Advertisement

Explorer Daniel Boone Blazed a Trail to the American West

Daniel Boone was a frontiersman who was friend (and foe) to the Shawnee and Cherokee Indians during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Library of Congress/bauhaus1000/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

If you came of age in the 1960s, Daniel Boone was as familiar to you as banana seat bikes and 45s on the turntable. You can probably still hum the song from the TV show:

From the coonskin cap on the top of ol' Dan
To the heel of his rawhide shoe;
The rippin'est, roarin'est, fightin'est man
The frontier ever knew!

If you weren't around then... well, go ahead and break out an, "OK, Boomer" or two. But that, for ol' Dan fans and anyone who appreciates American history, would be a shame.

Advertisement

Advertisement

"I think people overall today admire him," says Sam Compton, the president of The Boone Society, a group of genealogists, historians and descendants of the Boone family. "Unfortunately, today's youth, if you asked them who Daniel Boone is, they don't even know. That's part of our struggle. If our generation doesn't educate future generations about the foundation of this nation, it'll be lost forever."

Daniel Boone (1734-1820) was famous enough to inspire a long-running TV show some 50-odd years ago. A national forest in Kentucky is named after him, along with at least one town, several counties and a submarine. His likeness is captured, in a struggle with an Indian, in one of the four relief sculptures over the doors of the rotunda in the U.S. Capitol.

He is, without a shred of hyperbole, an American icon.

If you don't know Daniel Boone, here are some nuggets to consider about this bona fide frontiersman.

Advertisement

1. Don't Confuse Him With Davy Crockett

The two never met, but they're often confused for one another. Mixing them up is somewhat understandable, for a few reasons. Both were pioneers and woodsmen who spent much of the early part of their lives in the mountains of the eastern United States, mainly Tennessee (Crockett) and Kentucky (Boone). Both fought in militias, and later became politicians.

But the main reason the two sometimes are hard to separate is that, on television, both were famously portrayed by the same man.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Fess Parker, a 6-foot-6 actor and singer who was born in Texas in 1924, portrayed Boone in the six-year run of "Daniel Boone" (1964-70) and Crockett in a mid-1950s TV miniseries that was later made into a feature film.

Crockett had a song, too, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

Daniel Boone
This mural painting titled, "Gateway to the West," by David Wright shows Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty

2. Boone Blazed a Trail Through the Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap is an area in the Appalachian Mountains near the intersection of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Its early roots can be traced back to trails created by buffalo that once roamed the region. The Cherokee and Shawnee tribes used the trails — known to them as Athowominee, which means "Path of the Armed Ones" or "The Great Warrior's Path" — as a war path to attack each other.

In 1773, Boone tried to lead his family and several others to Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap, but they were attacked by Cherokee Indians, and Boone's son and two others were killed. In 1775, the Transylvania Company wanted to colonize the land around the Kentucky River and establish Kentucky as a colony, and it hired Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap.

On March 10, 1775, Boone and 30 other road cutters left Long Island of Holston River, a sacred Cherokee site, and headed north along the Path through Moccasin Gap in the Clinch Mountains. They eventually crossed the Clinch River (near what is now Speers Ferry, Virginia) and crossed Powell Mountain through Kane's Gap and into the Powell River Valley in Tennessee. By April, Boone and his men reached the south side of the Kentucky River.

Today the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail marks the route that Boone and the 30 men helped blaze. It begins in Tennessee, winds north into Virginia, then westward toward the Cumberland Gap, which opens into what is now the state of Kentucky. Some 250,000 to 300,000 pioneers and settlers took the trail in the decades after Boone marked it.

3. He Was Friend — and Foe — to the Indians

That carving in Washington, D.C. is a popular image of Boone, in hand-to-hand combat with Indians. And, in truth, he engaged in several skirmishes and killed an unknown number of Indians, not unusual at a time when newcomers were trying to get a foothold in a land that didn't belong to them.

But Boone's relationship with the Native Americans was complicated. On July 5, 1776, Indians captured his daughter and two of her friends. Boone staged an ambush and rescued the girls — the incident became the inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper's historical novel, "The Last of the Mohicans."

A few years later in 1778, Boone was captured by Shawnee Chief Blackfish who adopted him as his son. From his writings, in "Daniel Boone's Own Story:"

At Chilicothe I spent my time as comfortably as I could expect, was adopted, according to their custom, into a family, where I became a son, and had a great share in the affection of my new parents, brothers, sisters, and friends.

Boone escaped after four months and later fought the same Shawnee Indians in their attempt to overtake Fort Boonesborough in central Kentucky.

"He had more friends with Indians than he had enemies," says Compton, whose wife, Caroline, is a descendant of Daniel's youngest sister, Hannah. "The Cherokee in the south, and the Shawnee in the north, they had great respect for Daniel Boone. They admired him for his abilities; hunting and shooting, etcetera."

Daniel Boone
Daniel Boone rescues his daughter Jemima, and Betsey and Frances Callaway from the clutches of the Shawnee, after they were abducted from the settlement of Boonesboro, Kentucky.
MPI/Getty Images

4. Boone Was Court-Martialed

That attack on Fort Boonesborough brought about one of the more shocking moments of Boone's life, when he was charged with treason in 1778 for conspiring with the British and the Shawnee.

The story is complicated, but after his four months in captivity with the Shawnee, many settlers in Fort Boonesborough wondered about Boone's loyalty. After his escape, when he tried to negotiate with the Shawnee to avoid an attack on the settlement — taking some men with him to the talks — some saw it as a clever way to weaken the fort's defenses.

Some 500 Shawnee eventually attacked the fort in an 11-day siege, but Boone and his militia successfully defended it. The court-martial followed. Boone was acquitted, then promoted.

5. He May be Buried in Two Places

Boone was born in Pennsylvania, moved to North Carolina as a boy, then spent much of his life in Kentucky. After some disastrous land deals left him financially strapped, the ever-restless Boone continued westward, leaving the United States to settle in a part of Spanish-held Louisiana that is now Missouri. Spain gave him a title and some land, and he spent the last few years of his life hunting and fishing in the area.

He died in 1820 and was buried near Marthasville, Missouri. Decades later, his remains were exhumed and reinterred in Frankfort, Kentucky. At one time, some suggested the bones that were taken to Kentucky weren't those of Boone at all. But Compton has another theory befitting a man who spent much of his life on the road.

"Here's the ironic thing. They didn't have any embalming or procedure for burials back then like they do today. So when you got a body in a wooden coffin sitting in the damp ground for 30 years, when they dug it up, all they had was some large bones. The rest of it had more or less dissolved into the earth. They just collected the large bones and took them up there [to Frankfort]," Compton says from his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. "The people in Missouri say, 'Well, Frankfort thinks that they've got the body of Daniel Boone. They got his large bones. But we got his heart still here in Missouri.'"

Advertisement

Advertisement


Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement