A PATIENT PATHFINDER
It was the miniature war club that foretold the boy’s future. Young Daniel Boone had crafted it himself Indian-style, grubbing up a maple sapling by the roots and shaving and sanding the rough nubbins while leaving the rounded burl at the killing end. He was almost ten years old when he began carrying the weapon into the deep wilderness to snag birds and small game. Crawling through the clover and peavine that carpeted Pennsylvania’s forest floor, he could take down a wild turkey from thirty feet and stun a darting squirrel from more than half that distance. His prey would grow in size and ferocity after his father presented him with a short-barreled fowling piece three years later. Still, it was his hunts with his war club that presaged his role as North America’s premier pathfinder.
It was sometime in the mid-1740s when Daniel, not yet a teenager, began to accompany his mother, Sarah; his infant sister, Hannah; and his one-year-old brother, Squire, Jr., to a cleared glade some five miles north of the Boone homestead in the Upper Schuylkill River Valley. There he would work the grazing season from spring to late fall, tending the family’s small drove of milk cows fattening on the tall timothy grasses that thrived in the twenty-five-acre meadow.* His mother, meanwhile, spent the days churning butter or at work on her looms in the ramshackle cabin on the edge of the pasturage. The surrounding woods—thick stands of sycamore, oak, and box elder that blanketed what was then America’s western borderlands—constituted the poet’s “forest dark,” filled with untamed beasts moving silently through a permanent twilight beneath the treetops’ proscenium canopy.
Yet in a place where most men’s fears were set loose, young Boone was at home. It was within this checkerboard chiaroscuro that he became expert at imitating all manner of birdsong while toting his club along Indian trails and game tracks trod for millennia by deer, bear, elk, and panther.
It was apparent early on that Daniel had inherited his mother’s dark coloring. A sketch from his youth depicts a lad with thick, wavy tufts of coal-black hair pushed back off his broad forehead and parted in the middle. His thin Roman nose lent him the corvine appearance of a raven or a crow, and his hollow cheeks, yet to fill in, emphasized a long and tawny neck that seemed to support an outsize head whose blue eyes were the shade of the North Atlantic in winter.
At the summer pasturage Daniel was charged with tending the wandering livestock and bringing them in at dusk for milking in the cow pens. Yet so great was his curiosity about the backcountry’s contours and creatures that he would disappear into its depths for prolonged stretches. When his mother chided him for leaving the cattle lying out at night with their udders near to bursting, the boy would apologize and promise that it would never happen again. But his propensity for woodland wanderlust only increased when he was presented with his fowling piece.
The key to the boy’s skill as a hunter was his patience, a virtue he would display for the rest of his life. He would spend hours on end studying the habits peculiar to the thousands of white-tailed deer roaming the forest, noting how they were drawn to creeks and rivers at dawn and twilight not only to drink, but to gorge on the tender fountain moss that grew streamside. Trial and error taught him that in the fall months it was easier to steal upon a herd near daybreak, when the dew-moistened fallen leaves would muffle his footsteps. And when he spotted a black bear in late summer or early autumn, instead of shooting it on sight for its meat, oil, and hide, he would instead track it to its masting grounds. There, a sleuth of the creatures would be gathered among flocks of wild turkeys to fatten on acorns, walnuts, blueberries, blackberries, serviceberries, cherries, and crabapples before denning up for the winter. In this way his targets would not only be many, but he marked well the spot to return to the next season.
Thanks to the young Boone, the rafters of the little grazing shack on the edge of the woods—and later, during lean winter seasons, the Boone homestead on the Schuylkill—never wanted for fresh game, jerked meat, and pelts to trade for powder, lead, and flints. It was obvious to all who knew him that Daniel Boone was not cut out for a farmer’s life. You could not plow a furrow with a war club.
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A half century earlier, bent over his loom in the Devonshire town of Bradninch in southwest England, it is unlikely that George Boone or his wife, the former Mary Maugridge, imagined that their grandson would one day grow into a mythical figure across the Atlantic. Nor is it probable that George and Mary Boone—who had renounced the Church of England, pledged themselves to the Society of Friends, and hatched a plan to flee across the sea to William Penn’s religiously tolerant colony—would have alighted on the New World’s shores knowing that it virtually teemed with Boones.
As early as 1670 a small band of adventurers that included several Boones set sail from England to plant the first seed of a colony in South Carolina, while in 1704 a Massachusetts census recorded a pamphleteer named Nicholas Boone as the proprietor of a Boston bookshop. There were also the Catholic Boones of French stock—probably originally calling themselves De Bones—who had sailed from the Isle of Wight early in the seventeenth century to settle the American colony dedicated to Saint Mary. Their progeny had since spread from Maryland into New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They were soon joined by a Swedish community of Bondes, who Anglicized their names to Boone upon reaching America and founded a farming settlement along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
In 1712, Daniel Boone’s grandfather George dispatched his three oldest children—his namesake George III; younger brother, Squire; and their seventeen-year-old sister, Sarah—to explore the possibility of emigrating to Penn’s colony. Upon George’s return to Devonshire a year later—Squire and Sarah remained in America—such were his tales of the opportunities and freedoms of Pennsylvania that his parents soon sold their property and weaving business and sailed from the port of Bristol with their remaining seven children, arriving in Philadelphia in October of 1717.
From Philadelphia the Boone clan migrated into what was then Pennsylvania’s interior and eventually settled in the predominantly Welsh community of Gwynedd, some twenty-four miles north by northwest of the capital city. It was there, on the sixth day of May in 1720, that the twenty-five-year-old tenant farmer Squire Boone married Sarah Morgan in the Gwynedd Quaker Meeting House. According to interviews conducted by the near-contemporaneous Boone biographer Lyman Draper, Daniel Boone’s father, Squire, was a composite of Anglo-Saxon stock, “a man of rather small stature, fair complexion, red hair and grey eyes.” On the other hand, his nineteen-year-old bride’s appearance—“a woman something over the common size, strong and active, with black hair and eyes”—spoke to her Welsh forebears.
Some years after Squire and Sarah’s wedding, the family patriarch George Boone purchased a 400-acre tract about forty miles northwest of Gwynedd in what was then known as Oley Township. There he constructed a stone manse among the rolling fields of the Upper Schuylkill in the shadow of the growing Pennsylvania town of Reading. Though George’s son Squire and his daughter-in-law Sarah remained behind in Gwynedd, Squire Boone proved a dogged farmworker who, in addition to tilling his landlord’s fields and tending his cattle, worked late into the evening as a gunsmith repairing weapons for the community. By 1731 Squire had managed to save enough money to buy out his tenancy and obtain 250 acres of prime red-shale land several miles south of his father’s property. Three years later, on November 2, 1734, Sarah Boone gave birth to Daniel, the family’s sixth child and fourth son.
As a free landowner, Squire Boone’s work ethic never flagged, and his children rarely lacked for sustenance. The Boone clan enjoyed hearty breakfasts of bread and milk, dinners of venison, turkey, or good pork or bacon with dumplings, and simple evening repasts of hominy with milk, butter, and honey. Moreover, early in Daniel’s life his father and several neighbors pooled their funds to purchase a seine net, and thereafter the Schuylkill’s annual shad run provided the family with enough salted fish to last through the harsh Pennsylvania winters.
Upon landing in the New World from southwest England in 1717, the Boone family—led by patriarch George Boone, Daniel’s grandfather—steadily migrated deeper into the Pennsylvania interior, from Philadelphia to the Welsh enclave of Gwynedd and finally to large tracts of farmsteads in the shadow of today’s city of Reading. This area was eventually named Exeter in honor of George Boone’s British ancestry.
Sarah’s industriousness on her several spinning wheels matched her husband’s work ethic, and the toddling Daniel grew up watching his mother weave every stitch of her growing brood’s linen and woolen apparel. At times Sarah found time to take in outside sewing work, and on the occasion of a propitious commission Squire and Sarah would splurge on chocolate mixed with maple sugar as a family treat. Though Daniel never had the luxury of a formal education, the wife of his older brother Samuel—yet another Sarah—taught him to read, to write, and to perform rudimentary arithmetic. An apt and avid student, Boone’s writings later in life may have been rife with grammatical and spelling errors, but they bore the mark of a sensible man who knew how to get to the point. Further, despite the Kentucky historian Ted Franklin Belue’s assertion that Boone “though literate, was far from lettered,” in his later years Boone often cited Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as his favorite book to carry with him across a lifetime of far-flung adventures.
Though both Squire and Sarah Boone received endless compliments on Daniel’s pleasant if not charming demeanor, the youngster also proved the most mischievous of the Boone children. He had a particular penchant for sneaking out of the house, and once, when he was four years old, he talked his older sister Betsy into stealing off in the middle of the night to peek in on a neighbor family rumored to be afflicted with smallpox. His innate curiosity cost him and his sister, as the two youngsters came away with the disease. And though their subsequent illnesses were mild by comparison, the stunt enraged their parents.*
Squire Boone, like most fathers of the era, was not a man to spare the rod when one of his sons stepped out of line. Unlike most colonial patriarchs, however, he was also known to genuinely rue the beatings he administered. It was thus probably best for all that Daniel’s father went to his grave wondering why one morning he discovered his favorite horse splayed across the lane near his front door, dead of a broken neck.
As Daniel later related the story, the tale begins after Squire and Sarah retired for the evening. Daniel had heard of a “frolic,” or coed barn dance, being held not far from the Boone homestead. And though his parents were not the most religious of Quakers—it is hinted in contemporaneous minutes kept by the Society of Friends that Squire was known to enjoy a jar of the forbidden corn whiskey—the teenage Daniel knew better than to ask their permission to mix with unchaperoned girls. After making sure his father and mother were asleep, he surreptitiously saddled Squire’s horse and rode off to attend the party. Later, returning home in the early-morning hours in a daring mood, he attempted to leap a sleeping dairy cow. The recumbent animal, startled awake by the hoofbeats, rose to its feet mid-jump and sent both horse and rider tumbling. Daniel, unhurt except perhaps for his pride, removed the dead horse’s saddle and bridle, returned them to their place in the barn, and snuck into bed, never to speak of the incident until his old age.
The youthful Daniel’s interests were particularly drawn to the Indians who frequented the Oley Township farmsteads to trade. He found the Native Americans—predominantly small bands of Delaware and Shawnee hunters but sometimes minor chiefs with their entire families in tow—a source of wonder. Even then the phrase “standing straight as an Indian” was in vogue, and when the erect and sinewy braves strode into view, he studied with a boy’s inquisitiveness for form and function the cut of their buckskin breechclouts, their leggings worn ankle to thigh to absorb copperhead and timber rattlesnake strikes, and their moccasins—which they called mockeetha—whose meticulous stitching was equal to that of any Philadelphia cordwainer. During the cold months most men also sported cloaks, or matchcoats, made of a coarse woolen fiber called stroud and worn clasped about the shoulders.
Young Boone also marveled at the jewelry—ear and nose rings, armbands and wristbands—sported by both sexes. Some pieces were molded from the white man’s bartered silver, but most had been fashioned out of the raw copper mined by Great Lakes tribes and passed along ancient Indian trade routes. And while it was not unusual for women to have hundreds of beads, ribbons, and brooches sewn into their one-piece shifts, he noted that the men were particularly partial to crescent-shaped gorgets and to swan’s plumes woven into their hair.
Of particular fascination were the distended earlobes favored by many Eastern Woodlands warriors of the era. The ornamentation was achieved with considerable pain. First a brave’s ears were slit from their apex to the lobe, and the wound was kept open by stuffing it with beaver fur. It was then slathered with bear oil or slippery elm bark pounded into gel. Lead weights were attached to the bottom of the lobes, elongating them nearly to the shoulders, and the hanging flesh was bound with brass wire to support the copper or silver rings or bells or turkey spurs affixed to the hoop. To a young Anglo-American like Boone, the indigenous peoples must have seemed as alien as the fantastical creatures from the realm of Prester John.*
Adding to the young Boone’s admiration of the Indians’ unearthly aura was the manner with which their medicine seemed to mystically commune with nature, particularly their ability to use various plants to concoct healing potions and salves. He learned that a poultice of Indian cornmeal or turnips was quick to soothe burns, that the leaves of the white plantain weed boiled in milk was a fair antidote to poisonous snakebites, and that applying a dressing of well-chewed slippery elm bark mixed with flaxseed to a gunshot wound would lessen the chances of infection.
It was also from the indigenous visitors that Boone was taught to tan hides into leather using the rib bones of an elk, bear oil, and the brain matter of the animal itself, which contains a chemical agent that breaks up the mucous membranes that cause a hide to harden. He also learned how to construct a rudimentary “round boat” of a single deerskin or elk skin stretched taut and perforated at the edges. After a loop of pliant hazel or cherrywood was woven through the holes and fastened with leather strings, the craft was left to bake in the sun with the hair side in. Thus was created a waterproof shell in which to deposit kit, clothing, and weapons that could be pushed ahead of a swimmer across streams or small rivers.
Perhaps most unusual was the family dynamic Boone witnessed among the Native Americans. The adults doted over what to most whites appeared to be a scrum of ill-disciplined children. Those who had graduated from the portable cradleboards were near naked and were allowed to run free and engage in rough play in a manner that was anathema to Oley Township’s staid Quaker community. Not once did Boone see an Indian boy physically disciplined. Moreover, he watched in awe as male clan leaders consulted their female elders regarding major decisions about the time for hunts, the placement of temporary villages, and the arrangements of religious feasts. Not even the most enlightened Anglo-American men treated their women with such egalitarianism.
But, of course, Boone being Boone, he was most intrigued by the visitors’ weaponry, particularly the ancestral totems Native Americans had carried for millennia.
By the mid-eighteenth century most Indian warriors owned muskets obtained by bartering furs and pelts. These “trade guns,” as they were called, were predominantly French-manufactured fusils, generally lighter and shorter than the “widder-makin’” long rifles carried by American frontiersmen. Although the smoothbore fusils were only accurate to some 70 yards—as opposed to the 250 yards of the rifled-barrel arms—the tribes considered them a leap forward in weaponry.*
Moreover, with the Spanish introduction of the horse to North America over two hundred years earlier, Eastern Woodlands warriors and huntsmen had supplemented their supple hickory longbows with shorter versions more conducive to mounted pursuit. Boone particularly admired the craftsmanship of their powerful arrows—feathered missiles devised around the time the ancient Greeks were besieging Troy. A strong maple-wood shaft could take down a rampaging elk or stun a charging bear. Most of the men also wore scalping knives on leather loops about their necks—the traditional bone, jade, or obsidian blades now replaced by European steel—and the tomahawks tucked into their buckskin belts were interspersed with powder horns, pouches made from the hide of a polecat, and the topknots of vanquished tribal enemies. Finally there were the fearsome war clubs they carried, often called death mauls, that likely planted in Daniel the germ of the idea for his own small cudgel.
Many of Boone’s frontier contemporaries surmised that it was the boy’s early interactions with the itinerant indigenous peoples that laid the foundation for his affinity and understanding of them later in life. While most Europeans arriving on America’s shores viewed Indian behavioral habits as atavistically chaotic and heathen, Boone saw through the veneer. He respected, if not completely understood, the spirituality and philosophy that underpinned their culture. Whether parleying with Indians or fighting against them, Boone never underestimated their intelligence.
For their part, the Delaware, Shawnee, and other Native Americans who came into contact with the borderlands settlers of Pennsylvania were nearly as new to the territory as the whites.
Copyright © 2021 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin