Why Daniel Boone Might Not be Canceled: The archetypal frontiersman was unsure about the colonial project he built.

Date01 November 2021
AuthorWoodard, Colin

The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America

by Matthew Pearl

Harper, 288 pp.

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.

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...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT