An Interview With Darren Reid, author of Daniel Boone and Others on the Kentucky Frontier

The Frontier Travelers were extraordinarily fortunate to (virtually) sit down with Darren Reid, author of Daniel BooneDaniel Boone and Others on the Kentucky Frontier and Others on the Kentucky Frontier.  This book is available in paperback and Kindle editions.  Please pick up a copy and follow Darren on Twitter @ThatHistorian

Here’s what we talked about:

FT:  In our own work as genealogists, we’ve discovered that family lore – regardless of how preposterous it may sound – usually has an origin in truth. As you noted in your Introduction, Timothy Flint created a fictitious encounter between Daniel Boone and a bear, with the bear being killed with a small hunting knife.  Do you find that the sensationalizing of Boone’s exploits were, for the most part, based on a grain of truth, or were they created whole cloth?

DR:  As far as the mythology surrounding Daniel Boone goes, there is a complete mixture; some items are largely true, some can be traced back to that grain of truth you were talking about, and others are a complete fabrication, all of which makes understanding the real historical figure all the more difficult.

The bear story is a good example of how warped tales of Daniel’s exploit could become over time – basically, Timothy Flint, one of Boone’s early biographers, and the one who helped to really establish his enduring myth, wrote about Boone essentially wrestling a bear into submission (this is the same story that forms the basis of Jebediah Springfield, the fictional explorer who founded Springfield in The Simpsons).

Of course, this story is nothing more than one of Flint’s fanciful inventions but Boone certainly killed his fair share of bears – but he usually did so with a Kentucky rifle! In that sense there is a grain of truth at the heart of even this story but it also shows us just how far stories, even those with a hint of truth, can change.

In many ways, stories like Boone fighting a bear or swinging from vine-to-vine (another of Flint’s invention) don’t tell us much about Boone as a historic figure – but they do tell us a lot about ‘Boone the folk hero’ and the world which created this semi-fictional character.

In many ways Daniel Boone turned into an American version of Robin Hood or King Arthur a larger than life character used by each generation to express themselves and their values.  Because of this Boone he has been cast, and recast, repeatedly since he first came to the attention of the wider public in the 1780s with the first victim usually being historic truth.  Sometimes the stories told about him are based upon historic accounts whilst others are invented – or distorted – in order to express the views of the storyteller.  A good example of this is the anecdotal stories told of Boone’s desire to move whenever someone built a farm or settlement within twenty miles of his home.  This, we are told, was too crowded for the famed pioneer! In truth, there is little to no evidence to back-up such stories but they tell us about the ideals of those telling them, about what people in the nineteenth century expected from pioneers like Boone.

Daniel Boone
Daniel Boone portrait by Chester Harding

FT: Of the many myths surrounding Daniel Boone, which do you feel did him the most disservice during his own lifetime?

Without any doubt, the tales which depicted him as an Indian killer.  There can be no doubt that Daniel took part in the long war for the Kentucky frontier and that he took lives and suffered losses but the nineteenth century image of Boone as a ruthless and efficient killer of Indians easily did him the greatest disservice.

According to Boone’s family he killed perhaps as few as three – or depending on what account you read, one – Indians in his whole life.  He certainly fought a good many but his relationship with the Native Americans he encountered was incredibly nuanced.

In the 1770s he spent time as a prisoner among the Shawnee and appears to have genuinely enjoyed their company.  When push came to shove, Boone sided with his fellow settlers but even then he appears to have harboured great respect for this people and, in later life, appears to have come to regret having killed any Indians at all.  Particularly in his old age, Boone came to identify quite closely with the tribes he had helped to displace after a series of events conspired to strip him of all his property.  Not only did he lose the land he had claimed in Kentucky but when, in his old age, he travelled to Missouri he lost it all again when this territory was transferred from Spain to the United States.

Whilst in Missouri he was also able to visit with some of his old Shawnee “relatives” from his captivity – I dare say they would have had a lot in common and a lot to talk about.

FT:  What led Reverend John D. Shane to conduct his interviews?  And, how accurate do you feel the remembrances were, with interviews done 30 or more years after the fact?

DR:  John Shane was a really interesting character who very few people really know anything about.  Born in Cincinnati in the early nineteenth century, Shane grew up, like so many, surrounded by tales of the American Revolution and of the frontier that was already passing from the Ohio Valley.  It appears that, like many others, Shane grew increasingly concerned that the Revolutionary generation was fast dying off (he kept newspaper cuttings of relevant obituaries in his notes) and, as such, embarked upon a quest to interview the remaining members of this generation before they passed completely.  Of course, that’s not quite the whole story.

As a Presbyterian minister, Shane was also interested in the spread of his church throughout Kentucky and southern-Ohio and it appears that he hoped to use his interviews as a basis upon which he could write about the history Presbyterianism in his home country.  What Shane found when he set out on his interviews, however, was that the people he talked to rarely wanted to talk about the church and Shane, for his part, rarely pushed them on the subject.  Instead, Shane’s interviewees spoke on a variety of subjects, sometimes giving their life stories, stories about other early settlers they knew, or relaying decades-old gossip from the frontier.

As to accuracy, that is a very difficult question.  As far as memory goes I am sure we all have some experience of remembering an event in a very different manner from someone else who was present to witness it.  In that sense, we could ask ourselves, how accurate is any source? For Shane’s interviews this problem is compounded by the fact that he was interviewing former frontier settlers thirty or sometimes forty years after the events they describe to him and in many places the cracks show.

One of the great things about Shane is that he scribbled lots of notes about his subjects alongside the interview so we know, for instance, what his impression of a given interviewee was and often he noted when his subject wasn’t perhaps as sharp or quick to provide detail as he would have liked.  Of course that only goes so far to helping with this problem but another great thing that helps is the sheer number of interviews he took because there is a good amount of overlap between accounts.  This overlap often shows up problems and discrepancies but it also demonstrates how much agreement existed between different sources.

That said, you have to constantly ask yourself whether the person speaking was talking about events they witnessed or heard about, whether they would have a reason to place a spin upon them, and why they chose to talk about specific events whilst ignoring others.

Daniel Boone Cumberland Gap
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap, George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1851–52

FT:   As a historian, what is your process for researching and evaluating information? For example, the many sources cited re: the disappearance of James Harrod or the infidelity of Rebecca Boone?

DR:  The first thing I try to do is to read as many different accounts as I can whilst trying, in my head, to sort out where the stories overlap and where they diverge.  For example, the story of Daniel Boone’s wife, Rebecca, essentially goes something like this: During the late 1760s or 1770s, Daniel sets off for one his long hunts, probably in Kentucky, which takes him away from his wife and family (who are still living in the east) for an extended period of time.

During his absence, Rebecca – missing her husband terribly – has an affair with one of his brothers.  Upon his return Boone finds that Rebecca has given birth to a new baby, a child Daniel, who has been away for well over nine months, could not have possibly fathered.  Upon telling her husband that the child belongs to his brother Daniel tells Rebecca to set aside her fears and worries.  It matters not that the child does not belong to him, only that it is a Boone.  Accepting what has happened, perhaps because he has had infidelities of his own among the Indians, the family continues on as before.

Now, there are lots of variations of this story and the above outline is the basic story thread which combines them all, but there is no real evidence to suggest that any of these tales are true.

There are many accounts, one memorable one claiming that Daniel was telling this story into his old age even in front his (obviously embarrassed) wife, but for all that there is no concrete evidence to suggest the truth of the matter, one way or another.  When faced with this kind of tale it is important to accept that one will never know the full truth of the matter – but there is still value in these stories.  They may not enlighten us about the Boone’s personal lives but they do illustrate the type of rumours which dogged the family through many of their years.  They also show us the types of details that were being discussed about the family by Boone’s peers and the role gossip and rumour played on the frontier.  That’s one of the reasons I included John Shane’s interview with Josiah Collins in my book – it really sheds a light on this aspect of life in early Kentucky.

FT:   In the Septimus Schull’s account of the family, he points out errors (or fully fictionalized tales) in Flint’s Life of Boone.   Would this account of the Boone family have been widely read at the time? And would readers have accepted the Schull account as more factual than Flint’s?

DR:  Like most of the materials that John Shane recorded, this account has never been widely read.  That was a big part of the reason behind my putting together this book.  Most people who are interested in history rarely get a chance to read many of the documents or accounts from the period, particularly those that weren’t published at the time.  I really like Schull’s account as it shows an insight into how Boone’s family (Schull was a grandson) remembered Daniel’s deeds and life.

Even though accounts like Schull’s weren’t published we do know that Flint’s biography was wildly popular, even though Boone’s own account of his adventures was widely available.  Flint created a very compelling narrative filled with adventure and great acts which appealed to his nineteenth century audience in a way that more sober accounts failed to do.

There is a nice account of Jemima Boone, Daniel’s daughter, telling one her granddaughters about her captivity among the Indians and how she picked lice from one of her captor’s hair.  Although such actions might seem odd to modern readers, in context it is actually quite a sweet moment between captor and captive as both admire and comb each other’s hair.

Jemima’s granddaughter, however, failed to see that side of the tale and instead protested that she would have never done that for an Indian.  This story always stays with me because it really helps to illustrate just how far the views and tastes of one generation can diverge from those which follow it.  Nineteenth century readers might have been more inclined to believe Schull (if his account were available) but I dare say they would have been more inclined to read Flint.

FT:    We found the Shane interviews fascinating, giving readers a realistic view of life in early Kentucky.  Life, it seems, was far different than the romanticized versions we often see in film! As you researched the interviews, was there a particular fact about daily life that surprised you?

DR:  I think everything about it was a surprise in some respects.  Throughout my time as an undergraduate I had an avid interest in the history of the American frontier but the sources and histories never really focused upon the everyday aspect of life in the borderlands and those that did lacked the type of candid detail found in Shane’s interviews.  It was whilst studying for my Master’s degree that I first came into contact with these sources and the more I read, the more I became interested in really exploring these sources throughout my PhD.

I think the aspect of daily life that surprised me most, however, was that the frontier was populated – in both the settler and Indian worlds – by individuals who cared for one another.  That might seem like an odd statement, but you have to remember that during this period the death rate was high before frontier wars are added into the equation: the grim reaper was no stranger to the people living at this time.  And yet, these sources demonstrated that in spite of everything families invested emotionally in one another and there are many touching – and genuinely moving – accounts of wives, for example, torn apart by the death of their husband.

Often the past seems like a very different, very strange place, and indeed it is! But sometimes sources remind us that underneath it all there are events, emotions, and experiences to which we can all relate.

FT:    The John Tanner account of his capture and survival was riveting. Based on other historical accounts that you’ve read, do you think his experience was typical?

DR:  I’m glad you like Tanner’s account – the version in this book is a very short extract from a much longer document which I am currently editing into a new book which should be released later this year – obviously I am riveted by it too!

As to the question, some aspects of Tanner’s account were typical but in the broad sense much of what Tanner went through was really quite distinct.  I should say that it wasn’t that rare for a white settler to be kidnapped and adopted by the Indians but few people spent as long as thirty years among the tribes, as John ultimately did, with fewer still returning and releasing a detailed memoir of their experiences.  In this sense, Tanner’s narrative is really quite rare.

Because he was kidnapped at a young age (he was nine years old), Tanner effectively sheds his previous identity and becomes, to all intents and purposes, an Indian.  Even when he returns to the settlements it is clear that he still looks at the world from a largely Native American perspective, reflecting upon the spirit who visited him in his dreams with advice and warnings for his life, for instance.  Tanner’s account is one of my favourite sources from this period.

FT:   And of course, we couldn’t end the interview without asking the obvious question:  How did you become interested in Daniel Boone and the frontiersmen (and women) who were early settlers on the Kentucky frontier?  And what inspired you to create this amazing collection of narratives and interviews?

DR:  I would have to give a lot of credit to Doctor Matthew Ward who was my supervisor throughout my PhD.  Matthew commenced a major project exploring the impact and development of violence on the American frontier and it was through his initial guidance I was steered towards many of the sources that formed that basis of my doctorate.  Once I discovered the sources, however, it really was an easy decision.

Throughout all of my studies I had been fascinated by questions about how violence impacted society, how it impacted people and families – the sources I discovered about Kentucky, western Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio all seemed to give me a chance to answer those questions.  And, the more I read, the more I came to think that a wider audience, if given access to these sources, might be equally inspired to learn about this fascinating period.

To some, places like Kentucky and Tennessee might seem unimportant during a period when America was going through a phase of constitution writing and nation building but my research has really shown me that the opposite is true.  These locations were key parts of the early United States and their frontier experiences played important roles in helping to shape federal policy for at least a generation to come.

ABOUT DARREN REID

Historian Darren Reid

I have been working on the topic of early American history, particularly the American frontier, since I started work on my master’s degree at the University of Dundee in 2007.  Since then I have completed both a master’s and PhD whilst working under the tutelage of Matthew C. Ward (Breaking the Backcountry) with whom I worked on a much larger project exploring the American frontier.

My first book, Daniel Boone and Others on the Kentucky Frontier: Autobiographies and Narratives was published in 2009 and I am currently polishing the manuscript for my next book, tentatively entitled American Indian: The Life, Times, and Memoirs of John Tanner.  I blog regularly on my website (http://www.darrenreidhistory.co.uk) and am an active twitter user (@ThatHistorian)

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