Unable to call a single acre his own, [Boone is] a wanderer in the world, having no spot to call his own, whereon to lay his head.—Memorial to the Kentucky legislature, 1812
Daniel Boone is usually pictured as an explorer, woodsman, and hunter, an accurate image of his early life. But most Boone biographers distort his ability, or what they term his inability, to get ahead in society and earn a good living. Few have suggested that as early as 1773, this soon-to-be international celebrity intended to be more than a hunter, or that this thirty-nine-year-old father with eight children to support had turned entrepreneur. Even fewer consensus historians give Boone sufficient credit for earning a great deal of money in his later years and for navigating the rapids of frontier law, commerce, and politics. Instead, most writers present the older Boone as a well-intentioned rustic unfitted for the ruthless complexities of the emerging market economy. Indeed, Boone’s post-Revolutionary surveying, tavern-keeping, and land speculation usually compose—as in the highly acclaimed, widely circulated, often aped, and self-proclaimed synthesis of fact and lore by John Mack Faragher—a story of “failed [End Page 5] hope and bitter regret” in which financial and legal troubles sapped Boone “of his energy, his money, and his land.”1
Faragher’s portrait of Boone is unabashedly both mythic and real. The author acknowledges that facts “come inextricably entwined with legend,” and he describes the mythic Boone that backcountry people conjured. Faragher avers that “the thing people chose to say about Boone provides clues to their own concerns.” But any interpretation, and especially the mythos of Boone’s failings, which boasts a large and vigorous following among historians, invites revision when it falls short of the realities of Boone’s life.
The story of Boone’s economic failure after the Revolution, a trope begun in his lifetime, has shown remarkable strength. Significantly, recent accounts of the “Old Pioneer’s” legal and land troubles both anticipate and follow Faragher’s more vigorously contextualized Boone. Michael Lofaro asserts that Boone ignored the cumbersome details of the land-registration process, and consequently in his later years a “constant barrage” of lawsuits over disputed claims left him “essentially landless” before he abandoned Kentucky in 1799. This “honored pioneer” was at base a “guileless man” essentially “rendered helpless” by business and legal realities. Stephen Aron writes that Boone’s “land hunting demonstrated the corruption of the homestead ethic.” Challenged both ethically and technically, Aron’s Boone often took for himself “half the land” he surveyed, but his faulty surveys “cost him dearly,” as a parade of better claims and stronger legal actions trampled his own. “The rules of law,” Aron judges, “cost Boone all the land he thought he owned.” Meredith Mason Brown attributes Boone’s losses in part to a Virginia land system that issued more treasury warrants for land than the acreage that existed, recognized [End Page 6] only perfected claims, allowed imperfect surveys, and fueled endless litigation. Brown nevertheless maintains that Boone compounded difficulties when he failed to complete the lengthy and cash-driven registration process, indemnified his survey clients for losses incurred because of his faulty surveys, and recklessly speculated in lands on which he could not pay the taxes. So, Brown concludes, “Boone’s interests in land melted away,” as he “flailed about in a variety of attempts to become rich . . . [but] succeeded only in losing his land, owing money, and being sued repeatedly.”2 Whatever goals these interpretations serve, however, historical accuracy is not foremost among them.
The following narrative of Boone’s career examines his sometimes-familiar exploits through a business perspective, a detailed accounting of the profits and losses Boone experienced in his decades-long search for wealth and rank. The documenting of a more successful Boone undercuts claims that litigation, court orders, and Boone’s own poor judgment ultimately left him without land, money, or status. In a larger sense, this perspective on a cumbersome, but not inherently corrupt, land system also suggests...