Daniel Boone. Boone sat for artist Chester Harding shortly before his death in 1820. It is the only known portrait of Boone painted from life. [National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2015.102]
This 1795 map of Kentucky shows the roads, counties, stations, settlements, and springs that would have been familiar to Daniel Boone, including the settlement he founded, Boonesborough, at upper right. [Tennessee State Library and Archives, image no. 42900]
This daguerreotype of George Caleb Bingham’s painting Daniel Boone Passing Through the Cumberland Gap (1851–1852) depicts the famous frontiersman leading his family and settlers through the Cumberland Gap at the junction of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints, Easterly Daguerreotypes Collection, N17172]

Daniel Boone is most commonly known as a hunter, trapper, and frontier settler, but he also speculated in western lands, worked as a surveyor, owned stores where he traded furs (often in conjunction with a tavern), and led militia against Native Americans in Kentucky and Ohio. Boone gained national recognition for leading settlement parties to Kentucky and Missouri and for his skill in dealing with Indigenous peoples.

Born on a farm on the banks of Owatin Run in Oley township, Pennsylvania (present-day Exeter township, near Reading), on October 22, 1734, Boone was the son of English immigrant parents who were members of the Society of Friends. As a boy he helped his mother tend a herd of milk cows and roamed in the nearby fields and woods. By the age of thirteen Boone owned his first gun, and he often went into the woods alone for several days to provide game for the family table. Although he learned to read and write from Sarah Day, the wife of his brother Samuel, Boone never had more than a rudimentary, informal education, but he was considered as well, if not better, educated than most men on the frontier, especially because he liked to read.

In 1750 the Boone family left Pennsylvania for North Carolina, because Daniel’s father, Squire, had been expelled from the Society of Friends in March 1748 for letting his son Israel marry a woman outside the Quaker faith. Thereafter, Daniel distrusted religious organizations, though he professed to be a Christian. Throughout his life, however, Boone retained his Quaker dislike for violence.

The Boone family moved first to a farm near Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they stayed for several years. While his parents, brothers, and sisters began life anew, Daniel went on the first of many extended hunts in the Shenandoah Mountains during the summer and autumn of 1750. Thereafter, much of his life would be spent away from home while he trapped and hunted deer for their skins, which he sold to help support his family.

When Boone’s parents acquired 640 acres at the forks of the Yadkin River in North Carolina in October 1750 and moved there late in the year, Daniel went with them. Boone helped his father clear land and farm, but he preferred to hunt and trap in the woods. As a professional hunter who contributed to the deerskin trade, Boone played an important role in the local economy, and he soon acquired a well­-known reputation for his marksmanship and hunting ability.

Native American hostility brought danger to isolated frontier settlements, and Boone joined the county militia by the summer of 1753. In 1755, when Great Britain and France engaged in a war to determine control of the trans-Appalachian frontier, Boone, at the age of twenty, joined a company of North Carolina volunteers as a teamster to accompany General Edward Braddock’s army in its attack on Fort Duquesne. When the French and their Indigenous allies ambushed and overwhelmed Braddock’s force, Boone jumped on a horse from his wagon, cut the harness, and escaped to the rear, narrowly avoiding death.

Boone returned home during the summer of 1755 after visiting relatives in Exeter following his flight from the Battle of the Monongahela. A year later, on August 14, 1756, he married Rebecca Bryan, with his father, a justice of the peace, presiding. Their first child, James, was born on May 3, 1757, followed by five sons and four daughters : Israel, January 25, 1759; Susannah, November 2, 1760; Jemima, October 4, 1762; Levina, March 23, 1766; Rebecca, May 26, 1768; Daniel Morgan, December 23, 1769; Jesse Bryan, May 2, 1773; William, June 20, 1775 (who died in infancy); and Nathan, March 2, 1781.

Soon after their marriage, Daniel and Rebecca Bryan Boone moved to a small farm along Sugartree Creek near present-day Farmington, North Carolina, where they lived until Cherokee hostilities forced them to flee to Culpeper County, Virginia, for safety in 1759. There Boone worked as a teamster, hauling tobacco to market. Thereafter, he gave most of his attention to hunting to support his family, and in 1760 he first crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains on a long winter hunt. In November 1762 Boone moved his family back to Rowan County, North Carolina. Four years later, he again relocated his family, this time to the mouth of Beaver Creek to escape the settlements and to be closer to his hunting grounds in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1767 Boone crossed the mountains and made his first long hunt into Kentucky, passing through the Cumberland Gap in May 1769; he did not return home until the spring of 1771. Upon his return Boone felt increasingly crowded by the settlements, and his creditors often sued him for nonpayment of his debts. As a result he decided to move his family to Kentucky. On September 25, 1773, Boone led a party of about fifty men, women, and children west across the Appalachians. A Native American war party, however, blocked their path through the Cumberland Gap. Nevertheless, Boone continued to venture over the mountains, and in March 1775, as an employee of the Transylvania Company, he led a party that cut the Wilderness Road to Kentucky and established the settlement of Boonesborough.

Boone moved his family to the settlement in September 1775, where land speculator Richard Henderson, who had organized the Transylvania Company to settle his western lands, promised him two thousand acres for his services. The American Revolution, however, soon changed the government structure in Virginia and North Carolina, and the company’s land claims in Kentucky were not validated by the new government. Consequently, Boone never received title to those lands.

On May 20, 1775, the residents elected Boone to serve as representative to a convention charged with organizing a government for the settlements. At the convention, held in Boonesborough, Boone introduced two measures, which the delegates approved. One provided for hunting restrictions to preserve game, and the other encouraged horse breeding. Boone also became responsible for the defense of Boonesborough. Although he continued to supply his family and the settlement with meat by hunting and though he attempted to survey lands for himself and other settlers, when the American Revolution began hostile Native Americans, supported by the British, made the countryside more dangerous than ever before, and in April 1777 Boone was wounded in a Shawnee attack on Boonesborough.

During the American Revolution, the British urged the Shawnees to strike the American settlements south of the Ohio River, and Boonesborough became a major target. In January 1778 a large Shawnee war party under the leadership of Blackfish moved against the settlement and captured Boone, who had accompanied a group to make salt at a nearby spring. Boone convinced Blackfish to take him and his men to their village and to refrain from attacking Boonesborough. He would then convince the settlers to surrender to the British. The Shawnees agreed and took Boone north across the Ohio River, and in March Boone met with the British in Detroit. Boone convinced the British that the Kentuckians wanted to abandon the American cause, and they agreed to let Boone persuade the residents of Boonesborough to surrender.

Boone, however, escaped from Shawnee captivity in June and returned to Boonesborough to warn the settlement of Shawnee and British intentions to attack the town. Although he helped organize the defense of Boonesborough and foiled a Shawnee attack in September, a few settlers remained convinced that he had betrayed them to the British. The stigma of a traitor marred his reputation among some frontier people for many years. He even suffered the humiliation of a court-martial for treason in October 1778, but he was quickly acquitted and promoted to the rank of major in the Kentucky militia.

In 1779 Boone settled a party of family members and newly arrived emigrants from North Carolina at Boone’s Station, near present-day Athens, Kentucky. There he farmed and located and surveyed land for speculators, claiming a portion for his services, and he soon regained his reputation as an honest and trustworthy leader.

In November 1780 Virginia officials promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Fayette County militia, and its citizens elected him as the county’s representative to the Virginia assembly, where he took his seat in April 1781. While Boone served in Richmond, the British, under Cornwallis, captured him on June 4, after the assembly adjourned and fled to Charlottesville. He was soon released, and he returned to Richmond in the autumn for the second session of the assembly. In November 1782 Boone also participated in a raid across the Ohio against the Shawnees.

Boone moved his family to Limestone, Kentucky, in 1783, where he operated a tavern and trading house and continued his work as a surveyor for settlers and speculators who had land certificates and warrants from Virginia. Eventually, Boone claimed more than twelve thousand acres, making him one of the largest resident land speculators in Kentucky. He was, however, a bad businessman, and he sold most of his acreage for less than market value. Moreover, he made bad loans and posted bond for the debts of others. Between 1786 and 1789 creditors and landowners sued him at least ten times for faulty surveys, breaches of contract, and bad debts.

Despite his misfortune as a land speculator, the voters of Bourbon County elected Boone to the Virginia assembly in 1787, and he took his seat in the state legislature from October until January 1788, during which time he sponsored a bill for the establishment of ferries in Kentucky and supported a resolution that demanded Great Britain surrender its western posts.

After serving a second time in the Virginia assembly, Boone returned to Limestone, but he soon decided to move to Point Pleasant at the mouth of the Kanawha River in present-day West Virginia. There, in 1789, he opened a store, particularly to serve the fur and ginseng trade as well as to supply the local militia, and he continued to work as a surveyor. In October the justices of the newly organized Kanawha County court recommended Boone for the rank of lieutenant colonel in the militia, which made him the third-ranking officer in the county.

In April 1791 Boone was again elected to the Virginia assembly at Fort Lee, now Charleston, West Virginia, to represent Kanawha County. He sat for his third and last time in the Virginia assembly from October through December and usually voted with the majority. Although his constituents recognized him as a respectable leader, he was not wealthy. In 1792 Boone’s taxable property included only two horses, one enslaved person, and five hundred acres, and he lived in a cabin near present-day Charleston, supporting his family by hunting.

Boone remained in Virginia until the summer of 1796 when he moved his family to Brushy Fork, Kentucky, where he farmed and hunted. In November 1798 the depletion of game and pressing creditors forced him to move again, this time to the mouth of the Little Sandy on the Ohio River.

At that time Boone’s son Daniel Morgan Boone had scouted lands for settlement in Missouri and had applied for a land grant along the Femme Osage River from the Spanish lieutenant governor Zenon Trudeau at St. Louis. Trudeau urged Morgan and his father to bring a party of settlers to Missouri, and he offered Boone 1,000 arpents (about 850 acres) plus 600 arpents for every family that he brought with him. Boone accepted the offer and, in September, led his family and a group of settlers to Missouri where they arrived during the first week in October. The lieutenant governor, Charles de Hault Delassus, welcomed Boone and appointed him the syndic, that is, chief administrative officer, for the Femme Osage District. The appointment became official on June 11, 1800. As the district’s syndic, Boone served as the justice of the peace and militia commander. He also supervised land surveys and recommended applicants for land concessions.

Boone, however, gave more attention to hunting and trapping than to his own administrative responsibilities and farming. When the Missouri country became a possession of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Boone’s land claim became jeopardized. In 1809 a commission charged with the responsibility of sorting out conflicting claims held Boone’s Spanish land grant invalid because he had not occupied, surveyed, and improved it as Spanish law required. By that time Boone had moved to a cabin on land owned by his son Nathan Boone near present-day Defiance, Missouri. By 1805, however, Boone’s health began to fail, and he was unable to spend long periods hunting in the woods during the winter months.

During the War of 1812 Boone often wanted to ride on patrols with the local militia company, but his age and infirmities kept him at home. His neighbors, however, often sought his advice when rumors circulated about a pending Native American attack. After Rebecca died on March 18, 1813, Boone spent most of his time with his daughter Jemima and her husband, Flanders Callaway, so that he could be near Rebecca’s grave along Turque Creek. Although Congress confirmed his original Spanish land grant in 1814, Boone took little interest in daily affairs after Rebecca died, and he began to put his affairs in order in anticipation of his death, including paying his debts, reading the Bible, and buying a coffin.

As Boone grew more feeble, however, he still attempted to make brief hunting and trapping expeditions into the nearby countryside, but the cold weather further deteriorated his health. In late September 1820, one month shy of his eighty-sixth birthday, Boone became seriously ill at Nathan’s home. Although the cause of his illness remains uncertain, it proved fatal, and Boone died on September 26. He was buried two days later next to Rebecca.

At the time of his death, Boone epitomized the frontiersman. He had the reputation of being an excellent hunter and trapper as well as a public servant who not only led men, women, and children to a dangerous frontier, but also helped protect them. Although he was not a good businessman and lost most of the lands that he claimed, Boone’s reputation for prowess with his rifle, courage, and leadership grew after his death, and his life soon became part of American folklore.

Further Reading

Aron, Stephen. How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1996.

Bakeless, John. Daniel Boone. New York: William Morrow, 1939.

Brown, Meredith Mason. Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Morgan, Robert. Boone: A Biography. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2007.

Published December 21, 2022

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