- Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett in 1833: Unsettling the Mythic West ed. by Michael A. Lofaro
Daniel Boone, Black Hawk, Davy Crockett, Western expansion, Frontier, Native Americans
Today when Americans ponder the western frontier, the conjured scene often involves Hugh Glass, looking suspiciously like Leonardo DiCaprio, in the various stages of being mauled by a brown bear. Yet long before The Revenant (2015) introduced the general public to Glass, and before the likes of Kit Carson, George Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, or Teddy Roosevelt played the role of western hero to various generations of Americans, two figures dominated popular imaginings of the rough-and-ready frontiersman: Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Despite the fact that the duo never met—Boone was Crockett’s senior by more than fifty years—it is common practice to lump them together as wilderness hunters and Indian fighters. As a case in point, in 1887, when Theodore Roosevelt established a new conservation organization for hunters and naturalists, he named it the “Boone and Crockett Club.” Decades later, Fess Parker portrayed both Boone and Crockett on television and further cemented their association. Michael A. Lofaro’s Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett in 1833 blueprints not only how and why, but precisely when, Boone and Crockett achieved icon status. The book also restores a third figure, the Sauk chieftain Black Hawk, to his proper place alongside Boone and Crockett—and reveals how this triumvirate of western heroes took the literary world by storm in 1833 and re-made the terms of national identity in Jacksonian America.
Lofaro’s introduction, “Stereotype and Synthesis as National Compromise: The Evolution of the Early Frontier Hero,” provides a detailed analysis of the three main texts included in the volume, each independently [End Page 510] published in 1833: Timothy Flint’s Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, and The Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett, of West Tennessee. Before proceeding, it is worth noting that Lofaro’s purpose is not to dissect fact from fiction within these narratives—nor is it to provide exhaustive biographical treatments of Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett. Instead, Lofaro contends that the 1833 publication and subsequent fame of these stories marked a crucial turning point in the way Americans conceived of the frontier and then employed those updated conceptions to define themselves. From the exploits and personal qualities of Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett, a new prototype of the American man took shape. He was rugged, individualistic, egalitarian, and often quite violent; better still, because his genesis coincided with Manifest Destiny and Jacksonian Democracy, it directly influenced how Americans thought about masculinity, civility, savagery, the frontier, imperialism, and race. Indeed, as Lofaro’s astute reading of the three texts ultimately illustrates, the joint star turns of Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett prompted a general rethinking of what it meant to be American—and not always in the ways we might expect.
Lofaro’s argument in “Stereotype and Synthesis” is convincing, but his presentation is not without issue. Throughout, he writes about past events in the present tense. For a historian, but also a general reader of non-fiction, this is somewhat jarring; it is especially so when combined with a tendency to jump rapidly between subjects in the introduction’s opening sections. Moreover, while “Stereotype and Synthesis” is clearly meant to be read before the three narratives it introduces and compares, Lofaro occasionally delves into such detailed analysis of the primary texts that some readers (myself included) will find it helpful to approach the book in reverse order: reading the narratives of Boone, Black Hawk, and Crockett first, then circling back to Lofaro’s scholarly treatment.
Also curious is the introduction’s lack of engagement with the classic studies of how the American frontier and frontiersmen shaped national identity, namely Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849), Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West (1889), and Frederick...