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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p90  Chapter V
Boone, the Wanderer

What thoughts filled Daniel Boone's mind as he was returning from Braddock's disastrous campaign in 1755 we may only conjecture. Perhaps he was planning a career of soldiering, for in later years he was to distinguish himself as a frontier commander in both defense and attack. Or it may be that his heart was full of the wondrous tales told him by the trader, John Findlay, of that Hunter's Canaan, Kentucky, where buffalo and deer roamed in thousands. Perhaps he meant to set out ere long in search of the great adventure of his dreams, despite the terrible dangers of trail making across the zones of war into the unknown.

However that may be, Boone straightway followed neither of these possible plans on his return to the Yadkin but halted for a different adventure. There, a rifle's shot distance from his threshold, was offered him the oldest and sweetest of all  p91 hazards to daring. He was twenty-two, strong and comely and a whole man; and therefore he was in no mind to refuse what life held out to him in the person of Rebecca Bryan. Rebecca was the daughter of Joseph Bryan, who had come to the Yadkin from Pennsylvania some time before the Boones; and she was in her seventeenth year.

Writers of an earlier and more sentimental period than ours have endeavored to supply, from the saccharine stores of their fancy, the romantic episodes connected with Boone's wooing which history has omitted to record. Hence the tale that the young hunter, walking abroad in the spring gloaming, saw Mistress Rebecca's large dark eyes shining in the dusk of the forest, mistook them for a deer's eyes and shot — his aim on this occasion fortunately being bad! But if Boone's rifle was missing its mark at ten paces, Cupid's dart was speeding home. So runs the story concocted a hundred years later by some gentle scribe ignorant alike of game seasons, the habits of hunters, and way of a man with a maid in a primitive world.

Daniel and Rebecca were married in the spring of 1756. Squire Boone, in his capacity as justice of the peace, tied the knot; and in a small cabin built upon his spacious lands the young couple  p92 set up housekeeping. Here Daniel's first two sons were born. In the third year of his marriage, Daniel removed with his wife and their young and precious family to Culpeper County in eastern Virginia, for the border was going through its darkest days of the French and Indian War. During the next two or three years we find him in Virginia engaged as a wagoner, hauling tobacco in season; but back on the border with his rifle, after the harvest, aiding in defense against the Indians. In 1759 he purchased from his father a lot on Sugar Tree Creek, a tributary of Dutchman's Creek (Davie County, North Carolina) and built thereon a cabin for himself. The date when he brought his wife and children to live in their new abode on the border is not declared. It was probably some time after the close of the Indian War. Of Boone himself during these years we have but scant information. We hear of him again in Virginia and also as a member of the pack-horse caravan which brought into the Back Country the various necessaries for the settlers. We know, too, that in the fall of 1760 he was on a lone hunting trip in the mountains west of the Yadkin; for until a few years ago there might be seen, still standing on the banks  p93 of Boone's Creek (a small tributary of the Watauga) in eastern Tennessee, a tree bearing the legend, "D Boon cilled a bar on this tree 1760." Boone was always fond of carving his exploits on trees, and his wanderings have been traced largely by his arboreal publications.​a In the next year (1761) he went with Waddell's rangers when they marched with the army to the final subjugation of the Cherokee.

That Boone and his family were back on the border in the new cabin shortly after the end of the war, we gather from the fact that in 1764 he took his little son James, aged seven, on one of his long hunting excursions. From this time dates the intimate comrade­ship of father and son through all the perils of the wilderness, a comrade­ship to come to its tragic end ten years later when, as we shall see, the seventeen-year‑old lad fell under the red man's tomahawk as his father was leading the first settlers towards Kentucky. In the cold nights of the open camp, as Daniel and James lay under the frosty stars, the father kept the boy warm snuggled to his breast under the broad flap of his hunting shirt. Sometimes the two were away from home for months together, and Daniel declared little James to be as good a woodsman as his father.

 p94  Meanwhile fascinating accounts of the new land of Florida, ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763,​b had leaked into the Back Country; and in the winter of 1765 Boone set off southward on horseback with seven companions. Colonel James Grant, with whose army Boone had fought in 1761, had been appointed Governor of the new colony and was offering generous inducements to settlers. The party traveled along the borders of South Carolina and Georgia. No doubt they made the greater part of their way over the old Traders' Trace, the "whitened" warpath; and they suffered severe hardships. Game became scarcer as they proceeded. Once they were nigh to perishing of starvation and were saved from that fate only through chance meeting with a band of Indians who, seeing their plight, made camp and shared their food with them — according to the Indian code in time of peace.

Boone's party explored Florida from St. Augustine to Pensacola, and Daniel became sufficiently enamored of the tropical south to purchase there land and a house. His wife, however, was unwilling to go to Florida, and she was not long in convincing the hunter that he would soon tire of a gameless country. A gameless country! Perhaps  p95 this was the very thought which turned the wanderer's desires again towards the land of Kentucky.​1 The silencing of the enemy's whisper in the Cherokee camps had opened the border forests once more to the nomadic rifle­man. Boone was not alone in the desire to seek out what lay beyond. His brother-in‑law, John Stewart, and a nephew by marriage, Benjamin Cutbirth, or Cutbird, with two other young men, John Baker and James Ward, in 1766 crossed the Appalachian Mountains, probably by stumbling upon the Indian trail winding from base to summit and from peak to base again over this part of the great hill barrier. They eventually reached the Mississippi River and, having taken a good quantity of peltry on the way, they launched upon the stream and came in time to New Orleans, where they made a satisfactory trade of their furs.

Boone was fired anew by descriptions of this successful feat, in which two of his kinsmen had participated. He could no longer be held back. He must find the magic door that led through the vast mountain wall into Kentucky — Kentucky, with its green prairies where the buffalo and deer  p96 were as "ten thousand cattle feeding" in the wilds, and where the balmy air vibrated with the music of innumerable wings.

Accordingly, in the autumn of 1767, Boone began his quest of the delectable country in the company of his friend, William Hill, who had been with him in Florida. Autumn was the season of departure on all forest excursions, because by that time the summer crops had been gathered in and the day of the deer had come. By hunting, the explorers must feed themselves on their travels and with deerskins and furs they must on their return recompense those who had supplied their outfit. Boone, the incessant but not always lucky wanderer, was in these years ever in debt for an outfit.

Boone and Hill made their way over the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies and crossed the Holston and Clinch rivers. Then they came upon the west fork of the Big Sandy and, believing that it would lead them to the Ohio, they continued for at least a hundred miles to the westward. Here they found a buffalo trace, one of the many beaten out by the herds in their passage to the salt springs, and they followed it into what is now Floyd County in eastern Kentucky. But this was not the prairie land described by Findlay; it was rough and hilly  p97 and so overgrown with laurel as to be almost impenetrable. They therefore wended their way back toward the river, doubtless erected the usual hunter's camp of skins or blankets and branches, and spent the winter in hunting and trapping. Spring found them returning to their homes on the Yadkin with a fair winter's haul.

Such urgent desire as Boone's, however, was not to be defeated. The next year brought him his great opportunity. John Findlay came to the Yadkin with a horse pack of needles and linen and peddler's wares to tempt the slim purses of the Back Country folk. The two erstwhile comrades in arms were overjoyed to encounter each other again, and Findlay spent the winter of 1768‑69 in Boone's cabin. While the snow lay deep outside and good-smelling logs crackled on the hearth, they planned an expedition into Kentucky through the Gap where Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky touch one another, which Findlay felt confident he could find. Findlay had learned of this route from cross-mountain traders in 1753, when he had descended the Ohio to the site of Louisville, whence he had gone with some Shawanoes as a prisoner to their town of Es‑kip‑pa-ki-thi‑ki or Blue Licks.2

 p98  On the first day of May, 1769, Boone and Findlay, accompanied by John Stewart and three other venturesome spirits, Joseph Holden, James Mooney, and William Cooley, took horse for the fabled land. Passing through the Cumberland Gap, they built their first camp in Kentucky on the Red Lick fork of Station Camp Creek.

This camp was their base of operations. From it, usually in couples, we infer, the explorers branched out to hunt and to take their observations of the country. Here also they prepared the deer and buffalo meat for the winter, dried or smoked the geese they shot in superabundance, made the tallow and oil needed to keep their weapons in trim, their leather soft, and their kits waterproof. Their first ill luck befell them in December when Boone and Stewart were captured by a band of Shawanoes who were returning from their autumn hunt on Green River. The Indians compelled the two white men to show them the location of their camp, took possession of all it contained in skins and furs and also helped themselves to the horses. They left the explorers with just enough meat and ammunition to provide for their journey homeward, and told them to depart and not to intrude again on the red men's hunting  p99 grounds. Having given this pointed warning, the Shawanoes rode on northward towards their towns beyond the Ohio. On foot, swiftly and craftily, Boone and his brother-in‑law trailed the band for two days. They came upon the camp in dead of night, recaptured their horses, and fled. But this was a game in which the Indians themselves excelled, and at this date the Shawanoes had an advantage over Boone in their thorough knowledge of the territory; so that within forty-eight hours the white men were once more prisoners. After they had amused themselves by making Boone caper about with a horse bell on his neck, while they jeered at him in broken English, "Steal horse, eh?" the Shawanoes turned north again, this time taking the two unfortunate hunters with them. Boone and Stewart escaped, one day on the march, by a plunge into the thick tall canebrake. Though the Indians did not attempt to follow them through the mazes of the cane, the situation of the two hunters, without weapons or food, was serious enough. When they found Station Camp deserted and realized that their four companions had given them up for dead or lost and had set off on the trail for home, even such intrepid souls as theirs may have felt fear. They raced on in pursuit and  p100 fortunately fell in not only with their party but with Squire Boone, Daniel's brother, and Alexander Neely, who had brought in fresh supplies of rifles, ammunition, flour, and horses.

After this lucky encounter the group separated. Findlay was ill, and Holden, Mooney, and Cooley had had their fill of Kentucky but Squire, Neely, Stewart, and Daniel were ready for more adventures. Daniel, too, felt under the positive necessity of putting in another year at hunting and trapping in order to discharge his debts and provide for his family. Near the mouth of Red River the new party built their station camp. Here, in idle hours, Neely read aloud from a copy of Gulliver's Travels to entertain the hunters while they dressed their deerskins or tinkered their weapons. In honor of the "Lorbrulgrud" of the book, though with a pronunciation all their own, they christened the nearest creek; and as "Lulbegrud Creek" it is still known.

Before the end of the winter the two Boones were alone in the wilderness. Their brother-in‑law, Stewart, had disappeared; and Neely, discouraged by this tragic event, had returned to the Yadkins. In May, Squire Boone fared forth, taking with him the season's catch of beaver, otter, and  p101 deerskins to exchange in the North Carolina trading houses for more supplies; and Daniel was left solitary in Kentucky.

Now followed those lonely explorations which gave Daniel Boone his special fame above all Kentucky's pioneers. He was by no means the first white man to enter Kentucky; and when he did enter, it was as one of a party, under another man's guidance — if we except his former disappointing journey into the laurel thickets of Floyd County. But these others, barring Stewart, who fell there, turned back when they met with loss and hardship and measured the certain risks against the possible gains. Boone, the man of imagination, turned to wild earth as to his kin. His genius lay in the sense of oneness he felt with his wilderness environment. An instinct he had which these other men, as courageous perhaps as he, did not possess.

Never in all the times when he was alone in the woods and had no other man's safety or counsel to consider, did he suffer ill fortune. The nearest approach to trouble that befell him when alone occurred one day during this summer when some Indians emerged from their green shelter and found him, off guard for the moment, standing on a cliff gazing with rapture over the vast rolling  p102 stretches of Kentucky. He was apparently cut off from escape, for the savages were on three sides, advancing without haste to take him, meanwhile greeting him with mock amity. Over the cliff leaped Boone and into the outspread arms of a friendly maple, whose top bloomed green about sixty feet below the cliff's rim, and left his would‑be captors on the height above, grunting their amazement.

During this summer Boone journeyed through the valleys of the Kentucky and the Licking. He followed the buffalo traces to the two Blue Licks and saw the enormous herds licking up the salt earth, a darkly ruddy moving mass of boasts whose numbers could not be counted. For many miles he wound along the Ohio, as far as the Falls. He also found the Big Bone Lick with its mammoth fossils.

In July, 1770, Daniel returned to the Red River camp and there met Squire Boone with another pack of supplies. The two brothers continued their hunting and exploration together for some months, chiefly in Jessamine County, where two caves still bear Boone's name. In that winter they even braved the Green River ground, whence had come the hunting Shawanoes who had taken Daniel's  p103 first fruits a year before. In the same year (1770) there had come into Kentucky from the Yadkin another party of hunters, called, from their lengthy sojourn in the twilight zone, the Long Hunters. One of these, Gasper Mansker, afterwards related how the Long Hunters were startled one day by hearing sounds such as no buffalo or turkey ever made, and how Mansker himself stole silently under cover of the trees towards the place whence the strange noises came, and descried Daniel Boone prone on his back with a deerskin under him, his famous tall black hat beside him and his mouth opened wide in joyous but apparently none too tuneful song. This incident gives a true character touch. It is not recorded of any of the men who turned back that they sang alone in the wilderness.

In March, 1771, the two Boones started homeward, their horses bearing the rich harvest of furs and deerskins which was to clear Daniel of debt and to insure the comfort of the family he had not seen for two years. But again evil fortune met them, this time in the very gates — for in the Cumberland Gap they were suddenly surrounded by Indians who took everything from them, leaving them neither guns nor horses.

The Author's Notes:

1 Kentucky, from Ken‑ta‑ke, an Iroquois word meaning "the place of old fields." Adair calls the territory "the old fields." The Indians apparently used the word "old," as we do, in a sense of endearment and possession as well as relative to age.

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2 Hanna, The Wilderness Trail, vol. II, pp215‑16.

Thayer's Notes:

a Anyone can carve a few letters on a tree, of course. Still, there's no reason that that anyone mightn't have been Boone. For other such trees, with an early‑20c photo of one of them, and further notes on the subject, links and photos, see A Brief History of Kona, Ky.

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b Not all of Florida is meant, which stayed Spanish for a few decades more. The ceded territory was West Florida, running to the Mississippi from just west of Pensacola and thus comprising the western half of what is now the Florida panhandle, the coastal counties of Alabama and Mississippi, and most importantly the "Florida parishes" of Louisiana. American adventurers, fugitives, hunters, and other interlopers or immigrants would eventually throw control of the area to the United States well before the rest of Florida was acquired: for its interesting history see S. C. Arthur, The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. We notice here that, typically, Boone may have been invited to British Florida, but wanders over as well to the part not under British control.

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