de Mably. The Abbé casually mentioned to Adams that he was writing a new book about the history of the American Revolution. Adams was shocked! The war was hardly over! Adams asked how the Abbé was going to get the information? The Abbé replied that he was going to ask some people about it.

Gasp! Adams realized Abbé de Mably was writing the history of the American Revolution using secondary sources!

Adams reprimanded the Abbé and then sent him a lengthy letter[4] telling him all of the source material he had better have to begin writing his history book. He should use primary source material such as, “records, pamphlets and gazettes of the thirteen states … as well as the journals of Congress.”[5] Adams was sure to include “… the writings and whenever possible the personal correspondence of all the revolutionary leaders.”[6] Historian Dr. Page Smith concluded, “If the Abbé had any plan to write a history, he at once disavowed it; he would be dead, he protested, before he had a chance to assemble half the necessary materials.”[7]

The Primary Problem with Boone

Daniel Boone was actually interviewed in-person four times. But with each occurrence, there was a problem:

  • John Filson – Filson was the first person to personally interview Daniel Boone. A good start for primary sourcing. Filson’s 1784 book, Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke ran the Boone interview as a story told by “Boon” himself as an appendix in the back of the broader book. In “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon; containing a Narrative of the Wars of Kentucke,” Boone seemed to talk in a philosophical manner, when in reality Daniel Boone didn’t talk much at all. Although he was not illiterate and he often spelled phonetically, Boone put pen to paper even less than he spoke. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that Boone didn’t trust written words and had been cheated multiple times out of his legal rights and land holdings by clever (lying) words that had been deviously written down. In fact, out on the edges of the frontier where Boone spent most of his life, there was even a scorn for the written word for all the reasons mentioned. Knowing that, we would suppose that Boone hadn’t narrated phrases in Filson’s book such as “May the same Almighty Goodness banish the accursed monster, war, from all lands, with her hated associates, rapine and insatiable ambition.”[8] Filson’s primary source account, written by Filson himself in a flowery, elegant style of the time, is flawed as a historical narrative.
  • John Boone Calloway – By 1809, Boone was living in Missouri, formerly Spanish territory. Because of the Louisiana Purchase, Boone needed homesteading proof in drafting his land grant request petitions to Congress. Just as a veteran would dictate battle memories to substantiate his pension requests, Boone dictated his autobiography to his grandson, John Boone Calloway. This would have been a superb example of a primary source account … except … in 1814, Calloway’s canoe (carrying the Boone autobiography) tipped over in the Missouri River and the whole manuscript was sent quickly flowing down river. Lost forever.
  • Thomas Flint – Flint saw the popularity of Filson’s story of Boone and wanted to get in on that. Flint conducted the third in-person interview with Daniel Boone himself. Great primary source material, and Flint’s 1833 book Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky; Interspersed with Incidents in the Early Annals of the Country became a huge blockbuster, cementing Boone as a hero in the pages of American history. By 1868, the book was in its fourteenth edition. Unfortunately, the stories in it are ridiculous, albeit hair-raising. How about Boone, while being chased by Indians, swinging from tree to tree so as to not leave footprints?[9] As a historical primary source narrative, Flint’s book is flawed, although it’s fun reading.
  • John Mason Peck – Although Peck conducted the fourth in-person interview with Boone in 1818, his book is shaded by the fact that Peck was a Baptist missionary in Missouri who had zeroed in on a sentence supposedly said by Boone in Filson’s biography: that Boone considered himself “an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness.”[10] This was also known as “Manifest Destiny” and Peck’s 1847 book segment, “Life of Daniel Boone – the Pioneer of Kentucky”[11] is peppered with wilderness-conquering religious phrases such as “gospel ministry,” “Episcopalians,” “Deity,” “Christianity,” “God,” and “sacred Scriptures.” The primary information gleaned from Boone’s fourth grant for a personal interview once again became tainted by the author’s slant.
  • Lyman Draper – All through the 1800s, Draper (of the Wisconsin Historical Society) interviewed and collected manuscripts of famous people with the frenzy of a crazy person. He never got around to writing or finishing his books, he just collected an unbelievable amount of notes and manuscripts. Draper’s manuscript collection today is famous and contains five hundred volumes. His notes on Daniel Boone take up nearly thirty-three volumes. In the 1840s, Draper started his extremely detailed book, The Life of Daniel Boone, even though Boone had died in 1820. By 1856 and after eight hundred pages, Draper shelved the book. But Draper’s research is important to Boone biographers because in 1851 he actually interviewed Boone’s youngest son and his wife, Nathan Boone[12] and Olive Van Bibber Boone, in Missouri, and took three hundred pages of notes during his three week stay. Although Boone’s surviving son and wife might be considered good secondary sourcing, the interview was conducted sixty to eighty years after the events they spoke of, so again, the information is suspect.
  • Reuben Gold Thwaites, John Bakeless, Michael A. Lofaro, John Mack Faragher, Meredith Mason Brown, Neal O. Hammon, Ted Franklin Belue – Spanning almost 120 years, these are some of the more “reputable” authors on Boone stuff. But their works still revolve around earlier dubious biographies and primarily the vast note collection from Lyman Draper:
  • In 1902, Reuben Thwaites (who took over Wisconsin State Historical Society secretarial duties from Draper) used Draper’s notes to write Daniel Boone.
  • In 1998, the Draper manuscripts were finally edited and published as The Life of Daniel Boone, edited and annotated by Ted Franklin Belue.
  • In the next year, 1999, the Draper notes relating to the interview of Nathan and Olive Boone were edited and published as My Father, Daniel Boone, by Neal O. Hammond.
  • Boone scholars generally consider John Mack Faragher’s 1992 book, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer as the best overall Boone book. In his “Introduction,” Faragher tells readers of the primary research problems with Boone. Along with the Draper notes, Faragher utilized

“… public record of the events in which he participated, the accounts of his contemporaries, and several important semiautobiographical narratives of his own adventures. There are also letters and accounts written in his own hand. But the bulk of the evidence is reminiscent and recollection gathered by nineteenth-century historians and antiquarians. Some people supplied eyewitness accounts, others hearsay information.”[13]

Ultimately, Faragher admitted “Much of this evidence is what might be called folklore” and that many of the Boone facts “are entwined with the legend.”[14]

None of this makes a historian’s job any easier. Separating fact from fiction. Being suspicious until proven true. Examing where a particular detail actually came from and pin-pointing the first place and time it was used. And being wary of what source is reliable and what’s not. In the case of legends like Daniel Boone, we do well to recall the famous line from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Point in fact, unlike Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone TV character, the real Boone didn’t wear a coonskin cap. He wore a flat, broad brim hat and considered a coonskin cap “uncivilized.”[15] But at the Fort Boonesborough gift shop, what’s the biggest selling piece of merchandise? Their Daniel Boone coonskin cap. Go figure.

 

[1] Daniel Trabue, a witness to Boone’s court-martial, wrote an account of the Boonesborough siege and the only surviving record of the trial in 1827, some forty-nine years after the events.

[2] George Washington to William Gordon, October 23, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09783), accessed March 15, 2016.

[3] Page Smith, The Historian and History (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 198.

[4] John Adams to the Abbé de Mably, January 15, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-14-02-0111-0004), accessed April 2, 2016. Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 14, October 1782–May 1783, ed. Gregg L. Lint, C. James Taylor, Hobson Woodward, Margaret A. Hogan, Mary T. Claffey, Sara B. Sikes, and Judith S. Graham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, 172–180.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, The Historian and History, 38.

[8] John Filson and Paul Royster (editor), “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) : An Online Electronic Text Edition” (1784). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 3. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=etas , accessed March 19,2016, 61.

[9] Timothy Flint, Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky; Interspersed with Incidents in the Early Annals of the Country; An Online Electronic Text Edition of the New York Public Library, https://archive.org/details/biographicalmem00flingoog , accessed March 15, 2016, 68-69.

[10] Filson and Royster, “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” 61.

[11] John M. Peck, “Life of Daniel Boone – the Pioneer of Kentucky,” https://archive.org/stream/makersofamerican00pe#page/4/mode/2up , accessed April 4, 2016, 149.

[12] For being gone so much in the wilderness from the house, Boone still managed to father ten children.

[13]   John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1992), XV – XVI.

[14] Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, XVI.

[15] Lyman C. Draper, LL.D. and Ted Franklin Belue (ed.), The Life of Daniel Boone (Mechanicsburg, PA., Stackpole Books, 1998), 225. “Boone called such fur caps – which were Indian wear – ‘uncivilized’”.

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3 Comments

  • One of the best stories on Boone is the abduction of his daughter, Jemima, and Elizabeth and Frances Callaway, by natives – who took them from Boonesborough and inspired a chase through the woods by Boone and a few other men. Yet I believe the entire story is based on one letter of 1776 in the Draper Collection, which itself is a nineteenth century copy of the “original” letter, which is now missing. Thus, one must question whether the copy is a fabrication and whether the abduction itself really happened. Did no one else – including the abductees – feel the event was important enough the write down?
    Many events which we accept as true – Washington’s tearful farewell at Fraunces Tavern, Charles O’Hara surrendering his sword to Washington, who then pointed to Benjamin Lincoln, at Yorktown, Washington’s “I have nearly gone blind in your service” speech at Newburgh – are based on the flimsiest of sources. None of them is backed up by a handwritten source from any witness. And so, with the exploits of Boone, we should be vigilant to ask whether what we know is genuine.

  • John, thank you for an excellent description of the mechanics of the historian’s craft, and the challenges involved in separating fact from fiction when analyzing various conflicting primary and secondary sources. I also enjoyed your selection of Daniel Boone, a larger than life character who exemplifies for me the “entertainment value” of history; I must confess, I love sleuthing out the facts, but the legend can be fun too.

    • Ron, the lure of Daniel Boone as “larger than life character” to read and write about in American history is powerful. Then to think he played a role in the Revolutionary War is even more exciting to a historian or a reader of history.

      But that’s when one has to put on the historian hat to analyze “various conflicting primary and secondary sources”, as you said. Glad you understand the “mechanics of the historian’s craft” and thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts.

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