Myths abound about Daniel Boone, the frontiersman who ventured into the wilds of Kentucky in 1769 and forged his name in the annals of American history. In his new book, Boone: A Biography, author Robert Morgan looks behind the legends to reveal the man who inspired incredible stories for a new nation.
Morgan, who teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., shares with American Profile some of what he learned about Boone during five years of research for the book.
AP: Who was Daniel Boone?
RM: The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Daniel Boone was a man of many talents and professions: hunter, trapper, scout, gunsmith, soldier, surveyor and Virginia legislator. But most important, he was an explorer and great dreamer, whose dream was to live in the trans-Allegheny wilderness at peace with the Indians.
AP: Why is Boone such a prominent figure in American history?
RM: Boone was a charismatic leader and storyteller who inspired many legends about himself even during his lifetime. Amazingly, his actual life was more interesting and more colorful than the legends.
AP: Did Boone wear a coonskin cap?
RM: Though painters and TV producers have portrayed the frontiersman as wearing a coonskin cap, Boone’s son Nathan said his father thought coonskin caps uncomfortable and uncouth. Boone always wore a wide-brimmed, Quaker-style felt hat to protect him from the sun and rain.
AP: What legends about Boone are factual, and which are fictitious?
RM: Boone was not the first white man to explore Kentucky, and he didn’t discover Cumberland Gap. He never swung on grapevines when going through the forest. But he and a company of woodsmen did blaze a trail called Boone’s Trace, which became the Wilderness Road. He was not a renowned Indian fighter, and usually made friends with Native Americans. The Shawnee Indians adopted him in 1778. When Boone escaped from their village of Chillicothe that year, he swam the Ohio River and traveled 160 miles in four days to reach Boonesborough.
AP: How does Boone rate among American trailblazers?
RM: Boone may be the leading trailblazer in American history. He led large groups into Kentucky in 1775 and 1779, and when he moved to the wilderness of Missouri in 1799 many Americans followed him. The road he and his sons made there became the beginning of both the Santa Fe and the Oregon trails.
AP: Why is Boone romanticized and revered?
RM: Boone was himself romantic and told extraordinary accounts of his experiences, most famously in John Filson’s book The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone, first published in 1784, and reprinted in Britain and Europe. Boone was revered by virtually all who knew him for his integrity, generosity, leadership, courage and sense of humor.
AP: How did Boone help make America what it is today?
RM: Boone helped inspire America’s romantic vision of itself, its past and its destiny. Ironically, by leading so many to follow him into the wilderness he helped destroy that wilderness. He is the central figure in the paradox of our culture: We often destroy what we love most.
AP: What, if anything, do present-day Americans have in common with Boone?
RM: Boone represents many of the best features of American culture. He shared what he had with those in need. He respected others, including Indians and African-Americans, the British and French. He exhibited calm wisdom in moments of danger. In spite of his fame, he never lost his humility. When he failed in business, it was because of his trust in others and reluctance to fight in court. Like us, he was sometimes blind to the long-term effects of his actions.