Daniel Boone
Portrait of Daniel Boone (Chester Harding/National Portrait Gallery)

Ask older Americans to describe who Daniel Boone was, and they’ll likely conjure up an image of a resourceful frontiersman clad in buckskin and a coonskin cap, clutching a rifle as he explores Appalachian forests, defending fellow settlers from ferocious Indians, wolves, and grizzly bears, a role model for Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill. He was passed down to Baby Boomers as an archetype, the leader of the first westward advance of the newborn United States’s manifest destiny, mastering the wilderness and repelling savages so civilization could be built in the relative safety of his wake.

The Taking of Jemima Boone
The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America by Matthew Pearl Harper, 288 pp.

He’s therefore exactly the sort of icon due for a reckoning—a backcountry conqueror invading other nations’ homelands, slaughtering their people and destroying their civilizations to make way for the white Protestants’ imperialist expansion. In a 2021 historical reexamination, Boone is a prime candidate for cancellation. 

The prosecution’s case could well prevail, but it gets a lot less clear-cut the more you learn about the man and the world in which he operated. Matthew Pearl’s new book, The Taking of Jemima Boone, offers a fascinating corrective, bringing the real Kentucky frontier—Boone and all—alive, and providing both a devastating brief against the received Boone myth and a nuanced look at how his moral ledger stood up relative to those of many of his fellow settlers.

As a legend rather than a real person, Boone played a powerful symbolic role in the building of the American national myth. There were popular books being published about him while he was barely 40, and a fanciful biography published in 1833 became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century. James Fenimore Cooper fictionalized his story in The Last of the Mohicans, published just six years after Boone’s 1820 death and regarded by many literary scholars as the first “great American novel.” Lord Byron eulogized him as one of the happiest mortals anywhere on account of his having returned to nature, and in 1852, the art critic Henry Tuckerman was declaring Boone “the Columbus of the woods.” Victorians created epic paintings of his exploits, which likely inspired the historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s image of the “lone scout” allegedly starting the process of forging a truly American identity from a set of disparate colonies in his famous (and discredited) “frontier thesis.” Baby Boomers, for their part, grew up with a Disneyfied Boone on film and television, while Gen X got Daniel Day-Lewis’s The Last of the Mohicans on the big screen.

Pearl’s book shows the real Daniel Boone to have indeed been a brave and exceptionally skillful frontiersman who played a pivotal role in the initial colonization of Kentucky and its defense during the American Revolution. But he was also highly sympathetic to the Shawnee and Cherokee he sometimes fought against, having been adopted into a Shawnee chief’s family, where he learned their language, forged genuine emotional ties, and felt a degree of conflicted loyalties. As a fierce fighter who was raised by Quakers and a colonizer with deep ties to those whom westward expansion subjugated, Boone is as full of contradictions as the state he is most associated with. Kentucky in the 1770s was more than just a battleground between “American” settlers and British-backed tribal peoples; it was a world where cultures sometimes blended, where adult captives adopted into Shawnee families willingly and passionately “went native,” and where, for a brief time during a terrible conflict, a vision of a shared world on Indigenous terms was imagined and entertained.

Pearl is a best-selling novelist (The Dante Club), and this is his first work of history. But he pulls it off well, leveraging diligent work in both archival and secondary sources and a novelist’s narrative skill to bring Boone’s world accurately and vividly alive. It reveals this first post-1776 U.S. frontier as the site not of a Manichean struggle between Native inhabitants and white intruders—though it was that, at times—but of a head-spinning set of chess matches played simultaneously on one board. To further complicate the situation, pieces sometimes switched loyalties between the various players: Britain; the Boones’ faction of settlers; a rival family’s settler faction; and several competing Shawnee and Cherokee power bases, including factions of captured settlers now loyal to their adoptive Shawnee families. Shawnee leaders profoundly disagreed on how best to deal with the Euro-American trespassers. Boone himself, fresh off an astounding military victory over the Shawnee, is nearly executed by rival settlers for having too friendly a stance toward them.

The Kentucky frontier of the 1770s, in other words, was not unlike the Maine frontier of the 1670s, when New England and New France sought control over the future eastern United States. French leaders intermarried with their Penobscot allies, lived in their settlements, and raised bilingual, bicultural children who themselves would become leaders of their North American colonial project. English settlers were sometimes captured and effectively adopted into Indigenous families. Towns on both sides were laid to waste, and noncombatants scalped and murdered, yet some Indigenous leaders regularly pushed for a reconciled sharing of the space, a vision that too few English colonists were willing to consider. Critically, it was definitely not some sort of Eden in which Euro-Americans could be born again as an innocent new people, “Americans,” as Turner’s frontier thesis would later assert. Life on the frontier—whether in New England, Spanish New Mexico, Kentucky, or Oregon—was messy, multifaceted, and decidedly human, in senses both good and bad.

As the title suggests, The Taking of Jemima Boone focuses on the 1776 kidnapping of Boone’s 13-year-old daughter and two of her friends, and the events that followed as an uneasy relationship between invading settlers and the Shawnee spiraled out of control. Pearl makes abundantly clear that history has given Jemima, like nearly every other American woman of the era, short shrift. The kidnapping plays a central role in Last of the Mohicans, but Cooper’s version of Jemima—Cora Munro—is a demure damsel in distress awaiting rescue by male relatives. In reality, Jemima and her friends fought back against their Shawnee kidnappers, whacking one in the face with an oar, and left a clever trail of clues for their rescuers to follow. Jemima even places tactical intel on her captors for her father, encoded in knotted bits of thread from her dress. Later, she’s melting ammo during a siege, delivering military supplies under fire, and helping save her father from advancing warriors. 

“Jemima was generally presented as a victim rather than the fighter, survivor, and leader she was,” Pearl writes. “The kidnapping and rescue became a story of courtship and romance . . . rather than one of the perseverance of strong young women amid volatile geopolitics.” Later in life, Jemima, though illiterate, tried to correct the record, dictating her story to be preserved in manuscript. Unfortunately—and conveniently for the narrative-obsessed men who constructed the conventional account of her story—the pages were lost in a riverboat sinking before they ever reached a printing press.

From the Shawnee and Cherokee perspective, the kidnapping was a legitimate response to the invasion of their ancient homeland by Boone’s Euro-American settlers. “Now, brothers, go home and stay there,” a Cherokee-born member of the Shawnee nation warned Boone on one of his early reconnaissance trips through the Cumberland Gap. “Don’t come here anymore, for this is the Indians’ hunting ground, and all the animals, skin and furs are ours; and if you are so foolish as to venture here again, you may be sure the wasps and yellow jackets will sting you severely.” Boone and his fellow settlers paid no heed to this and other warnings.

The carefully planned kidnapping of Jemima and her friends was intended to secure leverage over Boone and the other settlers of Boonesborough, a fortified settlement on the Kentucky River outside present-day Lexington that the Indians correctly realized would trigger the loss of their homelands if left to develop. But the girls helped Boone track their party and found ways to stall the warriors’ progress until rescued. In the firefight, however, the Shawnee war chief Blackfish’s son was killed, possibly by Boone himself. The Shawnee responded with a winter 1778 ambush in which Boone and 30 settlers were captured and brought back to the Shawnee town of Little Chillicothe and, later, the British at Fort Detroit.

Instead of killing Boone or selling him to the British commander, Henry Hamilton, Blackfish adopted him. In Shawnee culture, this was seen as a way to replace the person who had been lost—in this case, his son—and the adoptee was treated with love, care, and respect. Such adoptions happened with some frequency, blurring the lines between invader and invaded. Pearl describes the story of John Ward, kidnapped and adopted by the Shawnee as a child, who died on a battlefield in 1774 fighting his own biological father and brothers. Another settler, Simon Girty, was adopted as a young man by the Senecas and served as an interpreter and scout for various Indian tribes throughout the conflict, with no desire to return to the culture of his birth.

Boone, however, had no intention of “going native” and began plotting his escape. But in his months of captivity, he developed genuine feelings for his Shawnee “parents” and siblings, including toddlers. He learned their language, their spiritual practices, and their customs. He was the recipient, he later said, “of extraordinary love” and was treated “with profound respect, and entire friendship.” He began to worry that his escape attempt might force him to, in Pearl’s words, “use violence against people he’d grown to care about.” The feelings were mutual, with profound implications for the future of Kentucky.

Boone escaped and, in an epic wilderness trek lasting weeks, reached Boonesborough to warn them that Blackfish’s army was approaching, fixed on eliminating the settlement once and for all. When the Shawnee arrived, they outnumbered the town’s defenders by more than four to one and probably could have wiped them out. But both Blackfish and Boone sought to avoid slaughtering one another, meeting several times under a flag of truce to try to come to an agreement. 

Baby Boomers grew up with a Disneyfied Boone on film and television, while Gen X got Daniel Day-Lewis’s The Last of the Mohicans on the big screen.

This is a book full of drama—chase scenes, epic “man versus nature” challenges, harrowing battles and escapes—but perhaps the most arresting moment is when Blackfish lays out his vision for Boonesborough’s negotiated surrender. “Those settlers willing to pledge an allegiance to the British crown could live a comfortable existence at Detroit; others could join the Indians and become part of their families,” Pearl writes. “Rather than absorbing a settler here and there . . . an entire community of settlers could be welcome and integrated. Instead of a map divided up by disputed treaty boundaries that inevitably led to conflict, they could combine the tribal and settler communities with benefit for all.” The settlers would assimilate and Kentucky would remain in Shawnee and Cherokee hands, with the support of their British allies. 

Of course this vision did not—and in the middle term almost certainly could not—come to pass. Even had Kentucky nominally remained in British hands after the War of Independence, land-hungry settlers would have continued to push over the mountains, just as they would on other parts of the frontier. “What never would have happened was restoration of tribal rights to Kentucky,” Pearl writes. “No matter which side tribes aligned themselves with (or against) during the Revolutionary War, British or American, Indian interests were left behind.”

In the short term, however, Blackfish and Boone’s empathy for one another changed the history of this theater of the war, giving real credence to the idea of an integrationist Kentucky. Seeking peace, Blackfish hesitated, avoiding a massacre at Boonesborough. Though the details of the decisive final day of the siege remain unclear, Blackfish ultimately withdrew in the night rather than pressing his advantage with an assault on the damaged fort. Instead of liberating Kentucky and sealing the rebellious colonies off from the west, Britain would face expanding settlements that would soon be impossible for their Indian allies to dislodge. “The West” would be open to American expansion, and the British ambitions would retreat to the northern shores of the Great Lakes. American manifest destiny began in earnest.

After the siege, Boone faced a treason trial cooked up by his political rivals (he was suspected of colluding with Blackfish), but was acquitted. Disgusted, he left Kentucky and his namesake town and headed back east to reunite with his family in North Carolina. He later returned to Kentucky—but not to Boonesborough—where he owned eight slaves and showed himself to be a lousy land speculator. Frustrated and beset with financial and legal troubles, he emigrated to the Spanish empire in what is now Missouri, where he served as a district judge and military commandant. When the U.S. acquired the territory, Boone was forced to sell his land holdings to pay off creditors in Kentucky, which he vowed to never again visit. “The cutthroat race for land and money, the suspicions by narrow minded people of genuine bonds formed with Indians, the quick slide into violence by so many—including on occasion by him and those he led—had soured him,” Pearl notes. Boone later went so far as to say that he would prefer to be beheaded than to set foot in the territory ever again. 

Alongside books like Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions or Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland, Pearl’s book helps provide a clearer view of the American frontier and its real role in the shaping of the character of the young, fractious United States. The most critical takeaway is that Turner’s frontier thesis, which shaped generations of history textbooks and the tropes of popular culture, was incorrect. Boone’s frontier was no Eden, and the conditions there did not promote civic values and virtues as Turner imagined they did. Settlers were not born again when immersed in the trans-Appalachian environment, but rather carried their cultural values with them. Westward expansion was not an innocent enterprise, and the clashes were between civilizations, not civilization against savagery. Nor does Boone’s story lend itself to easy summary trial and condemnation, the way those of more unrelentingly despicable figures like Christopher Columbus and Woodrow Wilson do. Boone is a more complex historical figure than either interpretation would allow. He grew to love his Shawnee counterparts, yet he fought and killed them in war. He questioned the very nature of the colonial project, but he owned slaves. And despite ushering it into existence, the archetypical frontiersman was appalled by the world the frontier experience wrought.

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Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.