Folk legend Daniel Boone was a reluctant hero in his lifetime. Historic Interpreter Scott New tells the story of the humble hunter.
Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we welcome actor Scott New to the program. Scott is a historical interpreter who has most recently been playing the part of celebrated frontiersman Daniel Boone. Scott, thank you for being with us today.
Scott New: You’re welcome, thank you.
Harmony: Daniel Boone stands as such a large a large figure in folktales, it’s easy to forget that he was an actual person.
Scott: Well, Daniel Boone…you’re quite correct in that he has become a very mythic figure. Almost an American icon, well he is truly an American icon: the iconic figure of the frontiersman. He was the first real frontiersman celebrity hero in American history. And the myths and the legends began before his death.
In fact some descendants claim that there’s a statement he made before his death to family members stating that, “I am hearing tales of myself that are best left in the realms of fancy or best left until I’m put in the ground.” So yes, his life is so covered up in myth and legend that we really need to let people know who and what he really was.
Harmony: When you say we want to talk about who and what he really was, how do you answer that question?
Scott: He did a lot of things in his life. He wasn’t simply a hunter, a trapper, a trailblazer. He served in the Virginia legislature so he was a member of government. He served as a magistrate, a justice of the peace, he was a militia commander, he was a land speculator, he was a surveyor, he owned a tavern and a warehouse – an ordinary on the Ohio River in Kentucky. So there’s a lot of very interesting features of this man’s life that I don’t think the general public is quite aware of.
Harmony: So let’s get down to Daniel Boone 101. He’s born in Pennsylvania to a Quaker family. Tell us about how he grew up.
Scott: He’s born 1734, October 22nd in what is now Burks County Pennsylvania, it was then Philadelphia County. However, I should say he has two birthdays. The reason for that is the change from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in his lifetime. So, that’s why you’ll see in some biographies October 22nd or sometimes November 2nd. Both technically right, but Boone was a bit of an old fashioned sort of man so he chose to celebrate October 22 for the rest of his life.
Yes, they were Quakers, he did not remain a Quaker himself for the rest of his life, he was always a Christian by religion, by belief. But many of the beliefs, the customs, the folkways, even some of the material culture of the Quakers, he kept for the rest of his life. And if you you have that basic understanding of him as part of his character, you read a good biography and you can trace that all through his life. Why he did this, why he did that. I believe those principles served him very well.
Harmony: Tell me about some of those Quaker principles which informed his whole ethic.
Scott: In particular Christ’s words in the Gospels, the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. He didn’t see the natives, the Indians or, “Indans,” as he always spelled Indians “i-n-d-a-n.” He saw them as just other folks, they weren’t savages, they weren’t exotic, they weren’t subhuman. Of course he was pitted against them many times in his life as a frontiersman in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution but other than serving in the war itself, he often times had very friendly, very amicable relations with these people.
Folkways, he was always a modest man, quiet, shy, reserved, well-educated for a what we call a back woodsman, very conservative in his dress as Quakers were, and in his his manners, very simple quiet lifestyle.
Harmony: We talked about Daniel Boone’s birthday on October 22nd, but it was on his 13th birthday that he got a gift which set the course of his whole life.
Scott: His father had a rifle, as he would say, “a rifle gun” made for him and from that day onward young Boone was expected to start putting meat on the table and by the time of his late teens, probably by the time of his marriage to Rebecca, 19-20 years old, he probably about that time began to go in the direction of hunting or market hunting or long hunting as what he…how he would say has a business of life -- as an income.
Harmony: Beyond just putting food on the table, Boone used hunting to actually make a living throughout his adult life.
Scott: Yes, throughout all of his life. Even up ’til probably… We have to combat myth and legend here and what the family says but he very well may have been going out on hunting and trapping trips out in Missouri in his old age. Even perhaps in his middle 70s.
Of course it’s hard for us to imagine today an era in which people hunt for a living. It’s the era of the fur trade in which all fur bearing animals from deer hides of course otter, beaver, mink that were trapped to send back to Europe to make gentlemen’s and ladies hats. These hides, these pelts, were shipped back to Europe even after the Revolution by the shiploads, I mean hundreds of thousands over the years, millions of them.
And it’s of course a world where there’s no plastic, there’s no rubber, so with the deerskins there’s a million and one more uses for the leather. They could be leather breeches for men in the saddle or aprons for tradesmen, or gloves for ladies and gentlemen. We know they even um, covered furniture with deer hides and then put the upholstery fabric over it.
So it’s a time when the hides, the leather from these animals, it’s very marketable. It’s a huge international industry so yes, for all of his life he um engaged in hunting, at least to a degree for profit but for Colonel Boone too…it’s pretty apparent that it was just part of his nature. He just loved it, I mean he was a true dyed in the wool outdoorsman to the marrow of his bones and he just loved being out in nature.
Harmony: Daniel Boone is credited with kind of opening the American west. Of expanding the…beyond the 13 colonies into Kentucky and into the areas west of what was already established in the 13 colonies. How did his hunting come together with that opening up of the west? How are those two linked?
Scott: I’d say that’s a direct reason. He was one of these men, there were probably fewer than 100, some say 50 or thereabouts that penetrated into Kentucky, east Tennessee, western North Carolina, in the 1760s was their heyday. He gained quite a reputation during that time as having as much, as he would say, as much or more knowledge of Kentucky as any white man.
And of course he was hired by Henderson and company in 1775 to cut what we now call the Wilderness Road, probably one of the most famous roads in American history. The road on a modern map, your listeners if they get a modern map, they’ll see in Kingsport, Tennessee there’s the Holston river flows through that city and there’s a long island of the Holston river, that’s where they began and it went up through that portion of east Tennessee through a few counties of southwest Virginia, through the Cumberland gap, and up into the central part of Kentucky. About 225 miles. It was called Boone’s trace at first and then the Wilderness Road but… Oh yes, uh, he was the, pardon the expression, he was the hunter, he was the man, he had the knowledge, so he was a natural choice for that.
Harmony: Do you think it was ever Boone’s ambition to open the west for settlement?
Scott: I think initially he’s just trying to make a living for his family. I think by the end of his life, he probably, he and his family, some of his contemporaries looked back and thought, “My goodness, what have we done? Look what’s happened.” I mean this country has really taken off. I think it, this may sound a bit silly but for lack of any other way to express it, it almost ran away with them. I don’t think he thought that the settlement of Kentucky, its statehood, the nation going that far west even in his lifetime…I honestly don’t think he probably would have thought it would have happened as quickly as it did.
Harmony: I think the paradox is that he loved the wilderness and that was his favorite place to be, but wherever he sought wilderness, population followed him.
Scott: Others come behind and so he just like many of the natives feels like he’s pushed, pushed further westwards.
Harmony: Why has Daniel Boone become such a lasting symbol of of American frontiersmen, of the American spirit. Why did he become such a large figure in legend?
Scott: This is so hard to describe. As Boone would say, “Even now I can’t give you all the why and the wherefore.” But the image of the woodsman, the image of the frontiersman, which later evolved into the image of the cowboy in the 19th century west, I mean this just seems to be part of the American culture right down to the to the marrow of our bones.
It also appealed to our sense of independence. I mean these people really were a self-reliant independent people. They had to be and so they became this very sort of inspirational image to Americans and Boone in particular as well. He really did have outstanding moral character. He practiced what he preached, he really lived it and he really was a good man and those who try to find faults in him or sling mud at him, the mud never really seems to stick.
Harmony: Thank you so much for being with us today Scott.
Scott: You’re welcome.