The American Way

Page 3 of 8

Felicity, the companion of content,
is rather found in our own breasts than
in the enjoyment of external things.

– Daniel Boone/John Filson

Within the first year of their residence at Plymouth Plantation the Pilgrims learned to appreciate what a hunter's paradise they had found. Seasonally, it provided them with an abundance of waterfowl, as well as a "great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison." That supply of meat combined with their first year's harvest of Indian corn enabled them to celebrate their famous first Thanksgiving with several days worth of feasting. Some later arrivals to Massachusetts country regarded the wild richness of the new land differently. Thomas Morton (1590?-1647), for example, was the adventurous entrepreneur whom the Pilgrims' stern leader, Governor William Bradford of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, excoriated for his un-Puritanical "worldliness," and even more for his practice of providing guns to their Indian neighbors and then hiring them to hunt fowl and deer for his own settlement. The Indians, Bradford scolded–scarcely suppressing a hint of admiration–"became far more active in that employment than any of the English by reason of their swiftness of foot and nimbleness of body, being also quick sighted and by continual exercise well knowing the haunts of all sorts of game."1 Later settlers, especially those without the resources to hire Indians to do their hunting, studied Indian practices and embellished them with their own expedients.

Early in the 18th century the prominent Virginia planter and public figure, Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-1722), inventoried the repertoire of hunting techniques commonly in use at the opening of the eighteenth century. His list read, in part:

§. 87. The Indians . . . had in their Hunting, a way of concealing themselves, and coming up to the Deer, under the blind of a Stalking-Head,2 in imitation of which, many [white] People have taught their Horses to stalk it, that is, to walk gently by the Huntsman's side, to cover him from the sight of the Deer. Others cut down Trees for the Deer to browze upon, and lie in wait behind them. Others again set Stakes, at a certain distance within their Fences, where the Deer have been used to leap over into a field of Peas, which they love extreamly; these Stakes they so place, as to run into the Body of the Deer, when he Pitches, by which means they impale him.
§. 88. They Hunt their Hares, (which are very numerous) a Foot, with Mungrils [mongrels] or swift Dogs, which either catch them quickly, or force them to hole in a hollow Tree, whither all their Hares generally tend, when they are closely pursued. As soon as they are thus holed, and have crawl'd up into the Body of the Tree, the business is to kindle a Fire, and smother them with Smoak, till they let go their hold, and fall to the bottom stifled; from whence they take them (Fig. 3).

§. 89. They have another sort of hunting, which is very diverting, and that they call Vermine Hunting; It is perform'd a Foot, with small Dogs in the Night, by the Light of the Moon or Stars. Thus in Summer-time they find abundance of Raccoons, Opossums (Fig. 6-7), and Foxes in the Corn-Fields, and about their Plantations: but at other times, they must go into the Woods for them. The Method is to go out with three or four Dogs, and as soon as they come to the place, they bid the Dogs seek out, and all the Company follow immediately. Where-ever a Dog barks, you may depend upon finding the Game. . . . In this sort of Hunting, they also carry their great Dogs out with them, because Wolves, Bears, Panthers, Wild-Cats, and all other Beasts of Prey, are abroad in the Night. 3

§. 90. They have many pretty devices besides the Gun, to take wild Turkeys; And among others, a Friend of mine invented a great Trap, wherein he at times caught many Turkeys, and particularly seventeen at one time, but he could not contrive it so, as to let others in after he had entrapped the first flock, until they were taken out.

Figure 7

A Trap for Upland Birds

Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert,
L'Encyclopédie: Recueil de planches,
sur les sciences, les arts libéraux,
et les arts méchaniques: avec leur explication.

40 Vols. (Paris, 1762), Plate XXI, Vol. 20.

This engraving represents a scene at the edge of a wood or hedgerow which would have been natural cover for "pheasants" (grouse). Beneath the wooden cage grain has been strewn to attract the birds into the trap. When the hunter hidden behind the brush at right pulls the string, the sticks holding up the side of the cage are jerked away and it falls, capturing the baited birds. Diderot didn't explain in his "explication" how the hunter could retrieve even one bird from beneath the cage without the rest escaping. Might this have been the kind of "great Trap" Robert Beverly's friend "invented"?

§. 91. The Indian invention of Weirs in Fishing, is mightily improved by the English besides which, they make use of Seins, Trolls, Casting-Netts, Setting-Netts, Hand-fishing, and Angling, and in each find abundance of Diversion. . . . They also fish with Spilyards, which is a long Line staked out in the River, and hung with a great many Hooks on short strings, fasten'd to the main Line, about three or four Foot asunder.4

After the Indians of the Northern Plains acquired horses in the early eighteenth century, they developed a variation of coursing, without dogs, in what may be called relay or persistence hunting. This was a coordinated marathon pursuit of deer, elk, or pronghorns by relays of mounted hunters who would chase their quarry in circles until the animals were overcome by exhaustion, and then could easily be killed with arrows or clubs. On 14 August 1805 Lewis and Clark observed Shoshone hunters trying to run down a herd of pronghorns that way, although without success. Even at best, Lewis learned, "forty or fifty hunters will be engaged for half a day in this manner and perhaps not kill more than two or three Antelopes." Indians may have learned this procedure from watching packs of wolves. Near the mouth of "Marthey's river"6 on 29 April 1805 Lewis observed wolves that "appear to decoy a single one from a flock, and then pursue it, alturnately relieving each other untill they take it."

Under certain circumstances a large, heavy net called a deer-hay could be used to capture deer alive. A lightweight deer-hay was sometimes employed to capture squabs (young pigeons) and passenger pigeons after baiting them with broadcast grain.

"Driving," sometimes called "surrounding," was another Indian hunting technique that white settlers sometimes adapted to their own use as a community exercise. It was undertaken only when the opportunity was clear and convenient. Whole families would encircle a herd of deer, for instance, or flocks of gray squirrels or passenger pigeons and in unison drive them toward the center of the circle, trapping the animals so they could be shot or clubbed to death. Lewis and Clark observed an Indian variant of this practice near an Arikara village on 16 October 1804, when Indians on both sides of the Missouri contained a large herd of pronghorns in the river while boys swam among the animals, killing them with sticks and hauling them ashore.

Burning was another Indian strategy that early white American settlers occasionally employed. Thaddeus Harris, who toured western Pennsylvania and Ohio in 1803, was disappointed in what he saw.

We remarked, with regret and indignation, the wanton destruction of these noble forests. For more than fifty miles, to the west and north, the mountains were burning. This is done by [white] hunters, who set fire to the dry leaves and decayed falled timber in the vallies, in order to thin the undergrowth, that they may traverse the woods with more ease in pursuit of game. But they defeat their own object; for the fires drive the moose, deer, and wild animals into the more northerly and westerly parts, and destroy the turkies, partirdges, and quails, at this season on their nests, or just leading out their broods.5

Harris evidently didn't know that in the aftermath of a forest fire the new ground cover that emerges the following spring, more nutritious to some animals than dense underbrush, attracts more wildlife. Lewis and Clark made note of the fact that the Hidatsa Indians set fire to the plains in early spring "for an early crop of Grass as an endusement for the buffalo to feed on" (6 March 1805).

All of these methods were convenient options for the majority of Colonial citizens, to whom hunting was not a recreational pastime but one of a number of daily obligations to be met, especially among subsistence farmers at or near the frontier. What Lewis and Clark hoped to find, however, were men with experience as professional hunters, men with patience, skill and reliability, who could surrender themselves completely to their quarry's environment and spirit. The captains were experienced enough as military officers to know that they would be unlikely to find any such candidates among enlisted men. In 1805 the commander of one frontier garrison was so frustrated over the inadequacy of the provisions reaching his post that he was on the point of ordering his men to start hunting in order to supplement their meager rations. Evidently he considered that tactic only as a last resort.7

"Still" Hunting

One other prehistoric hunting practice that Americans learned from Indians came to be known as still hunting. In contrast with the musically embellished, pseudo-dramatic charades and artifices of the aristocratic chase, it was indeed still–silent, that is–with no coursing or chase involved. But it was much more than that. It was by necessity the means employed by primitive hunters who had to get close enough to their quarry to disable and kill it by hand.

The still hunter could neither hurry, nor trust to luck. There was much to learn. Henry Herbert, writing of it in 1864, declared that it was "so difficult, that an apt and observant scholar shall require many seasons of apprenticeship to a wise woodman, ere he may hope for the least success in attempting it unaided."8 Beginning early in the morning, when the leaves and grass, still wet with dew, would favor relatively silent footfalls through the forest and field, the still hunter stalked his way slowly through the woods, well before his quarry came into view. He made each movement deliberately, to avoid making noise that would alert any animals he could not yet see, and pausing every little while to look and listen. The objective was to get within firing range of a herd of deer, elk, or bison, either feeding or bedded-down, in order to make at least one quick, sure kill shot and not have to track a wounded animal. The expert still hunter sought to identify the leader of a herd and bring that one down first, which often produced confusion and hesitation among the remainder, allowing time for more shots.

Successful still hunting depended first upon the hunter's ability to recognize favorable habitat for the species he sought, in places other hunters had not yet entered and the game would less easily be spooked. The ability to read and interpret signs left by animals was essential–not only to look for bedding sites, hoof prints, and evidence of browsing, but also to estimate recency, as well as direction of departure. Tracking in snow would convey the most information. An experienced hunter could count the number and size of the deer occupying a given area. He could also judge the pace and pattern of their movements. For instance, a buck will normally proceed in a rather straight line, but when the hoof prints draw closer together and the line wavers, the observant hunter might deduce the animal had been looking for a place to bed down, which would tell him what to look for next.

Because a wild quadruped's main defense is its sense of smell, the still hunter always worked either into the wind or across it, bearing in mind that air masses almost always move up-slope in the morning and down-slope in the evening. He remembered that even a movement of air that is too languid to flutter a leaf may betray his presence to a deer in time to rouse it into flight. Inasmuch as the hunter had to place his bullet within a zone no more than ten inches in diameter in order achieve a quick, clean kill, he preferred not shoot a running deer because a running wounded deer would spook and scatter the rest of the herd. If the animal were able to flee, pain and fear would generate chemical changes that would make its flesh tough and ill-tasting. But if the hide, not the meat, were the prize, the hunter would take only standing shots in order to aim for the spine in the neck, leaving an unpunctured body skin.

The still hunter had also to be acutely attentive to nearby creatures other than his quarry. Nature's tattle-tales, such as squirrels, ravens and grouse, are always prepared to telegraph news of a hunter's presence far and wide. Therefore the still hunter had to learn to recognize the differences between their "conversational" sounds and their cries of alarm.

Finally, the still hunter had to be consciously aware of his location at every moment relative to his point of departure, and able subconsciously to remember the course of his steps over an hour, a day, a week, or even many months. This was the salient mark of a skillful woodsman. A lost hunter was no hunter at all, especially when he was aiming to make a living, or when he had mouths at home to feed.

Still hunting would have been the means employed by primitive hunters individually, or in twos or threes at most, who had to get close enough to their quarry to disable and kill it with stones, clubs, or spears. In later times, as John James Audubon wrote in 1831, it was practiced by frontiersmen who considered themselves professional hunters.9 Still hunting was the method used by the men who came to be known as "long hunters."

The Long Hunters

Despite the dire threats of perdition and the dour predictions of ruin from critics such as St. John de Crévecœur, many frontiersmen turned to hunting in order to supplement the meagre incomes their farms provided. Deer hides and beaver pelts were in high demand on the Atlantic Coast, and that market grew larger each year as urban populations increased. Similar markets in Europe offered even more oppurtunities for profit. By 1750, however, farm families that had moved into the Piedmont Plateau during the early eighteenth century found that continued pursuit had driven both furbearing and ruminant animals westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Market hunters who had once been able to fill their needs within a few days' travel from their homes had to undertake longer and longer trips to reach prime hunting grounds. In the 1730s and 40s a profitable market hunt could begin in early October and last from a few weeks to several months. By the 1750s a need for change was obvious.

The solution was not far off. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War in Europe, ownership of Canada and all of the continent east of the Mississippi was transferred from France to England (except New Orleans, which, along with all of Louisiana, went to Spain, thereby setting up the conditions for the Louisiana Purchase.) At that point, the prospect of hunting on the west slopes of the Appalachians became more appealing because, being British territory, it was ostensibly safer than it had been during the concurrent "French and Indian War." But there was a catch. Under the terms of that same treaty the Crown acknowledged that all the land west of the Appalachians belonged to the Indians, and promised that European settlers would remain on their own side of the mountains.

Nevertheless, economics, opportunity and a sense of entitlement impelled Piedmont market hunters to accept the risks that accompanied defiance. Frontier families who lived in southwestern Virginia's Clinch, Holston, and Powell River valleys, as well as the valley of the Yadkin River in western North Carolina, were in the best position to take the lead. The Cumberland Gap, the ancient gateway on the Indian highroad to and from the trans-Appalachian west, was at their doorstep, and a new breed of American hunter-explorer was poised to meet the challenge. They were still hunters who were capable of traveling as far as necessary to find the best—that is, most profitable—hunting grounds. They literally earned their own name: Long Hunters.

Daniel Boone

He was by no means the first long hunter, nor the only important one, but he was the one who was destined to become, through none of his own doing, the first and most famous American hunter-hero.10 Like young Meriwether Lewis forty-one years later, Daniel Boone (b. 1732) became "habituated to the hunting life" beginning in childhood. At age ten, while helping his mother move their cows to summer pastures, he learned to use a "herdsman's club" to kill birds and small game, and in the process studied their habits. "When he was twelve or thirteen," according to his son, Nathan, "his father bought him a gun, and he became a good marksman. The only problem was that he often neglected his herding duties to hunt, but this experience gave him his love of woods and hunting."11 Daniel made his first long hunt during the summer and fall of 1750, accompanied by his boyhood friend, Henry Miller.

Figure 8 Harding's BooneDaniel Boone, 1820
Chester Harding
Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 in.

Chester Harding (1792-1866) was a young self-taught itinerant American painter who was commissioned by some of Boone's St. Louis admirers to paint a portrait of the famous pioneer, then in his eighty-sixth year and living at the home of his daughter, Jemima Boone Callaway. The result was the only life portrait ever made of him. He later produced two full-length images in different attire.

"Everyone thought it good," his son Nathan recalled, "except that it didn't show his plump cheeks, a sign of the broad face he had in his robust days." Nathan also described his father's appearance, and something of his character. He was "five feet eight inches high and had broad shoulders and chest and tapered down. His usual weight was about 175 pounds, but at one period he exceeded 200 and in his closing years weighed only about 155 pounds. His hair was moderately black, eyes blue, and he had fair skin. He never used tobacco in any form and was temperate in everything."12

It was Harding who, in a private communication to his family recorded the most famous of Boone's priceless quips: "I asked him one day just after his description of one of his long hunts," wrote Harding, "if he never got lost, having no compass. 'No,' he said, 'I can't say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.'"13

They didn't venture into Indian country beyond the last ridge, but worked their way along the Shenandoah Mountains, hunted and trapped around Big Lick on the Roanoke River, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains through Roanoke Gap, clambered over the foothills around the Virginia-North Carolina boundary, lugged their hides and furs to market up north in Philadelphia, and finally spent three weeks—and all their profits—on "a general jamboree or frolick" in the city before they headed home. Boone immediately declared hunting as his full-time profession, his "business of life." And so it was. He didn't miss a single hunting or trapping season for the next 65 years.

His longest earthly hunt began on 1 May 1769 when he set out from his home on Beaver Creek in the Upper Yadkin River valley of North Carolina accompanied by his brother-in-law John Stewart and three neighbors. With a total of ten or fifteen horses, they headed for Cumberland Gap, the principal gateway to what was then the West, situated today where the common border of Kentucky and Tennessee meet the southwestern tip of Virginia. Once in the western wilderness, their first task was to build a rendezvous and assembly point they called Station Camp, near today's town of Irvine, on the Kentucky River.

Three of the men in Boone's party were camp keepers whose jobs included preparing the deer hides for transport to market at the hunt's end. After making sure a skin was free of all flesh and fat they scraped off the hair and the outer grain, then either salted it to draw out moisture, or allowed it to sun-dry completely. When a skin was dry it was stiff and brittle, and had to be vigorously rubbed across a staking-board until it was soft.14 At that point the "half dressed" skins were subjected to Boone's or Stewart's inspection, then packed in fifty-skin, 250-pound bales, each worth at least one hundred dollars. Elk and bison were plentiful, to be sure, but except that their meat was sometimes a welcome relief from venison, their hides were worthless except for the hunters' own use as tugs or straps, or winter coats.

The principal risk to every Long Hunter was the threat of capture, torture, and possibly execution by Indians, or at the very least, loss of whatever hides they had on hand, plus their expensive traps and Pennsylvania long rifles. Late in December of 1769 a band of Shawnees confronted them, confiscated the hides and furs they had accumulated in the previous eight months, and politely but emphatically ordered Boone and his party back through Cumberland Gap to remind all Colonists to stay out of the Shawnees' homeland. Indian people were not only angered by the effrontery of the trespass, but disgusted by the Long Hunters' wastefulness, taking hides but leaving the carcasses to be devoured by scavengers—wolves, magpies, ravens—and the remains cleaned up by maggots.

When Boone got back to camp he found that during his absence his brother Squire had recently arrived from the Yadkin with fresh supplies. Rather than go home as ordered, the Boone brothers and Stewart moved their Station Camp to the vicinity of Blue Lick, Kentucky, about fifty miles to the southwest, and began to rebuild their store of hides and furs. Late in the winter of 1770, while hunting alone, Stewart was killed by Indians. No sign of him was found until five years later, when one of Boone's crew who was helping to build the Wilderness Road came upon the missing man's remains and powder horn.

Daniel and Squire were now "in a dangerous, helpless situation, exposed daily to perils and death amongst savages and wild beasts." His reaction is recorded in John Filson's flowery turns of phrase, although Boone himself later acknowledged the substance as genuinely his own.

Thus situated, many hundred miles from our families in the howling wilderness, I believe few would have equally enjoyed the happiness we experienced. I often observed to my brother, You see how little nature requires to be satisfied. Felicity, the companion of content, is rather found in our own breasts than in the enjoyment of external things; And I firmly believe it requires but a little philosophy to make a man happy in whatever state he is. This consists in a full resignation to the will of Providence; and a resigned soul finds pleasure in a path strewed with briars and thorns.15

That thoughtful descant earned him the reputation as a hunter-philosopher. What is more, the euphonious phrasings of the "autobiography" contrived by John Filson convinced many readers that he was also a gentleman at heart.

In the spring of 1770 Squire left Daniel alone in the woods for almost three months while he rode east of the mountains again with a load of furs and brought back more ammunition. Throughout the following summer the brothers hunted deer and half-dressed the skins themselves. In the fall Squire made another trip back east with several packs, while Daniel again remained in the wilderness. To assuage his occasional pangs of loneliness, melancholy and despair he would talk aloud to himself and his three dogs about the "diversities and beauties of nature," and sing every song he could remember. Squire returned in due time and the brothers continued hunting and trapping. Heading home in March of 1771 with several hundred dollars' worth of beaver pelts, they made their way through Cumberland Gap and descended into the Powell River Valley, where once more, Indians robbed them of all their pelts as well as their guns. In May, with next to nothing to show for more than twenty-four months of hard, dangerous work, Daniel Boone returned to his home on the Upper Yadkin, to his patient wife Rebecca, and to the infant son she had delivered in his absence.16 The real capital he earned from his odyssey, however, was a more intimate knowledge of a large part of the wilderness tract that in 1792 would become Kentucky, the fifteenth state in the Union.

He had a reputation for remembering every trail he ever walked, and for remembering it whenever and wherever he came upon it again. Whether true or not, that was central to his durable image as a woodsman. It was his legendary skill as a born hunter, however, that dominated the lore that surrounded him well into the 20th century. Like Meriwether Lewis, however, he was decidedly "habituated to the hunting life." In his own time, it is said, the highest compliment any hunter could desire was to be called "a Boone."

Throughout his long life he was periodically drawn to other pursuits: farmer, merchant, surveyor, tavern-keeper, land speculator and, out of his idealism and conscientious citizenship, politics and public service. But he never found another viable niche for himself. He was inept as a surveyor; many of his observations and calculations wound up in court. And not one of his hopeful land deals turned out in his favor.

Despite the rigors and dangers of his many long hunts, including several captures by Indians, Boone suffered only two serious accidents in his entire life that we know of. The first occurred in the winter of 1802-03, when he was 68. A beaver trap snapped on one of his hands, and he had to carry it back to camp for help getting it open. Two winters later he got dunked in the Missouri River when the ice broke beneath him; he apparently suffered a severe case of hypothermia.

By the late 1780s the frontier lifestyle in Kentucky was beginning to give way to the basics of statehood, which officially arrived on June 1, 1792, and accounted for the fifteenth star in the flag Lewis and Clark were to carry. It was time for Daniel Boone to find new hunting grounds. Besides, he had become embittered with life in Kentucky, owing to his misfortunes in land speculation. His impulse to move farther westward was soon intensified by auspicious developments in Missouri. In the mid-1790s the Spanish provincial government began encouraging Americans to settle in upper Louisiana to serve as bulwarks against the extension of British immigration and commerce from Canada. Daniel Morgan Boone, the son who had been born during his father's two-year long hunt of 1769-71, traveled to Missouri in 1797, winding up on the Femme Osage River in the St. Charles District. Upon his father's request, he made inquiry to the Spanish Lieutenant Governor Zenon Trudeau, who forthwith offered Boone 1,000 arpents tax-free, simply for the cost of surveying them plus the registration fee at New Orleans.17 In view of Boone's fame and wide influence among Americans, Trudeau encouraged him to invite more of his friends to settle west of the Mississippi, for similar grants of land. The elder Daniel and some members of the rest of the extended Boone family followed two years later. Trudeau appointed him syndic (civil judge, over all but capital offenses) and commandant (with both civil and military authority) of the Femme Osage District. As Amos Stoddard pointed out, "these liberal encouragements, the fertility of the lands, and the prospect of mineral riches, in Upper Louisiana, extended the stream of population (hitherto limited to regions on the Ohio) to that country."18

After the U.S. Government assumed authority over Upper Louisiana in 1804, all Spanish land grants had to be reviewed, and most were approved and reconfirmed. Regretably, Boone's was not, because the Spanish authorities had exempted him from the usual requirement of living on his land. He had to leave the Femme Osage, so he packed up and moved twenty-five miles farther up the Missouri to Nathan Boone's home at Charette. The last of his many hopeful land deals had gone sour.

On 23 May 1804 the Corps of Discovery stopped for an hour at "Boone's settlement" of "30 or 40 famlys," where "their was maney people assembled to See us." The Field brothers had been sent there to buy corn and butter. Considering at least his own brother's acquaintance with Boone, one would expect Clark at least to have mentioned the famous Kentuckian's name, but it was only Whitehouse who did so: "This settlement was made by Colonel Daniel Boone, the person who first discover'd Kentucky, & who was residing at this place, with a number of his family and friends." That sentence occurs only in the fair copy of Whitehouse's journal, so it may have been inserted by his editor. Boone's whereabouts on that day evidently cannot be known.

Common Ground

Like William Clark, Daniel Boone was a natural geographer. Indeed, the greatest benefit to him of his years as a long hunter was his education in the geography of Kentucky, which he grasped without benefit of a single navigation instrument, not even a compass. Also like Clark, he named many streams and landmarks, thereby identifying places to remember and go back to. On that account he became a highly respected authority on the Kentucky wilderness, and was much sought-after as a consultant, even though he never published a single map. There were more subtle similarities between the two wayfarers, however—in their dealings with Indians, for example. "Clark had always felt at ease with Indians," writes Landon Jones. "He and his brothers, like Daniel Boone, had adopted many of the Indians' ways: they dressed like Indians, hunted like Indians, and knew the vocablary and rituals of Indian diplomacy."19 The Shawnees at first welcomed Boone as a brother; Clark, "the red-headed chief" as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was similarly respected by many of the tribes he served. Boone told Alexander Wilson that he survived several captures—three times in all—by showing he was no more afraid of death than any of his captors.20 He also stroked their egos by allowing them to win shooting contests often enough to confirm their belief that Indians were superior to white men.

Beyond a thin thread of a genealogial connection, there were various functional links between Boone and the Clark family. George Rogers Clark had supported Boone's Kentucky settlement with his mobile militia. Boone's son, Nathan, at age twenty-six, was at the head of a company of dragoons that escorted General William Clark up the Missouri to meet with the Osage Indians and begin building Fort Osage. Upon their arrival Clark dispatched Nathan to the Osage villages to summon them to the treaty.

Unlike Clark, who at least kept field notebooks for most of his major travels, Boone never wrote a single page of a travelog. He once dictated a long account of his life to one of his sons, but it was soon lost in a boating accident. Some of the experiences he related to his family were written down, but all those have long since disappeared.

Nevertheless, the wellspring of legends about his life has been virtually inexhaustible. As a popular American hunter-hero and symbol of personal freedom combined with republican citizenship, he has known no equal.

On March 18, 1813, Boone's devoted wife, Rebecca, died, at age seventy-three. Her husband's last earthly long hunt was in the winter of 1815-16, when he departed from his son Nathan's home at Charette and arrived at Fort Osage, 140 miles up the Missouri, in April. He wanted to make an even longer journey the following year—to the Rockies and "the Salt mountains, lakes and ponds"21—but illness demolished that dream.22 In 1817, at age 83, he tried a short hunt with his seventeen-year-old grandson James, but that too was shortened by his frailties. At Nathan's home on Femme Osage Creek, on September 26, 1820, near the beginning of a new deer-hunting season, eighty-six-year-old Daniel Boone finally set out, alone, on the longest hunt of all.

Moving On

Sunset fell slowly on the Kentucky long hunters after the Revolutionary War. By the turn of the new century that vanguard, and the settlers who followed them, had fulfilled their destinies east of the Mississippi. By 1820 there were no bison left on the Old Frontier, and even the hardy deers' numbers had been significantly reduced. Other uniquely American entrepreneurs, the mountain men and fur trappers, were to take up the long hunters' mantle, and in turn give way to the market hunters who, by the end of the 1880s, nearly extirpated all the bison from North America, at the close of America's last western frontier. By that time the hunting grounds were virtually empty, and there was noplace else to go. But the man credited with first showing the way was still alive in American popular history—Daniel Boone, the great still hunter, long hunter, explorer, pioneer, and legend.

Figure 9 Daniel Boone—the Legend

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through
the Cumberland Gap
, 1851-52

Oil on canvas, 36-1/2 x 50-1/4 inches
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Washington University in St. Louis
Gift of Nathaniel Phillips, 1890

In this painting, executed more than three-quarters of a century after the event it commemorates, George Caleb Bingham evoked the spirit of a crucial moment not only in Daniel Boone's life but also in American history. Late in the summer of 1775, the forty-one-year-old pioneer led his family and more than forty of their friends through the gloom of Cumberland Gap toward their new homes in the Kentucky wilderness.

The patriarchal Boone, in buckskins, moccasins and a Quaker-style beaver-felt hat, strides with dignity and self-assurance between the "cliffs . . . so wild and horrid, that it is impossible to behold them without terror,"23 into the warm light and bright hope of the trans-Appalachian West. He leads a symbolic white horse24 bearing his wife Rebecca, who resembles a Madonna by Raphael. Behind her is their daughter Jemima. They would, Boone boasted, be the first two women to stand on the banks of the Kentucky River. To underscore the implications of their presence Bingham added, as a subtitle, the dedication "To the Mothers and Daughters of the West." Jemima's future husband, Flanders Callaway, is at Boone's left.

Thus far, the scene evokes the combination of a Biblical flight into Egypt and a sally toward the promised land. It is an apt comparison. Their destination was Boonsborough, the riverside settlement that Boone had recently established 300 miles into the unspoiled Kentucky wilderness from their homes on North Carolina's Yadkin River.

At Boone's far right, the young man bending to adjust a moccasin is believed to represent his oldest son James, as a gesture of memorial by the artist. James was tortured and killed by a party of Delaware Indians who foiled his father's first attempt, in 1773, to lead his family and friends through Cumberland Gap to a new home in Cherokee country.

Reproduced countless times in engravings and lithographs throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Bingham's painting did more, perhaps, than any other single literary or artistic monument to Daniel Boone to consolidate the hunter-explorer's place in popular American history.25

In mid-November of 1806 Meriwether Lewis led a small group of expedition veterans eastward over Boone's Wilderness Road on a triumphal return from what was soon to be accepted as a major part of the Far West. With them were the Mandan chief Sheheke ("Big White") and his wife Yellow Corn, who had eagerly accompanied them to meet President Jefferson at Washington City. They passed through Cumberland Gap a mere thirty-one years after Daniel Boone had led the way through it into the region that is now thought of as the First American West.


As a young man Daniel was widely respected for the keen eye and steady hand that he showed in the numerous target-shooting contests he won, whether "shooting for the beef" or merely for the right to salvage all the lead embedded in the target. John James Audubon, himself a skillful hunter, remembered another popular proof of marksmanship that Boone once showed him.

Figure 10 Audubon portrait
Audubon the Naturalist, 1842
John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford Audubon

American Museum of Natural History
Department of Library Services
Image #1822

Although he became best known on two continents for his beautiful paintings of American birds and quadrupeds, John James Audubon (1785-1851) considered himself essentially a hunter-naturalist (a category of hyphenated hunters in which Meriwether Lewis was among the first). Audubon had at least two different portraits painted of himself with gun, dog, and knapsack. At age eighteen he was already a skilled hunter, spending long hours in the woods with his closest friends and his dog, referring to his solitary, protracted expeditions as "rambles."

Audubon frequently took part in shooting competitions such as "Driving the Nail." After hammering a nail about two-thirds of its length into a board hung on a tree, he and his companions would step back forty paces and try to "hit the nail on the head," driving the rest of its length into the target.

Another hunters' game was to shoot off the snuff, or burned tip, of a candlewick in the dark of night from a distance of 50 yards without extinguishing the flame or damaging the candle. This was considered good practice for shooting deer or wolves by torchlight, when the only clearly visible parts of the animal that were its eyes. A score of three hits out of seven tries was considered exceptionally good.26

Sometime in 1810 Audubon enjoyed a ramble through the woods near Louisville with Boone, who was then in his mid-seventies. The artist described the elderly Kentuckian's demonstration of how to "bark" squirrels so as not to damage any of the meat:

Boon pointed to one of these animals which had observed us, and was crouched on a branch about fifty paces distant, . . . He raised his piece gradually, until the bead (that being the name given by the Kentuckians to the sight) of the barrel was brought to a line with the spot which he intended to hit. The whip-like report resounded through the woods and along the hills in repeated echoes. Judge of my surprise, when I perceived that the ball had hit the piece of bark immediately beneath the squirrel, and shivered it into splinters, the concussion produced by which had killed the animal and sent it whirling through the air, as if it had been blown up by the explosion of a powder magazine. Boon kept up his firing, and before many hours had elapsed, we had procured as many squirrels as we wished; for you must know, that to load a rifle requires only a moment, and that if it is wiped once after each shot, it will do duty for hours.27

Later, as he became more interested in drawing and painting the wildlife he encountered, Audubon's gun was as essential as his notebook and pencils, since he had to shoot every bird and quadruped, stuff it and mount it before he could paint it.28

Audubon was proud of his long wavy hair, which he customarily dressed with bear grease. On his way to London and Paris in the late 1820s he stopped in Edinburgh to visit friends, who advised him to get a haircut before venturing into the refined circles of urban European society. Having already relinquished his comfortable buckskins and hunting shirt for more modish dress, he regretfully summoned a barber, "and gave up the last vestige of American woodsmanhood." He arrived in London looking like an ordinary respectable English gentleman, although he took great pride in being referred to there as "The American Woodsman."29

Daniel Boone was sixty-nine years old in 1803, too old to go traipsing out to the Pacific Ocean with the likes of those twenty-something youths of the Corps of Discovery, even if he had been invited. But Lewis's "qualifycations" suggest that Boone would have been precisely the kind of hunter he hoped to find. Although he never openly declared that he had found any "Boones," the journalists clearly tell us that as many as ten of the enlisted men evidently came close, and that there was one who stood out from them all. Who were they, and what skills did they need to develop to achieve that status? To find answers, we need only resort to the journals, as incomplete as they are on the subject of hunting.

1. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (ed. Samuel Eliot Morison; New York: Knopf, 1952), 90, 206-07.

2. Lewis (29 May 1805) described the Indian practice in which "one of the most active and fleet young men is scelected and disguised in a robe of buffaloe skin, having also the skin of the buffaloe's head with the years and horns fastened on his head in form of a cap, thus caparisoned he places himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloe and a precipice proper for the purpose; . . . the other indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all shew themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffaloe; the disguised indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently nigh the buffaloe to be noticed by them when they take to flight and runing before them they follow him in full speede to the precepice, the cattle behind driving those in front over and seeing them go do not look or hesitate about following untill the whole are precipitated down the precepice forming one common mass of dead an mangled carcases; the . . . decoy in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranney or crivice of the clift whih he had previously prepared for that purpose.     the part of the decoy I am informed is extreamly dangerous, if they are not very fleet runers the buffaloe tread them under foot and crush them to death, and sometimes drive them over the precepice also, where they perish in common with the buffaloe." More than likely Lewis learned of this from the Indians at Fort Mandan the previous winter. Clark (10 April 1806) described a group of Nez Perce hunters as they left the Clearwater River valley "on their way up the leavel uplands to run and kill the deer with their horses and Bows and arrows Some of them were also privided with deers heads Cased for the purpose of decoying the deer."

3. In his boyhood Meriwether Lewis was fond of "Vermine Hunting." Jefferson, in the eulogy of Lewis that he wrote for the 1814 edition of the expedition's journals, recollected that, "When only eight years of age he habitually went out, in the dead of night, alone with his dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon and opossum, which, seeking their food in the night, can then only be taken. In this exercise, no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose—plunging through the winter's snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object." Thus Lewis began to make himself, as Jefferson phrased it in the same memorial, "habituated to the hunting life."

History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814), 1:xvii, xxii. "Vermin hunting" typically involved the use of torches or lanterns, and thus was sometimes called "torch hunting" or "jack lighting."

4. Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-1722), The History and Present State of Virginia, in Four Parts (London: printed for R. Parker, at the Unicorn, 1705) Book IV, Part II, p. 71-73. Electronic edition, Documenting the American South, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed October 25, 2007. In the 1890s the first known hunter-photographers, A.G. Wallihan and George Shiras, similarly used tripwires to set off flash pans and camera shutters at night. The spilyard, also called a "trot line" is still used today in certain regions of the U.S.

5. Thaddeus Mason Harris, The Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains; Made in the Spring of the Year 1803, in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, 32 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 3:327. Robert Beverly described the Indians' practice of surrounding and containing a game herd in successively smaller rings of fire in The History and Present State of Virginia, p. 137.

6. Clark named the stream after the obscure but "Selibrated M. F" and immediately explained that her given name was "Marthey." Lewis partially clarified Clark's naming on the same date with the statement, "This stream my friend Capt. C. named Marthas river in honor of Miss M F –." Her true identity has never been determined. A proposal to replace the name Big Muddy Creek with the original Marthas River was submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in December 1998, but was rejected by the Board in March of 2000. In 1883 it was shown on a map of Montana as Park River, perhaps merely through a map-maker's error.

7. Cited in Theodore J. Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809 (New York: New York University Press,1987), 90.

8. William Henry Herbert [Frank Forester, pseud.] Frank Forester's Field Sports of the United States, and British Provinces of North America, 2 vols. (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1864), 2:245-46. He called it "American Deer Stalking." It is still considered the only true hunting by men and women who take the sport seriously.

9. John James Audubon, "Deer Hunting," Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America; . . . interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners, (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey and A. Hart, 1832), 335.

10. Ted Franklin Belue, The Hunters of Kentucky: A Narrative History of America's First Far West, 1750-1792 (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2003), 87-94, 119-35. Lawrence Elliott, The Long Hunter: A New Life of Daniel Boone (New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1976). Emory L. Hamilton, "The Long Hunters," Historical sketches of Southwest Virginia, Publication 5 (March, 1970). Online at Accessed November 29, 2007.

11. Neal O. Hammon, ed., My Father, Daniel Boone: The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 10-11.

12. Usually, but not invariably, large animals such as deer were "open skinned." The skin was first cut from the anus up the belly to the lower lip; another cut was made inside each leg from the center cut to the hoof. The skin was then trimmed off at each hoof and peeled from the belly to the back. Small animals were usually "cased," and large animals were sometimes cased to make containers for jerky or pemmican. After cutting the skin on the inside of the legs from one hind hoof to the opposite one, the skin was peeled off from the back legs forward until the head was skinned out and the result was shaped like a tapered tube. James Churchill, The Complete Book of Tanning Skins and Furs (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1983), 2. En route home on 10 April 1806, Lewis and Clark purchased the cased skin of the head of a mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). See "The Other Sheep."

13. Hammon, 138, 140.

14. Quoted in John Bakeless, Daniel Boone (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Company, 1939), 413.

15. John Filson, The Discovery, Settlement and present State of Kentucke: and an Essay towards the Topography, and Natural History of that important Country: to which is added an Appendix containing The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, of the first Settlers, comprehending every important Occurrence in the political History of that Province (Wilmington, Delaware: Printed by James Adams, 1784), 42. Online Eletronic Text Edition, ed. by Paul Royster, (Electronic Texts in American Studies, Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2006) p. 24. Filson's version of Boone's story covered only the years from May 1768 to October of 1782. It was first published in Mathew Carey's American Museum magazine, Volume II (1787), then as part of Filson's book, and again by George Imlay in 1793.

16. John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992), 28-31, 76-87.

17. An arpent was a French measure of land area that was equal to approximately 0.85 of an acre. Daniel Boone's 1,000 arpents equalled between 800 and 850 acres. The survey cost him $41 plus the chainmens' fees.

18. Amos Stoddard, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive of Louisiana (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812; reprint, New York: AMS Press Inc., 1973), 249.

19. Landon Y. Jones, William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 7.

20. John James Audubon, Delineations of American Scenery and Character (New York: G. A. Baker & Company, 1926), 112.

21. Precisely what he meant by "Salt mountains" is a mystery. He believed that "the Salt Mountain is but five or six hundred miles west of [Fort Osage]," which would have meant somewhere between the Platte River and Floyd's River. Perhaps he, the subject of so many legends, tall tales, and fantasies, was equally susceptible to similar delusions, like the one about the mountain of salt 1000 miles up the Missouri, which had seduced Thomas Jefferson's gullibility.

22. Faragher, 314-15.

23. Filson, The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone, 2.

24. See, for example, Revelations 19:11, 14.


E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 120-137.

26. John James Audubon, "Kentucky Sports," Ornithological Biography, 294.

27. Francis Hobart Herrick, ed., Delineations of American Scenery and Character (New York: G.A. Baker, 1926), 60-61.

28. A few of Audubon's paintings are reproduced elsewhere in Discovering Lewis & Clark: Carolina parakeet, bighorn sheep, hare, mountain beaver (sewelel) , common deer, long-tailed deer, Columbia blacktailed deer, mule deer.

29. Shirley Streshinsky, Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 207.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program.