Ayoob Files: Daniel Boone’s Shootings

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Situation: A famed American frontiersman is seen as the slayer of many and perhaps a racist. Actual history suggests otherwise.

Lesson: Sometimes, there is no choice but to kill in defense of self or other innocent persons and the most righteous killing can still leave emotional scars.

Daniel Boone (1734–1820) was one of America’s most iconic heroes when my generation grew up. A skilled frontiersman and explorer, he was credited (among other things) as having opened the Cumberland Gap area to settlement and (as seen by many) the founder of Kentucky.

The Native Americans of that place and time did not take kindly to the appropriation of their lands, and Boone became a pivotal figure in the Indian Wars. Over time, legends can distort history. Through the 19th century and deep into the 20th, those buckskin-wearing riflemen were lionized as the heroes who built the foundation of the country — killing many enemies. Dan’l Boone was portrayed as a victorious leader in battle, leaving behind him a long trail of dead “savages.”

Beginning as a hunter, using primitive weapons on small game as a little boy and with his first musket at approximately age 12, Boone was indisputably a professional hunter most of his life, killing huge numbers of animals for meat to feed many, as well as their skins. Just as indisputably, he was one of the great marksmen of his time, winning the shooting matches that were perhaps the dominant sport of the period. Boone biographer Lyman Cooper Draper wrote, Boone called his favorite rifle “Tick-Licker” because the frontiersman claimed it could “flick a tick off a bear’s snout at a hundred yards.”

Robert Morgan wrote in Boone: A Biography: “In his late teens Daniel Boone became widely known in the Yadkin Valley as an expert trapper and hunter, a deadly marksman. When he brought his furs into the county seat at Salisbury to trade for lead and powder, a new gun or new horse, he liked to take part in shooting matches, which were very popular. Boone seemed to always win and was so sure of his prowess he demonstrated trick shots, such as holding out his rifle with one hand only and hitting the target.” (1)

This skill made him an invaluable member of the militias that fought the indigenous tribes, and over the decades, Boone was part of many such organizations. Yet, it appears, he was more of a strategist than a killer of men.

Fiction depicted him stacking corpses like cordwood. History shows otherwise. In his own time, he was much more a diplomat than a warrior, and for this very reason, seen by some of his contemporary whites as a traitor.

Moreover, a collective review of his history indicates Boone killed no more than three of his enemies, and perhaps as few as one.

Rescue by Lethal Force

Your daughter is kidnapped by people with evil intent. With no recourse to police or any other government entity, you follow the kidnappers, track them down, and kill them in righteous combat to rescue your child.

This theme has stirred American hearts for centuries. Consider the popular movie Taken starring rabidly anti-gun actor Liam Neeson. Long before that, novelist James Fenimore Cooper made the plot a cornerstone of Last of the Mohicans in 1826.

Cooper took the plot from real life, specifically, the real life of Daniel Boone. Here’s how it happened.

It began on July 14, 1776, near the settlement of Boonesborough, so named for a reason. Elizabeth Callaway, 16, had gone in a canoe to pick flowers with two 14-year-old girls, her sister Frances and Daniel Boone’s daughter Jemima. They drifted to shore near a quintet of Native Americans, two Cherokee and three Shawnee. The latter dove into the water and seized the canoe.

Recounts Morgan, “Fanny Callaway beat (one) over the head with the paddle until it broke. Betsy joined her in hitting the brave, and the other Indians waded in and threatened to overturn the canoe unless the girls got out.

Once the girls were led ashore the canoe was pushed back into the stream so they couldn’t use it to escape. The three girls began screaming, hoping to be heard at Boonesborough, a quarter of a mile upstream on the other side of the river. One of the Indians grabbed Betsy Callaway by the hair and indicated he would scalp her if the girls did not shut up.” (2)

Boone himself, and others, did hear the distant screams, but by the time he could grab his rifle and reconnoiter, the kidnappers and their victims were already disappearing out of sight. Boone assembled a small number of men as an impromptu posse.

They pursued. The Indians, led by a low-ranking Shawnee chief named Hanging Maw, knew they would. Tensions rose.

The kidnappers crossed rivers to break off their tracks and repeatedly changed their route. The girls had let slip the word about Dad, and Hanging Maw triumphantly claimed, “We have done pretty well for old Boone this time.”

These young daughters of the American Frontier were No delicate flowers. In the days that followed, they did all they could to slow down their captors. Jemima, who had suffered a cut on her foot, exaggerated her injury to decelerate the group’s travel. Put on horseback, though all were experienced riders, the girls surreptitiously caused pain to the horse to make the animal buck them off, forcing the group to travel primarily on foot. When the Indians weren’t looking, the captives broke twigs and branches to signal the way they had gone, and one of them tore strips off her clothing to mark a trail for their rescuers to follow. Led by Boone, the pursuers unerringly picked up on those little clues and remained relentlessly on the track.

By the third day of the ordeal, the perpetrators’ food was running low, and the quintet of kidnappers risked a gunshot to kill a buffalo and take its hump, considered a delicacy in that time and place. They set up camp and began to cook the meat.

It was then the rescuers arrived. Morgan quotes a source from the period: “One in particular, big indn: (sic) called Big Jimmy was spitting up meat on the side opposite to them. Fanny looked at him to see how he fixed his meat. She saw the blood burst out of his breast before she heard the gun.” (3)

One of the posse, William Smith, had fired sooner than he should — some historians believe it was an unintended discharge, others simply a bad shot that missed — but an instant later one John Floyd unleashed the well-aimed bullet that struck the improbably-named Big Jimmy.

Historians Bob Drury and Tom Clavin describe the scene in their new book Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier: “The Indian camp was pandemonium in an instant. One of the Shawnees lunged at the girls with his war club. It narrowly missed Jemima’s head. As he drew it back a second time he fell, shot through the chest by either Boone or the surveyor (John) Floyd, who had fired simultaneously. Another Shawnee was hit and toppled backward into the flames but somehow recovered and lurched into the thick brush. By now Boone’s entire party was descending on the camp shouting their war cries. The two remaining Indians scattered into the cane.” (4)

Writes Morgan, “After they had calmed down Boone remembered that he had shot an Indian and pointed to the place. A rifle was found and drops of blood led into the woods. Two bodies of Shawnees were discovered, one shot by Floyd and one, possibly, by Boone.” (5)
All three of the young women had been successfully rescued, unharmed.

Shoot The Moon

In 1778, during the Siege of Boonesborough, Boone apparently took particular umbrage at a Shawnee brave who continually “mooned” him and the other defenders of the fortified complex. Drury and Clavin describe it thus:

“… a Shawnee — recognizable from his bear-greased topknot — climbed to the fork of a tree atop the ridgeline on the opposite side of the Kentucky River 260 yards from the fort. He proceeded to repeatedly arc musket balls over the walls. Given the distance and the dwindling gunpowder stores forcing the Indians to under-charge their muskets, his shots were more nuisance than a mortal threat. What most riled the defenders, however, was the warrior’s habit of firing off a round and then turning and lifting his breechclout to waggle and pat his bare ass at the pioneers. Boone was summoned.

“After surveying the situation from the fort’s rear parapet, Boone sent for a rifle of a slightly larger caliber than his own ‘widder maker.’ He packed it with an extra charge of black powder and loaded it with a 1-oz., .66-caliber ball, a bit heavier than usual. His shot was sublime and sent the Indian tumbling from his perch.” (6)

And More

Drury and Clavin describe, “On another occasion, Boone was hunting by himself near the Blue Licks when a musket ball cracked a tree branch above his head. He dived into a thicket, worked himself down a small stream, cocked his rifle, and waited. Soon enough he spotted two painted braves making their way down the middle of the creek. For a brief instant, both Indians lined up in his sights, and he fired. His ball passed through the head of the first and ricocheted into the shoulder of the second, who crawled away.” (7)

In another skirmish, reports Morgan, “As Boone led his men on foot up the flank of the hill, an Indian rose from behind a stump and Boone raised his gun. Boone was carrying a special fowling piece that he had loaded with extra powder and several bullets as well as buckshot, appropriate for fighting at close range. Before he pulled the trigger he said to the gun, ‘You be there!’ as though giving an order, and after the blast the Indian fell dead. He later told his son Nathan that ‘he was only positive of having killed this one’ Indian in his long life.” (8), (9)

Crunching the Numbers

Wait a second … Did he claim he only killed one?

Some historians believe the “mooner” shot in the siege actually fell victim to another of the fort’s defenders. In the rescue of the kidnapped young women, more than one man was firing when at least one of the slain perpetrators went down. Some believe Boone was presumed to be the one who scored the hit because of his famous marksmanship. But there’s the fella who took that extra heavy load of whose death Boone said he was “positive.” The mooner guy is a “possible,” and the second slain Shawnee kidnapper a “probable.” When two men shoot at the same perpetrator and only one hits, likelihood goes to the one who is famous for his marksmanship. There is also the brave who, at the creek, was shot through and through the head when Boone made his “two-in-one” shot. Even if the trajectory was only through the maxillo-facial structure and missed the brain, the poor state of medical care at that time and place militated against survival of such a wound.

Boone Wounded

Engage in enough fights and you’ll get hit, whether the conflict involves fists or weapons. Daniel Boone felt the steel and the lead of his enemies multiple times.

The Siege of Boonesborough began after an aborted treaty attempt outside the walls of the fortified town. The treaty appeared to have been a done deal and bloodshed averted when the Indians approached the whites as if to shake hands, but then grabbed them in bear hugs. Weapons came out. Boone managed to break free from his own antagonist, the Indian chief Blackfish, but another warrior sank a tomahawk into his back. Fortunately for the pioneer, the blade sliced muscle but apparently did not penetrate the thoracic cavity. He made it back to safety, had his wound tended to and continued the fight.
In that same battle, shortly after having shot the Indian who had mooned him, Boone took a bullet himself. Details are sketchy, but the wound was apparently peripheral — his daughter patched him up and he returned to the fight yet again.

In 1777, Boone and a dozen friends were lured into an ambush by an estimated 100 Indians. Morgan explains, “The men fired into the Shawnees and then swung their rifles as clubs. The Boonesborough men fought with fury, but Boone himself was shot in the ankle and the bone was broken. As Boone fell, an Indian rushed to tomahawk him but was shot by (Simon) Kenton, who then used his rifle to club another warrior attempting to scalp Boone. The powerful Kenton picked up Boone and carried him to the fort …” (8)

Boone clearly had tremendous recuperative powers and luck was on his side. Though some describe his ankle as “shattered,” he recovered enough to remain ambulatory, productively walking the woods well into old age and until his death at 86, at a time when average life expectancy was somewhere between 30 and 40 years.

Lessons

Daniel Boone came early in a long line of American heroes who were deadly marksmen in mortal combat because they had started shooting at a young age and practiced competitive shooting. The first establishes and ingrains fundamentals and the second makes shooting accurately under pressure the norm.

Toward the end of his life, Boone told people he felt sad about having killed men — this despite having done so in righteous cause. He lost more than one loved one to the Indians, including a 16-year-old son who was tortured and then murdered by them. Still, he was troubled by having ended human life.

One way he handled it appears to have been through faith. The son of Quakers, he did not follow that exact belief system himself, but was never without his two favorite books: the Bible, and oddly enough, Gulliver’s Travels. Daniel Boone was a forgiving man. Jemima was not his natural daughter; her biological father was one of Boone’s brothers, who had taken up with Daniel’s wife Rebecca during one of his long absences. He understood and accepted. Daniel Boone himself had reportedly taken an Indian woman as a temporary wife during a long period when he was a captive of Chief Blackfish. Though several of his loved ones had died horrible deaths at the hands of the Indians, Boone said near the end of his life, “The Indians have been kinder to me than the whites.”

A diplomat who saved many lives on both sides by his promises to, and treaties with, the native Americans who were in league with the British during the War of Independence, Boone was falsely accused of treason over that. Though he was tried and exonerated, he considered it the greatest shame of his life. The lesson there? The pain of a false allegation remains, even when the lie is proven to be such. We see something similar today in another context. When someone goes through the ordeal of a murder trial after shooting in self-defense and is found not guilty. Fools say, “Well, he was acquitted, so it’s no big thing.” That is much like telling a cancer survivor, “Well, you’re alive, so cancer is no big thing.” Daniel Boone had bitter reason to understand this principle.

The first thing modern historians tell us about Boone these days is he never wore a coonskin cap. In life, he actually told people he hated the damn things, finding them both heavy and ugly. He preferred a cap of beaver felt, with no stupid tail hanging down the back of his neck. It was later depictions creating this image, perhaps most notably Fess Parker playing the title character in TV’s Daniel Boone series wearing virtually the exact same costume he had worn in the Walt Disney stories in which he starred as Davy Crockett.

In similar fashion, his reputation for killing Indians was apparently greatly exaggerated. Read up on the man: He was a fascinating American personality and a man of his times. Daniel Boone took pride in being more a peacemaker than a maker of war.

Oh, and about the body count? Another biographer, John Mack Faragher, has Boone admitting to killing three men, all native Americans. (10)

Footnotes:(1) Morgan, Robert. Boone: A Biography, Chapel Hill, NC: Workman Publishing, 2007, p. 39. (2) Ibid., p. 203. (3) Ibid., p. 208. (4) Drury, Bob and Clavin, Tom. Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021, p. 218. (5) Morgan, op. cit., p. 209. (6) Drury and Clavin, op. cit. p. 207. (7) Ibid., p. 317.

(8) Morgan, op. cit., p. 219 (9) Ibid., p. 321. (10) Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: the Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, NY: Holt, 1992.

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