“The frontier” has played a huge role in the American imagination, a place where civilization and savagery supposedly met and the former — with allegedly heroic intent and deeds — triumphed: light over darkness, Christianity over paganism, reason over the reasonless. I’ve written about how these tropes shaped the history of Maine and New England (in The Lobster Coast) and fueled the creation of one of the most powerful mythic stories of United States nationhood (in Union, which follows the life of Frederick Jackson Turner.) But I hadn’t had a chance to delve more deeply into that first trans-appalachian, post-Revolutionary conquest of the “frontier,” that of Kentucky and its environs, until Washington Monthly asked me to review a new book own Daniel Boone.
That review — of novelist Matthew Pearl’s fist work of history, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America — is out in the new issue of the magazine and online here. I was not surprised to learn the frontier was little like the received myth and as complicated and nuanced as humans themselves, but I was a little surprised to learn this was also true of Daniel Boone himself.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
Pearl’s book shows the real Daniel Boone to have indeed been a brave and exceptionally skillful frontiersman who played a pivotal role in the initial colonization of Kentucky and its defense during the American Revolution. But he was also highly sympathetic to the Shawnee and Cherokee he sometimes fought against, having been adopted into a Shawnee chief’s family, where he learned their language, forged genuine emotional ties, and felt a degree of conflicted loyalties. As a fierce fighter who was raised by Quakers and a colonizer with deep ties to those whom westward expansion subjugated, Boone is as full of contradictions as the state he is most associated with. Kentucky in the 1770s was more than just a battleground between “American” settlers and British-backed tribal peoples; it was a world where cultures sometimes blended, where adult captives adopted into Shawnee families willingly and passionately “went native,” and where, for a brief time during a terrible conflict, a vision of a shared world on Indigenous terms was imagined and entertained.
I hope you’ll read the full review of this revealing book.
My last book review for Washington Monthly was of John Keane’s The New Despotism.