When the first colonists came to America and took in the vast, untouched wilderness, they knew they had found a home. The pioneers brought with them diverse beliefs and cultures, and as they intermingled, a nation with its own unique folklore was formed. Many of their stories have persisted from those early days, myths and legends of great men and women who made America into what it is today—those like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill. But as fascinating as these stories are, most are tales of fiction. Yet, intermingled with them are real stories of legendary pioneers whose tales are so awe-inspiring they have almost become mythological. Although there are many American folk heroes, for sportsmen, there is perhaps none greater than the greatest hunter of them all: Daniel Boone.
Daniel Boone was born in the Oley Valley of what is now Pennsylvania in 1734. One of 11 children, Boone was the son of English and Welsh immigrants who fled England fearing religious persecution. His father, Squire Boone, was a yeoman and a Quaker. Squire and his wife, Sarah, left England and came to Pennsylvania to join William Penn’s colony of dissenters in 1713. Squire was already an experienced outdoorsman when he came to the frontier, having worked the fields and hunted the forests of England, so he was fully prepared to teach his children how to survive and thrive in “The New World.” Young Daniel was a quick study. From his father’s teachings as well as instruction from the Lenape tribe, who quickly befriended the peace-loving Quakers, Daniel learned to hunt with a bow and a spear, and ran his own trap line by the age of eight. When he was 12 years old, his father gave him his first rifle and with that gift, Daniel immediately started to build a reputation as a hunter.
Stories began to emerge around the village about the young Daniel Boone. Now a teenager, he had become a skilled hunter who strode boldly into the wilderness and provided as much meat for the colony as was needed. He was infamously skilled and brave for a boy his age. One famous tale about the young Daniel Boone was that he and a group of boys were out hunting in the forest when a panther came upon them. The big cat screamed from a nearby tree and most of the other boys fled in terror as the panther prepared to pounce. But Daniel Boone simply cocked his rifle and waited for the panther to leap. When it did, he shot the animal through the heart and then calmly set about skinning it, packing up the meat to bring back to the colony. Though the story is hard to authenticate, it certainly is a tale that adds to the legend of Daniel Boone and was a precursor to what the man would become.
In 1750, when Boone was 16, he and his family moved to North Carolina. They settled on the Yadkin River in Davie County, in a rugged and largely unpopulated area. It was here that Boone truly started to come into his own. The wild Appalachian Mountains gave Boone a massive amount of land to explore, and the young man began to forego school, church, and even his family’s homestead, choosing instead to wander and hunt in the endless woods and mountains. He befriended several native tribes, including the Shawnee and the Cherokee, and from them he began to learn how to follow trails and to live off the land. While in company with the Cherokee, Boone also learned about hunting what would later become his favorite big-game animal: elk. The antlered giants of the deer family inspired Boone, and though less valuable than deer and buffalo at the time, hunting them would later become one of his greatest passions.
In 1754, the French and Indian War broke out upon the frontier. The governor of North Carolina, Matthew Rowan, responded by calling up a militia for which Boone immediately volunteered. Boone’s skills as a hunter, as well as the fighting skills he learned from the Cherokee, made him an invaluable member of the militia. He became a wagoner, transporting baggage and supplies between the military lines. He also acted as a scout, finding trails and troop placements and reporting them to his commanders. While in the army, Daniel Boone met John Findley, a packer who worked in the trans-Appalachian fur trade. He told Boone of the fur trade and the wonders of the Ohio Valley, and about that wonderful land called “Kentucky.” Boone made a plan for his future after the militia.
In 1756, Boone left the war and returned home to North Carolina, where he married Rebecca Bryan, a neighbor near his father’s farm, and started his own family. The couple had 10 children, initially living in a cabin on his father’s farm, but Boone hadn’t forgotten his Kentucky dreams. He initially supported his growing family by selling deer skins, which were a popular clothing material, and from the fur trade that he had learned about from Findley.
It was during those years after the war that the legend of Daniel Boone truly began to crystallize. As soon as the leaves began to change in the autumn, Boone would lead parties of men on what he called “long hunts.” He would be gone for weeks, months, and on occasion, years at a time, following the “medicine trails” of the Cherokee and the Shawnee across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee. There they would hunt deer, elk, and even bison, trapping for beaver, otter, and fox. When he returned, Boone would sell his harvest to commercial buyers. The sheer amount of furs and skins, combined with his repeated successful returns without incident when so many other hunters and trappers would simply vanish into the wilderness or end up killed by war parties, earned Daniel Boone a reputation as the greatest hunter in the land.
In 1769, Boone began a two-year hunting expedition into Kentucky, where, though he was captured and robbed by the Shawnee, he shot an estimated 500 elk and deer, trapped more than 1,000 beaver, and explored and documented more territory than any other white man had previously. When he returned home to North Carolina in 1771, had his mind made up to immediately return to Kentucky to settle permanently. In 1773 he packed up his family and joined the well-known Virginian explorer William Russell and a company of about 50 immigrants to establish the first settlement of British colonists in Kentucky. However, the trip ended in tragedy when Boone’s oldest son, James, and Russell’s son, Henry, were captured and killed by Shawnee. Soon after, Boone left the settlement in his grief, moving his family to live on their own, establishing their own settlement that later became known as Boonesborough. There, he concentrated his efforts on building a road and trade route through the Cumberland Gap.
Boone continued to build his reputation as a hunter and an outdoorsman throughout his life. During the American Revolution, his daughter and two other teenage girls were captured by a war party outside of town. Boone and a couple of other men tracked down and rescued the girls, and as the story circulated, Boone’s tale later became the inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, “The Last Of The Mohicans.” Boone became one of the first hunters to make a living from hunting bear, selling the animals’ pelts and fat. He became an adopted member of the Shawnee tribe, gaining the name Sheltowee (Big Turtle), though after learning they were about to raid Boonesborough, he escaped and raced 160 miles on foot to warn the settlement of the coming raid, making himself a permanent enemy of the Shawnee. The tribe hunted and fought him religiously but never managed to capture him again and lost many warriors in their attempts. Such was Daniel Boone’s reputation that, when he founded a second settlement, Boone Station, it became more populated than many of the long-established towns as the colonists believed Daniel Boone would be better able to feed and protect them than the government.
After the American Revolution, Boone settled in Virginia, where he was elected to the House of Delegates for two terms, but rarely was he actually in the office. He continued to discover new lands and eventually traveled into Missouri, where he settled. Boone was a celebrity at this point, thanks in no small part to a book by John Filson titled, “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” which chronicled his adventures. A county in Kentucky was even given his name. Boone didn’t enjoy the spotlight, however, and though he was active in the Missouri government, he spent most of his time hunting and fishing, preferring to explore and discover new lands. Boone would spend his final years in Missouri, sending his sons off to fight in the wars and to take over his political career. He continued to explore and lead parties of men, which often included his children and grandchildren, on his “long hunts.” He pushed even farther westward on these hunts, and in 1810, at the age of 75, was documented hunting grizzly bear and bison along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Montana.
Daniel Boone died on September 26th, 1820, just a few weeks short of his 86th birthday in St. Charles County, Missouri. His last words were, “I’m going home now; my time has come.” During his 85 years on Earth, Daniel Boone established a great hunting legacy. He was never afraid to explore new horizons and new wildernesses. He was a symbol of the “natural man,” living a virtuous and simple life in the wilderness.