Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Daniel Boone, the Pioneer of Kentucky

The region of Kentucky, that "dark and bloody ground" of Indian warfare, lay long unknown to the whites. No Indians even dwelt there, though it was a land of marvellous beauty and wonderful fertility. For its forests and plains so abounded with game that it was used by various tribes as a hunting-ground, and here the savage warriors so often met in hostile array, and waged such deadly war, that not the most daring of them ventured to make it their home. And the name which they gave it was destined to retain its sombre significance for the whites, when they should invade the perilous Kentuckian wilds, and build their habitations in this land of dread.

In 1767 John Finley, a courageous Indian trader, pushed far into its depths, and returned with thrilling stories of his adventures and tempting descriptions of the beauty and fertility of the land. These he told to Daniel Boone, an adventure-loving Pennsylvanian, who had made his way to North Carolina, and built himself a home in the virgin forest at the head-waters of the Yadkin. Here, with his wife, his rifle, and his growing family, he enjoyed his frontier life with the greatest zest, until the increasing numbers of new settlers and the alluring narrative of Finley induced him to leave his home and seek again the untrodden wilds.

On the 1st of May, 1769, Finley, Boone, and three others struck boldly into the broad backbone of mountain-land which lay between their old home and the new land of promise. They set out on their dangerous journey amid the tears of their families, who deemed that destruction awaited them, and vainly besought them to abandon the enterprise. Forward, for days and weeks, pushed the hardy pioneers, their rifles providing them with game, their eyes on the alert against savages, until, after what seemed months of toil, the mountains were passed and the fertile plains and extended forests of Kentucky lay before them.

"We found everywhere" says Boone, "abundance of wild beasts of all sorts, through this vast forest. The buffalo were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements, browsing on the leaves of the cane, or cropping the herbage of these extensive plains, fearless, because ignorant of the violence of man. In this forest, the habitation of beasts of every kind natural to America, we practised hunting with great success until the 22d day of December following."

On that day Boone and another were taken prisoner by a party of Indians. Seven days they were held, uncertain as to their fate, but at length, by a skilful artifice, they escaped and made their way back to their camp, only to find it deserted, those whom they had left there having returned to North Carolina. Other adventurers soon joined them, however, Boone's brother among them, and the remainder of the winter was passed in safety.

As regards the immediately succeeding events, it will suffice to say that Squire Boone, as Daniel's brother was called, returned to the settlements in the spring for supplies, the others having gone before, so that the daring hunter was left alone in that vast wilderness. Even his dog had deserted him, and the absolute solitude of nature surrounded him.

The movements we have described had not passed unknown to the Indians, and only the most extraordinary caution saved the solitary hunter from his dusky foes. He changed his camp every night, never sleeping twice in the same place. Often he found that it had been visited by Indians in his absence. Once a party of savages pursued him for many miles, until, by speed and skill, he threw them from his trail. Many and perilous were his adventures during his three months of lonely life in the woods and canebrakes of that fear-haunted land. Prowling wolves troubled him by night, prowling savages by day, yet fear never entered his bold heart, and cheerfulness never fled from his mind. He was the true pioneer, despising peril and proof against loneliness. At length his brother joined him, with horses and supplies, and the two adventurers passed another winter in the wilderness.

Several efforts were made in the ensuing years to people the country, but numbers of the settlers were slain by the Indians, whose hostility made the task so perilous that a permanent settlement was not made till 1775. The place then settled—a fine location on the Kentucky River—was called, in honor of its founder, Boonesborough. Here a small fort was built, to which the adventurer now brought his family, being determined to make it his place of abode, despite his dusky foes. "My wife and daughter," he says, "were the first white women that ever stood on the banks of Kentucky River."

It was a dangerous step they had taken. The savages, furious at this invasion of their hunting-grounds, were ever on the alert against their pale-faced foes. In the following spring Boone's daughter, with two other girls, who had thoughtlessly left the fort to gather flowers, were seized by ambushed Indians and hurried away into the forest depths.

Their loss was soon learned, and the distracted parents, with seven companions, were quickly in pursuit through the far-reaching forest. For two days, with the skill of trained scouts, they followed the trail which the girls, true hunters' daughters, managed to mark by shreds of their clothing which they tore off and dropped by the way.

The rapid pursuers at length came within sight of the camp of the Indians. Here they waited till darkness descended, approaching as closely as was safe. The two fathers, Boone and Calloway, now volunteered to attempt a rescue under cover of the night, and crept, with the acumen of practised frontiersmen, towards the Indian halting-place. Unluckily for them they were discovered and captured by the Indians, who dragged them exultingly to their camp. Here a council was quickly held, and the captives condemned to suffer the dreadful fate of savage reprisal,—death by torture and flame.

Morning had but fairly dawned when speedy preparations were made by the savages for their deadly work. They had no time to waste, for they knew not how many pursuers might be on their trail. The captives were securely bound to trees, before the eyes of their distracted daughters, and fagots hastily gathered for the fell purpose of their foes.

But while they were thus busied, the companions of Boone and Calloway had not been idle. Troubled by the non-return of the rescuers, the woodsmen crept up with the first dawn of day, saw the bloody work designed, and poured in a sudden storm of bullets on the savages, several of whom were stretched bleeding upon the ground. Then, with shouts of exultation, the ambushed whites burst from their covert, dashed into the camp before the savages could wreak their vengeance on their prisoners, and with renewed rifle-shots sent them away in panic flight. A knife-stroke or two released the captives, and the party returned in triumph to the fort.

The example of Boone and his companions in making their homes on Kentucky soil was soon followed by others, and within a year or two a number of settlements had been made, at various promising localities. The Indians did not view with equanimity this invasion of their hunting-grounds. Their old battles with each other were now replaced by persistent hostility to the whites, and they lurked everywhere around the feeble settlements, seizing stragglers, destroying cattle, and in every way annoying the daring pioneers.

In April, 1777, a party of a hundred of them fiercely attacked Boonesborough, but were driven off by the rifles of the settlers. In July they came again, now doubled in numbers, and for two days assailed the fort, but with the same ill-success as before. Similar attacks were made on the other settlements, and a state of almost incessant warfare prevailed, in which Boone showed such valor and activity that he became the terror of his savage foes, who, in compliment to his daring, christened him "The Great Long-Knife." On one occasion when two Indian warriors assailed him in the woods he manoeuvred so skilfully as to draw the fire of both, and then slew the pair of them, the one with his rifle, the other, in hand-to-hand fight, with his deadly hunting-knife.

But the bold pioneer was destined soon to pass through an experience such as few men have safely endured. It was now February, 1778. For three years the settlers had defied their foes, Boone, in despite of them, hesitating not to traverse the forest alone, with rifle and hunting-knife, in pursuit of game. In one of these perilous excursions he suddenly found himself surrounded by a party of a hundred Shawnese warriors, who were on their way to attack his own fort. He fled, but was overtaken and secured. Soon after, the savages fell in with a large party of whites who were making salt at the Salt Lick springs, and captured them all, twenty-seven in number.

Exulting in their success, the warriors gave up their original project, and hastened northward with their prisoners. Fortunately for the latter, the Revolutionary War was now in full progress, and the Indians deemed it more advantageous to themselves to sell their prisoners than to torture them. They, therefore, took them to Detroit, where all were ransomed by the British except Boone. The governor offered a large sum for his release, but the savages would not listen to the bribe. They knew the value of the man they held, and were determined that their illustrious captive should not escape again to give them trouble in field and forest.

Leaving Detroit, they took him to Chillicothe, on the Little Miami River, the chief town of the tribe. Here a grand council was held as to what should be done with him. Boone's fate trembled in the balance. The stake seemed his destined doom. Fortunately, an old woman, of the family of Blackfish, one of their most distinguished chiefs, having lost a son in battle, claimed the captive as her adopted son. Such a claim could not be set aside. It was a legal right in the tribe, and the chiefs could not but yield. They were proud, indeed, to have such a mighty hunter as one of themselves, and the man for whose blood they had been hungering was now treated with the utmost kindness and respect.

The ceremony of adoption into the tribe was a painful one, which Boone had to endure. Part of it consisted in plucking out all the hairs of his head with the exception of the scalp-lock, of three or four inches diameter. But the shrewd captive bore his inflictions with equanimity, and appeared perfectly contented with his lot. The new son of the tribe, with his scalp-lock, painted face, and Indian dress, and his skin deeply embrowned by constant exposure to the air, could hardly be distinguished from one of themselves, while his seeming satisfaction with his new life was well adapted to throw the Indians off their guard. His skill in all manly exercises and in the use of arms was particularly admired by his new associates, though, as Boone says, he "was careful not to exceed many of them in shooting, for no people are more envious than they in this sport."

His wary captors, however, were not easily to be deceived. Seemingly, Boone was left free to go where he would, but secretly he was watched, and precautions taken to prevent his escape. He was permitted to go out alone to hunt, but the Indians always carefully counted his balls and measured his charges of powder, determined that he should have none to aid him to procure food in a long flight. Shrewd as they were, however, Boone was more than their match. In his hunting expeditions he cut his balls in half, and used very small charges of powder, so that he was enabled to bring back game while gradually secreting a store of ammunition.

And thus the days and weeks went on, while Daniel Boone remained, to all outward appearance, a contented Shawnee warrior. But at length came a time when flight grew imperative. He had been taken to the salt-licks with a party of Indians to aid them in making salt. On returning to Chillicothe he was alarmed to see the former peaceful aspect of the village changed to one of threatened war. A band of four hundred and fifty warriors had been collected for a hostile foray, and to his horror he learned that Boonesborough was the destined point of attack.

In this fort were his wife and children. In the present state of security of the inmates they might easily be taken by surprise. He alone could warn them of their danger, and to this end he must escape from his watchful foes.

Boone was not the man to let the anxiety that tore his heart appear on his face. To all seeming he was careless and indifferent, looking on with smiling face at their war-dances, and hesitating not to give them advice in warlike matters. He knew their language sufficiently to understand all they said, but from the moment of his captivity had pretended to be entirely ignorant of it, talking to them only in the jargon which then formed the medium of communication between the red men and the whites, and listening with impassive countenance to the most fear-inspiring plans. They, therefore, talked freely before him, not for a moment dreaming that their astute prisoner had solved the problem of their destination. As for Boone, he appeared to enter with whole-souled ardor into their project and to be as eager as themselves for its success, seeming so fully in sympathy with them, and so content with his lot, that they absorbed in their enterprise, became less vigilant than usual in watching his movements.

The time for the expedition was at hand. Whatever the result, he must dare the peril of flight. The distance to be traversed was one hundred and sixty miles. As soon as his flight should become known, he was well aware that a host of Indian scouts, thoroughly prepared for pursuit and full of revengeful fury, would be on his track. And there would be no further safety for him if captured. Death, by the most cruel tortures the infuriated savages could devise, was sure to be his fate.

All this Boone knew, but it did not shake his resolute soul. His family and friends were in deadly peril; he alone could save them; his own danger was not to be thought of in this emergency. On the morning of June 16 he rose very early for his usual hunt. Taking the ammunition doled out to him by his Indian guards, he added to it that which he had secreted in the woods, and was ready for the desperate enterprise which he designed.

Boone was now forty-three years of age, a man of giant frame and iron muscles, possessed of great powers of endurance, a master of all the arts of woodcraft, and one of the most skilful riflemen in the Western wilds. Keen on the trail, swift of foot, and valorous in action as were the Indian braves, there was no warrior of the tribe the equal in these particulars of the practised hunter who now meditated flight.

On the selected morning the daring woodsman did not waste a moment. No sooner had he lost sight of the village than he headed southward at his utmost speed. He could count on but an hour or two to gain a start on his wary foes. He well knew that when the hour of his usual return had passed without his appearance, a host of scouts would follow in swift pursuit. Such was the case, as he afterwards learned. No sooner had the Indians discovered the fact of his flight than an intense commotion reigned among them, and a large number of their swiftest runners and best hunters were put upon his trail.

By this time, however, he had gained a considerable start, and was pushing forward with all speed taking the usual precautions as he went to avoid making a plain trail, but losing no time in his flight. He dared not use his rifle,—quick ears might be within hearing of its sound. He dared not kindle a fire to cook game, even if he had killed it,—sharp eyes might be within sight of its smoke. He had secured a few cuts of dried venison, and with this as his only food he pushed on by day and night, hardly taking time to sleep, making his way through forest and swamp, and across many streams which were swollen by recent rains. And on his track, like blood-hounds on the scent of their victims, came the furious pursuers now losing his trail, now recovering it; and, as they went, spreading out over a wide space, and pushing steadily southward over the general route which they felt sure he would pursue.

At length the weary fugitive reached the banks of the Ohio River. As yet he had not seen a foe. As yet he had not fired a gun. He must put that great stream, now swollen to a half-mile in width by the late rains, between him and his foes ere he could dare for a moment to relax his vigilance.

Unluckily, expert as he was in woodcraft, Boone was a poor swimmer. His skill in the water would never carry him across that rushing stream. How to get across had for hours been to him a matter of deep anxiety. Fortunately, on reaching its banks, he found an old canoe, which had drifted among the bushes of the shore, and stranded there, being full of water from a large hole in its bottom.

The skilled hunter was not long in emptying the canoe and closing the hole. Then, improvising a paddle, he launched his leaky craft upon the stream, and succeeded in reaching the southern shore in safety. Now, for the first time, did he feel sufficiently safe to fire a shot and to kindle a fire. He brought down a wild turkey which, seasoned with hunger, made him the most delicious repast he had ever tasted. It was the only regular meal in which he indulged in his flight. Safety was not yet assured. Some of his pursuers might be already across the river. Onward he dashed, with unflagging energy, and at length reached the fort, after five days of incessant travel through the untrodden wilds.

He was like a dead man returned to life. The people at the fort looked at him with staring eyes. They had long given him up for lost, and he learned, much to his grief, that his wife and children had returned to their old home in North Carolina. Just now, however, there was no time for sorrow, and little time for greeting. The fort had been neglected, and was in bad condition. The foe might even then be near at hand. There was not a moment to spare. He put the men energetically to work, and quickly had the neglected defences repaired. Then determined to strike terror into the foe, he led a party of men swiftly to and across the Ohio, met a party of thirty savages near the Indian town of Paint Creek, and attacked them so fiercely that they were put to rout.

This foray greatly alarmed the Indians. It put courage into the hearts of the garrison. After an absence of seven days and a journey of a hundred and fifty miles, Boone and his little party returned, in fear lest the Chillicothe warriors might reach the fort during his absence.

It was not, however, until August that the Indians appeared. They were four hundred and forty-four in number, led by Captain Duquesne and other French officers, and with French and British colors flying. There were but fifty men in the fort. The situation seemed a desperate one, but under Boone's command the settlers were resolute, and to the summons to surrender, the daring commander returned the bold reply, "We are determined to defend our fort while a man of us lives."

The next proposition of Duquesne was that nine of the garrison should come out and treat with him. If they could come to terms he would peacefully retire. The veteran pioneer well knew what peril lurked in this specious promise, and how little safety they would have in trusting their Indian foes. But, moved by his bold heart and daring love of adventure, he assented to the dangerous proposition, though not without taking precautions for safety. He selected nine of the strongest and most active of his men, appointed the place of meeting in front of the fort, at one hundred and twenty feet from the walls, and stationed the riflemen of the garrison so as to cover the spot with their guns, in case of treachery.

These precautions taken, Boone led his party out, and was met by Duquesne and his brother officers. The terms proposed were liberal enough, but the astute frontiersman knew very well that the Indians would never assent to them. As the conference proceeded, the Indian chiefs drew near, and Blackfish, Boone's adopted father, professed the utmost friendship, and suggested that the treaty should be concluded in the Indian manner, by shaking hands.

The artifice was too shallow to deceive the silliest of the garrison. It was Blackfish's purpose to have two savages seize each of the whites, drag them away as prisoners, and then by threats of torture compel their comrades to surrender the fort. Boone, however, did not hesitate to assent to the proposition. He wished to unmask his wily foes. That done, he trusted to the strength of himself and his fellows, and the bullets of his riflemen, to bring his party in safety back to the fort.

It proved as he expected. No sooner had they yielded their hands to the Indians than a desperate attempt was made to drag them away. The surrounding Indians rushed to the aid of their fellows. From behind stumps and trees, a shower of bullets was poured upon the fort. But the alert pioneers were not taken by surprise. From the rifles of the garrison bullets were poured back. Boone easily shook off his assailant, and his companions did the same. Back to the fort they fled, bullets pattering after them, while the keen marksmen of the fort sent back their sharp response. In a few seconds the imperilled nine were behind the heavy gates, only one of their number, Boone's brother, being wounded. They had escaped a peril from which, for the moment, rescue seemed hopeless.

Baffled in their treachery, the assailants now made a fierce assault on the fort, upon which they kept up an incessant fire for nine days and nights, giving the beleaguered garrison scarcely a moment for rest. Hidden behind rocks and trees, they poured in their bullets in a manner far more brisk than effectual. The garrison but feebly responded to this incessant fusillade, feeling it necessary to husband their ammunition. But, unlike the fire of their foes, every shot of theirs told.

During this interval the assailants began to undermine the fort, beginning their tunnel at the river-bank. But the clay they threw out discolored the water and revealed their project, and the garrison at once began to countermine, by cutting a trench across the line of their projected passage. The enemy, in their turn, discovered this and gave up the attempt. Another of their efforts was to set fire to the fort by means of flaming arrows. This proved temporarily successful, the dry timbers of the roof bursting into flames. But one of the young men of the fort daringly sprang upon the roof, extinguished the fire, and returned unharmed, although bullets had fallen like hailstones around him.

At length, thoroughly discouraged, the enemy raised the siege and departed, having succeeded only in killing two and wounding four of the garrison, while their dead numbered thirty-seven, and their wounded a large number. One of these dead was a negro, who had deserted from the fort and joined the Indians, and whom Boone brought down with a bullet from the remarkable distance, for the rifles of that day, of five hundred and twenty-five feet. After the enemy had gone there were "picked up," says Boone, "one hundred and twenty-five pounds' weight of bullets, besides what stuck in the logs of the fort, which certainly is a great proof of their industry," whatever may be said of their marksmanship.

The remainder of Daniel Boone's life we can give but in outline. After the repulse of the enemy he returned to the Yadkin for his family, and brought them again to his chosen land. He came back to find an Indian war raging along the whole frontier, in which he was called to play an active part, and on more than one occasion owed his life to his strength, endurance, and sagacity. This warfare continued for a number of years, the Indians being generally successful, and large numbers of soldiers falling before their savage onsets. At length the conduct of the war was intrusted to "Mad Anthony" Wayne, whose skill, rapidity, and decision soon brought it to an end, and forced the tribes to conclude a treaty of peace.

Thenceforward Kentucky was undisturbed by Indian forays, and its settlement went forward with rapidity. The intrepid Boone had by no means passed through the fire of war unharmed. He tells us, "Two darling sons and a brother have I lost by savage hands, which have also taken from me forty valuable horses and abundance of cattle. Many dark and sleepless nights have I been a companion for owls, separated from the cheerful society of men, scorched by the summers' sun, and pinched by the winter's cold, an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness."

One wilderness settled, the hardy veteran pined for more. Population in Kentucky was getting far too thick for his ideas of comfort. His spirit craved the solitude of the unsettled forest, and in 1802 he again pulled up stakes and plunged into the depths of the Western woods. "Too much crowded," he declared; "too much crowded. I want more elbow-room."

His first abiding place was on the Great Kanawha, where he remained for several years. Then, as the vanguard of the army of immigrants pressed upon his chosen home, he struck camp again, and started westward with wife and children, driving his cattle before him, in search of a "promised land" of few men and abundant game. He settled now beyond the Mississippi, about fifty miles west of St. Louis. Here he dwelt for years, hunting, trapping, and enjoying life in his own wild way.

Years went by, and once more the emigrant army pressed upon the solitude-loving pioneer, but he was now too old for further flight. Eighty years lay upon his frosted brow, yet with little diminished activity he pursued his old mode of life, being often absent from home for weeks on hunting expeditions. Audubon, the famous ornithologist, met him in one of these forays, and thus pictures him: "The stature and general appearance of this wanderer of the Western forests," he says, "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, whenever he spoke, the very motion of his lips brought the impression that whatever he uttered could not be otherwise than strictly true."

Mr. Irving tells a similar story of him in his eighty-fifth year. He was then visited by the Astor overland expedition to the Columbia. "He had but recently returned from a hunting and trapping expedition," says the historian, "and had brought nearly sixty beaver skins as trophies of his skill. The old man was still erect in form, strong in limb, and unflinching in spirit; and as he stood on the river bank watching the departure of an expedition destined to traverse the wilderness to the very shores of the Pacific, very probably felt a throb of his old pioneer spirit, impelling him to shoulder his rifle and join the adventurous band."

Seven years afterwards he joined another band, that of the heroes who have gone to their rest. To his last year he carried the rifle and sought the depths of the wood. At last, in 1818, with no disease but old age, he laid down his life, after a most adventurous career, in which he had won himself imperishable fame as the most daring, skilful, and successful of that pioneer band who have dared the perils of the wilderness and surpassed the savage tenants of the forest in their own chosen arts.

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