HISTORIC PATHWAYS: Historian says explorer gets too little respect

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By Tom Watson

Daniel Boone was Kentucky’s most famous frontiersman, but a historian says he did not get proper credit for being an accomplished land surveyor, and was the unfortunate victim of a misnomer that made him appear a bumbling backwoodsman.
Author-historian Neal Hammon of Shelby County says Boone was the leader of the westward movement and his land surveys show he knew what he was doing. Hammon has studied Boone’s surveys and doesn’t buy the often-heard allegation that the explorer lost his own land claims because of inattention or ineptness.
Professor Bob Morgan of Cornell University is author of a new book titled “Boone.”
“He was a competent surveyor,” Morgan said of Boone. “He could not shoot the north star in what is called the celestial meridian, but used a compass and was pretty good at that.”
Morgan says that Boone would not go to court to fight for his holdings when the overlapping survey problem cropped up. “He would give up his land or sell it real cheap and my private opinion is that he didn’t mind doing that because it gave him an excuse to go back into the woods where he could hunt and trap.”
After pioneers had land surveyed, they would send the information to Richmond, Va. to get grants and Hammon says litigation arose over disputed claims. Hammon says Boone did not lose land titles to litigation, pointing out that there would be records of that happening and no such records have been found.
“Boone was able to survey tracts that overlapped or were involved with several adjacent claims, which were not easy tasks,” said Hammon, a former surveyor himself.
State Historian James Clotter of Georgetown College says that Boone was not the best surveyor of his time, nor was he the worst. “Other people have done studies of the journals of Boone’s surveys and the surveys themselves weren’t bad, but the problems came due to the overlapping,” Clotter said.
Other early explorers are mentioned in the written record, but none to the extent of Boone. He was featured in John Filson’s “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke,” which led to Filson being called Boone’s personal biographer. Hammon says even the best and most recent biographies contain fables and exaggerations about Boone’s life. Hammon is author of several books, including “Virginia’s Western War,” that examines the obstacles of people who wanted to settle in Kentucky.
Pioneers like Bland Ballard of Shelby County and Simon Kenton of northern Kentucky were credited with many clashes with native Americans in Kentucky, but Hammon says Boone never claimed to be an Indian fighter.
“Kenton was illiterate,” said Meredeth Mason Brown, author of “Frontiersman : Daniel Boone and the Making of America.” Brown says Kenton was a big man who was physically powerful, but not very smart and lost his holdings when he went through bankruptcy.
Hammon says Boone was not only literate, but was a good mathematician to be able to survey reliably. He notes as well that Boone later served in the Virginia legislature.
Former Western Kentucky history professor Lowell Harrison is not as high on Boone, saying that the frontiersman was not a good businessman and kept going broke. Nevertheless, Harrison says he admires Boone and doesn’t like the image of him wearing a racoonskin cap, which he does not believe Boone ever did. Actor Fess Parker portrayed Boone from 1964 to 1969 on television, wore a raccoon-skin cap and had a fictitious Native American sidekick, “Mingo,” played by Ed Ames.
Harrison says Boone was literate and carried a book with him during his trips into the wilderness. He says one of Boone’s favorite books was “Gulliver’s Travels.”
“Boone did have encounters with Indians on several occasions and one time was wounded,” Hammon said. “Boone admitted killing only one Indian and that was at the Battle of Blue Licks, Aug. 19, 1782,” he added. Clotter said Boone saved his daughter and two other young women after they were kidnapped by Native Americans and on another occasion, Boone escaped captivity himself.
The often-repeated story about Boone getting lost in the woods is not in the long hunter’s official papers, Hammon said. “I’ve heard the story that when somebody asked him whether he was ever lost and he said, ‘No, but I’ve been confused for a few days at a time.’”