History and legend have long been fellow travelers on the road to understanding. In Kentucky studies, there is no clearer example of this duality than Daniel Boone. A touchstone of the American experience since his 1784 introduction to world celebrity in John Filson’s Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, Boone exemplifies in actual fact an extraordinary series of exploits in exploration, settlement, and war. Moreover, his ambiguous place between white and Native peoples provides insight into the complexities of negotiating racial identity and power.
Thus, Boone still offers fertile prospects for scholarly inquiry. Yet, his undeniable profundities have long been diminished by an entangling Romantic legend. This is particularly true of Boone’s later years. According to the widely accepted myth of Boone’s failure, his days after the Revolutionary War—after he had settled Boonesborough, was captured (and adopted) by the Shawnee, won and lost battles (as well as two sons), and survived unjust accusations of treason—saw him change from adventurer to feckless would-be entrepreneur. Most consensus historians—from the Romantics of the nineteenth century who assembled the seemingly tragic arc of Boone’s life to present-day scholars who accept unexamined Boone legends—portray him as well-intentioned but unready for the ruthless complexities of late-frontier politics and business.
Neal O. Hammon and I advance a very different view of Boone’s experiences. In contrast to the usual picture of Boone’s unrelieved legal and business disasters after 1783, we offer a painstaking analysis [End Page 1] of Boone’s life as a businessman, in which we examine Boone’s sometimes-familiar exploits in terms of profit or loss. We also evaluate another aspect of the failure legend: the pioneer’s supposed loss of land through litigation caused by his own allegedly faulty surveys, rash speculation, and unpaid taxes.
We have based our analysis largely on primary sources—land records, court orders and decisions, tax lists, and manuscripts from Boone’s own time. Sources from the decades after Boone lived were generally excluded. What emerges, in contrast to the failed Boone of conventional biography, is a Boone who earned a great deal of money in his later years, and who navigated more or less successfully the rapids of frontier law, politics, and commerce. Our accounting shows that Boone’s long quest for wealth and rank made him a generally respected and prosperous leader, whose more-successful-than-assumed career suggests alternate interpretations of Kentucky’s post-Revolutionary political economy.
The social and economic order spawned by the market economy—just emerging as Boone’s career was drawing to a close—became over the next century inextricably entwined with the idea of progress. In this worldview, America was ordained for growth in power and wealth, and by the late nineteenth century an energetic, mythic consensus, the gospel of prosperity, underwrote industrial expansion in all its hard-edged ways.
As Charles L. Davis demonstrates in his article, the rural and urban elite of Bourbon County were sharply divided in their visions of an industrial future during the Gilded Age. Davis analyses the controversies surrounding several proposals to expand railroads into this Little Kingdom of landed gentry and urban elites. Significantly, it documents a Kentucky deviation from the supposedly steady American march toward utopia.
The commercial leaders in Paris, the county seat, endorsed the industrial promise of closer connections to the larger American economy. Large landowners, in contrast, distrusted the potential for disruptions of the old order, itself a myth Davis identifies as an [End Page 2] imagined Old South regime in the Bluegrass. Within this seemingly parochial county dispute, Davis also catalogues a heady mix of contesting urban/rural ideologies—contrasting beliefs over economic opportunity, the importance of majority rule versus property rights, the friction between oligarchies and democratic rule, local autonomy versus corporate control, and challenges to the racial hierarchy.
The contrasts in Berry Craig’s essay on the combat experience of Bill Hack, a Kentuckian who flew in the hellish air war over Europe in World War II, are equally complex. They also challenge another matrix of myths, in this case those about the true nature of...