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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Pioneers of the Old Southwest

Constance Lindsay Skinner

in the
Chronicles of America edition,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1919

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p272  Chapter XI
Boone's Last Days

One spring day in 1799 there might have been observed a great stir through the valley of the Kanawha. With the dawn, men were ahorse, and women, too. Wagons crowded with human freight wheeled over the rough country, and boats, large and small, were afloat on the streams which pour into the Great Kanawha and at length mingle with the Ohio at Point Pleasant, where the battle was fought which opened the gates of Kentucky.

Some of the travelers poured into the little settlement at the junction of the Elk and the Kanawha, where Charleston now lies. Others, who had been later in starting or had come from a greater distance, gathered along the banks of the Kanawha. At last shouts from those stationed farthest up the stream echoed down the valley and told the rest that what they had come out to see was at hand.

Several pirogues drifted into view on the river,  p273 now brightening in the sunshine. In the vessels were men and their families; bales and bundles and pieces of household furnishings, heaped to the gunwale; a few cattle and horses standing patiently. But it was for one man above all that the eager eyes of the settlers were watching, and him they saw clearly as his boat swung by — a tall figure, erect and power­ful, his keen friendly blue eyes undimmed and his ruddy face unlined by time, though sixty-five winters had frosted his black hair.

For a decade these settlers had known Daniel Boone, as storekeeper, as surveyor, as guide and soldier. They had eaten of the game he killed and lavishly distributed. And they too — like the folk of Clinch Valley in the year of Dunmore's War — had petitioned Virginia to bestow military rank upon their protector. "Lieutenant Colonel" had been his title among them, by their demand. Once indeed he had represented them in the Virginia Assembly and, for that purpose, trudged to Richmond with rifle and hunting dog. Not interested in the Legislature's proceedings, he left early in the session and tramped home again.

But not even the esteem of friends and neighbors could hold the great hunter when the deer had fled. So Daniel Boone was now on his way westward to  p274 Missouri, to a new land of fabled herds and wide spaces, where the hunter's gun might speak its one word with authority and where the soul of a silent and fearless man might find its true abode in Nature's solitude. Waving his last farewells, he floated past the little groups — till their shouts of good will were long silenced, and his fleet swung out upon the Ohio.

As Boone sailed on down the Beautiful River which forms the northern boundary of Kentucky, old friends and newcomers who had only heard his fame rode from far and near to greet and godspeed him on his way. Sometimes he paused for a day with them. Once at least — this was in Cincinnati where he was taking on supplies — some one asked him why, at his age, he was leaving the settled country to dare the frontier once more.

"Too crowded," he answered; "I want more elbow-room!"

Boone settled at the Femme Osage Creek on the Missouri River, twenty-five miles above St. Charles, where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi. There were four other Kentucky families at La Charette, as the French inhabitants called the post, but these were the only Americans. The Spanish authorities granted Boone 840 acres of land, and here Daniel  p275 built the last cabin home he was to erect for himself and his Rebecca.

The region pleased him immensely. The governmental system, for instance, was wholly to his mind. Taxes were infinitesimal. There were no elections, assemblies, or the like. A single magistrate, or Syndic, decided all disputes and made the few regulations and enforced them. There were no land speculators, no dry-mouthed sons of the commercial Tantalus, athirst for profits. Boone used to say that his first years in Missouri were the happiest of his life, with the exception of his first long hunt in Kentucky.

In 1800 he was appointed Syndic of the district of Femme Osage, which office he filled for four years, until Louisiana became American territory. He was held in high esteem as a magistrate because of his just and wise treatment of his flock, who brought him all their small bickerings to settle. He had no use for legal procedure, would not listen to any nice subtleties, saying that he did not care anything at all about the evidence, what he wanted was the truth. His favorite penalty for offenders was the hickory rod "well laid on." Often he decided that both parties in a suit were equally to blame and chastised them both alike. When in  p276 March, 1804, the American Commissioner received Louisiana for the United States, Delassus,​a Lieutenant Governor of Upper Louisiana, reporting on the various officials in the territory, wrote of the Femme Osage Syndic: "Mr. Boone, a respectable old man, just and impartial, he has already, since I appointed him, offered his resignation owing to his infirmities. Believing I know his probity, I have induced him to remain, in view of my confidence in him, for the public good."1

Daniel, no doubt supposing that a Syndic's rights were inviolable, had neglected to apply to the Governor at New Orleans for a ratification of his grant. He was therefore dispossessed. Not until 1810, and after he had enlisted the Kentucky Legislature in his behalf, did he succeed in inducing Congress to restore his land. The Kentucky Legislature's resolution was adopted because of "the many eminent services rendered by Colonel Boone in exploring and settling the western country, from which great advantages have resulted not only to the State but to the country in general, and that from circumstances over which he had no  p277 control he is now reduced to poverty; not having so far as appears an acre of land out of the vast territory he has been a great instrument in peopling." Daniel was seventy-six then; so it was late in the day for him to have his first experience of justice in the matter of land. Perhaps it pleased him, however, to hear that, in confirming his grant, Congress had designated him as "the man who has opened the way for millions of his fellow-men."

The "infirmities" which had caused the good Syndic to seek relief from political cares must have been purely magisterial. The hunter could have been very little affected by them for as soon as he was freed from his duties Boone took up again the silent challenge of the forest. Usually one or two of his sons or his son-in‑law, Flanders Calloway, accompanied him, but sometimes his only companions were an old Indian and his hunting dog. On one of his hunting trips he explored a part of Kansas; and in 1814, when he was eighty, he hunted big game in the Yellowstone where again his heart rejoiced over great herds as in the days of his first lone wanderings in the Blue Grass country. At last, with the proceeds of these expeditions he was able to pay the debts he had left behind in Kentucky thirty years before. The story runs that  p278 Daniel had only fifty cents remaining when all the claims had been settled, but so contented was he to be able to look an honest man in the face that he was in no disposition to murmur over his poverty.

When after a long and happy life his wife died in 1813, Boone lived with one or other of his sons​2 and sometimes with Flanders Calloway. Nathan Boone, with whom Daniel chiefly made his home, built what is said to have been the first stone house in Missouri. Evidently the old pioneer disapproved of stone houses and of the "luxuries" in furnishings which were then becoming possible to the new generation, for one of his biographers speaks of visiting him in a log addition to his son's house; and when Chester Harding, the painter, visited him in 1819 for the purpose of doing his portrait, he found Boone dwelling in a small log cabin in Nathan's yard. When Harding entered, Boone was broiling a venison steak on the end of his ramrod. During the sitting, one day, Harding  p279 asked Boone if he had ever been lost in the woods when on his long hunts in the wilderness.

"No, I never got lost," Boone replied reflectively, "but I was bewildered once for three days." Though now having reached the age of eighty-five, Daniel was intensely interested in California and was enthusiastic to make the journey thither next spring and so to flee once more from the civilization which had crept westward along his path. The resolute opposition of his sons, however, prevented the attempt.

A few men who sought out Boone in his old age have left us brief accounts of their impressions. Among these was Audubon. "The stature and general appearance of this wanderer of the western forests," the naturalist wrote, "approached the gigantic. His chest was broad, and prominent; his muscular powers displayed themselves in every limb; his countenance gave indication of his great courage, enterprise and perseverance; and, when he spoke, the very motion of his lips brought the impression that whatever he uttered could not be otherwise than strictly true."

Audubon spent a night under Boone's roof. He related afterwards that the old hunter, having removed his hunting shirt, spread his blankets on the  p280 floor and lay down there to sleep, saying that he found it more comfortable than a bed. A striking sketch of Boone is contained in a few lines penned by one of his earliest biographers: "He had what phrenologists would have considered a model head — with a forehead peculiarly high, noble and bold, thin compressed lips, a mild clear blue eye, a large and prominent chin and a general expression of countenance in which fearlessness and courage sat enthroned and which told the beholder at a glance what he had been and was formed to be." In criticizing the various portraits of Daniel, the same writer says: "They want the high port and noble daring of his countenance. . . . Never was old age more green, or gray hairs more graceful. His high, calm, bold forehead seemed converted by years into iron."

Although we are indebted to these and other early chroniclers for many details of Boone's life, there was one event which none of his biographers has related; yet we know that it must have taken place. Even the bare indication of it is found only in the narrative of the adventures of two other explorers.

It was in the winter of 1803 that these two men came to Boone's Settlement, as La Charette was  p281 now generally called. They had planned to make their winter camp there, for in the spring, when the Missouri rose to the flood, they and their company of frontiersmen were to take their way up that uncharted stream and over plains and mountains in quest of the Pacific Ocean. They were refused permission by the Spanish authorities to camp at Boone's Settlement; so they lay through the winter some forty miles distant on the Illinois side of Mississippi, across from the mouth of the Missouri. Since the records are silent, we are free to picture as we choose their coming to the settlement during the winter and again in the spring, for we know that they came.

We can imagine, for instance, the stir they made in La Charette on some sparkling day when the frost bit and the crusty snow sent up a dancing haze of diamond points. We can see the friendly French habitants staring after the two young leaders and their men — all mere boys, though they were also husky, seasoned frontiersmen — with their bronzed faces of English cast, as in their gayly fringed deerskins they swaggered through the hamlet to pay their respects to the Syndic. We may think of that dignitary as smoking his pipe before his fireplace, perhaps; or making out, in his  p282 fantastic spelling, a record of his primitive court — for instance, that he had on that day given Pierre a dozen hickory thwacks, "well laid on," for starting a brawl with Antoine, and had bestowed the same upon Antoine for continuing the brawl with Pierre. A knock at the door would bring the amiable invitation to enter, and the two young men would step across his threshold, while their followers crowded about the open door and hailed the old pathfinder.

One of the two leaders — the dark slender man with a subtle touch of the dreamer in his resolute face — was a stranger; but the other, with more practical mien and the shock of hair that gave him the name of Red Head among the tribes, Boone had known as a lad in Kentucky. To Daniel and this young visitor the encounter would be a simple meeting of friends, heightened in pleasure and interest somewhat, naturally, by the adventure in prospect. But to us there is something vast in the thought of Daniel Boone, on his last frontier, grasping the hands of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis.

As for the rough and hearty mob at the door, Daniel must have known not a few of them well; though they had been children in the days when  p283 he and William Clark's brother strove for Kentucky. It seems fitting that the soldiers with this expedition should have come from the garrison at Kaskaskia; since the taking of that fort in 1778 by George Rogers Clark had opened the western way from the boundaries of Kentucky to the Mississippi. And among the young Kentuckians enlisted by William Clark were sons of the sturdy fighters of still an earlier border line, Clinch and Holston Valley men who had adventured under another Lewis at Point Pleasant. Daniel would recognize in these — such as Charles Floyd — the young kinsmen of his old-time comrades whom he had preserved from starvation in the Kentucky wilderness by the kill from his rifle as they made their long march home after Dunmore's War.

In May, Lewis and Clark's pirogues ascended the Missouri and the leaders and men of the expedition spent another day in La Charette. Once again, at least, Daniel was to watch the westward departure of pioneers. In 1811, when the Astorians passed, one of their number pointed to the immobile figure of "an old man on the bank, who, he said, was Daniel Boone."

Sometimes the aged pioneer's mind cast forward  p284 to his last journey, for which his advancing years were preparing him. He wrote on the subject to a sister, in 1816, revealing in a few simple lines that the faith whereby he had crossed, if not more literally removed, mountains was a fixed star, and that he looked ahead fearlessly to the dark trail he must tread by its single gleam. Autumn was tinting the forest and the tang he loved was in the air when the great hunter passed. The date of Boone's death is given as September 26, 1820. He was in his eighty-sixth year. Unburdened by the pangs of disease he went out serenely, by the gentle marches of sleep, into the new country.

The convention for drafting the constitution of Missouri, in session at St. Louis, adjourned for the day, and for twenty days thereafter the members wore crape on their arms as a further mark of respect for the great pioneer. Daniel was laid by Rebecca's side, on the bank of Teugue Creek, about a mile from the Missouri River. In 1845, the Missouri legislators hearkened to oft-repeated pleas from Kentucky and surrendered the remains of the pioneer couple. Their bones lie now in Frankfort, the capital of the once Dark and Bloody Ground, and in 1880 a monument was raised over them.

To us it seems rather that Kentucky itself is  p285 Boone's monument; even as those other great corn States, Illinois and Indiana, are Clark's. There, these two servants unafraid, who sacrificed without measure in the wintry winds of man's ingratitude, are each year memorialized anew; when the earth in summer — the season when the red man slaughtered — lifts up the full grain in the ear, the life-giving corn; and when autumn smiles in golden peace over the stubble fields, where the reaping and binding machines have hummed a nation's harvest song.

The Author's Notes:

1 Thwaites, Daniel Boone. To this and other biographies of Boone cited in the Bibliographical Note at the end of this volume, the author is indebted for the material contained in this chapter.

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2 Boone's son Nathan won distinction in the War of 1812 and entered the regular army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Daniel Morgan Boone is said to have been the first settler in Kansas (1827). One of Daniel's grandsons, bearing the name of Albert Gallatin Boone, was a pioneer of Colorado and was to the forefront in Rocky Mountain exploration. Another grandson was the scout, Kit Carson, who led Frémont to California.

Thayer's Note:

a More maybe even than about Boone, this says something about Delassus. He was a pleasant, don't-rock-the‑boat sort of fellow: just six years later we can watch him, from very close up and at length, deal with a revolution as the chief Spanish protagonist against whom similar pioneers were arrayed, in The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. After that experience, he retired to the United States, living the thirty remaining years of his life in New Orleans and St. Louis.

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