Early in the spring of 1774, a solitary figure rides westward over Kane’s Gap into Powell’s Valley, far beyond the fragile line of frontier settlements to the east. Daniel Boone, his hair plaited and clubbed up in Indian fashion, garbed in black-dyed deerskin, has come in search of the rude grave of his eldest son. James Boone and six companions had been slaughtered by Delaware, Shawnee and Cherokee Indians in October 1773 while hurrying forward with pack animals to rejoin Boone’s party of Kentucky-bound emigrants. James had called pitifully for his family in his death agony as a Cherokee called Big Jim delighted in torturing him. The massacre had momentarily ended Boone’s dream of a settlement in Kentucky.
The life of his eldest son is to be but one of a tragic string of blood payments that Daniel Boone will make to open the American West. In time he will come to be heralded as an American Moses leading his people to their Western promised land. His personal travail will be embraced by writers, artists, poets and filmmakers across the generations to create an epic that becomes the grand creation myth for the founding of a pioneer nation. Unlike the aristocratic Founding Fathers to the east, however, Boone remains the hero of the common people.
The Call of the Wild
Born in Berk’s County, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 1734, Daniel was the sixth of Squire and Sarah Boone’s 11 children. His Quaker grandfather had come to Penn’s colony in 1713 in search of religious freedom. But Squire Boone, angered when chastised by the Exeter Meeting of Friends for allowing two of his children to marry outside the church, left the faith and the colony, taking his family to North Carolina and settling his brood on the Yadkin River. Young Daniel, profoundly affected by his father’s religious troubles, always professed to be a Christian but never again belonged to any sect or church.
By the time the family moved down the Great Valley of Virginia to the Yadkin, young Boone had already made a reputation in Pennsylvania as an accomplished hunter and marksman. The forest, so frightful to others, had early beckoned to the boy. The freedom he found there was in sharp contrast to the rigid sanctity of the Quakers. The natural rhythms of the land appealed to him far more than the contrived rules of the settlements.
In 1750, with his friend Henry Miller, Boone pursued his first long hunt, following the Roanoke Gap through the Blue Ridge and hunting along the Virginia-North Carolina boundary with great success. Deerskins were a valuable frontier commodity—as good as cash—and the terms buck and dollar quickly became synonymous. Thirty thousand deerskins were exported from North Carolina alone in 1753. The hunts could stretch easily from several months to a year or longer. From 1750 on, Boone was to be a professional hunter.
On August 14, 1756, he married Rebecca Bryan, a tall, dark-eyed, strong-willed beauty 17 years of age. She was by his side for 56 years and bore him ten children—six sons and four daughters. He built them a snug log home on Sugartree Creek in the Yadkin Valley where they lived for ten years, the longest period of time they spent in one place.
Boone, despite his devotion to Rebecca and their growing family, was gone more than he was home. It was but part of the great irony of his life, for he was a family man who was always away from his family. In the same vein he was a frontiersman in flight from civilization who opens the wilderness to civilization. In so doing he would destroy that which he loved most—both his beloved family and his cherished wilderness.
Boone’s long hunts took him farther and farther from home— west to the lands of the Cherokees in eastern Tennessee and south to the Florida homeland of the Seminoles. He and his companions were the first to push beyond the Blue Ridge. They borrowed much from their Indian neighbors, most especially a keen sense of nature’s rhythms.
The Trail to Kanta-ke
In the spring of 1768, an Irish peddler arrived at the Boone cabin seeking shelter. It was old John Findley, who 13 years earlier had regaled young Boone during Braddock’s march with tales of the fabled Kanta-ke. Boone planned a long hunt with Findley to this American Eden, and enlisted his younger brother, Squire; his brother-in-law, John Stewart; and three neighbors to form a hunting party. On May 1, 1769 they departed in search of the ancient “Athiamiowee,” the “path of the armed ones” or Warrior’s Path. This mountain pass, cutting Kentucky north to south, had long been a favored route for intertribal warfare between the Shawnees and Cherokees. The pass had been mapped and named by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750 as Cumberland Gap. Boone would make the path immortal in the annals of America.
They moved slowly, pack animals loaded down with extra rifles, ball and powder, as well as traps, kettles, rations and salt. Boone brought along a copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to read to his companions by the evening fire. On June 7, 1769, Boone stood atop Pilot’s Knob and for the first time viewed his fabled “Kanta-Ke.” It was all he had dreamed of and more.
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