Did you know that Daniel Boone’s autobiography was ghost written by a man named John Filson? Have you ever considered how Filson might have altered or embellished the stories told to him? Might he have edited or altered the material in order to make it more exciting, or perhaps to push a personal or political agenda on the public?
In the following partial transcription from ‘The Adventures of Daniel Boone’ podcast, guest scholar Dr. Darren R. Reid begins to consider the ramifications for historians who have to wrestle with these questions. Dr. Reid earned his PhD in History and American Studies at Scotland’s University of Dundee – he currently teaches at both that institution and at the University of Edinburgh. He published ‘Daniel Boone and Others on the Kentucky Frontier: 1769-1795’ in 2009.
“For the best part of two centuries, Daniel Boone’s name has been synonymous with the exploration of the American frontier. Thanks largely to a legacy created by exaggerated books, movies and television shows, Boone has become something of a folk hero, not entirely dissimilar to characters like Robin Hood. Like the English outlaw who supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor, Boone’s life is shrouded in myths, half-truths and outright works of fiction. Also like Robin Hood, the myth of Daniel Boone has been used by successive generations as a means of expressing their view of the world.
“Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor was a much later development in the Robin Hood saga that tells us nothing about the actual historical figure. In a similar manner, all sorts of methods have attached themselves to Daniel Boone over the years, that tell us nothing about who he really was, what motivated him to do the things he did, and what he actually accomplished with his life. For that reason, it is important when studying individuals like Boone to go back to the earliest sources, whilst always looking out for tales and anecdotes that fit the myth, rather than the man.
“In that spirit, the Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone, first published in 1784, is a logical place to start any investigation about his life. But before we begin analyzing Boone’s narrative, I think it’s important that we first establish a few baseline facts about the man in order to provide ourselves with some context for this discussion.
“Born in 1734 to parents Squire and Sarah, Boone lived the early part of his life on the Pennsylvania frontier, where he and his kinfolk had regular, positive contact with their Indian neighbors.
“Later, the family moved to the North Carolina backcountry, where the young Daniel developed his skill and reputation as an able woodsman and hunter. At the age of 21, Boone married Rebecca Morgan, with whom he started a large, and quite successful, family.
“Shortly before his marriage, Boone had also served as a teamster for General Braddock during his disastrous defeat in the Seven Years War, a conflict some of you may know better as the French & Indian War.
“By 1769, at the age of 35, Boone had begun another relationship, this time, with the then unsettled country of Kentucky, a region with which he would continue to have close ties for the next two decades.
“Indeed, it is Boone’s association with the Kentucky frontier and the opening up of the trans-Appalachian West which is responsible for his enduring fame. In particular, it was Boone’s narrative, the document we’re going to study here, that would propel Boone from a local, to an international, stage.
“When first examined, Boone’s narrative appears to be a simple proposition: a first-hand, autobiographical narrative covering the period from 1769 to 1783. And as such, it should provide us with a good basis upon which to start our investigations.
“There are, however, a few problems right out of the gate that need to be addressed. First, Boone’s narrative was published as part of a much larger book: The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky, by John Filson. This immediately raises some questions about the authorship of Boone’s narrative, particularly with respect to any role John Filson might have played in its creation.
“To what extent did Filson edit Boone’s account? And to what extent was he responsible for the final shape of the narrative? Even before we look at the document, it is important that we frame it with these questions in mind, because Filson’s role as author of the larger book strongly suggests that the final version of Boone’s narrative was the product not of one man alone. Instead it was likely a collaborative endeavor, in which Boone likely provided a narrative of his life, which was then re-packaged and edited by Filson for mass consumption.
“Now, Boone certainly wasn’t illiterate — his contemporaries describe him as writing with a common farmer’s hand. But there is a lot of evidence in this source to suggest that its final form is written by someone with a more sophisticated understanding of written language than we might expect from a hunter or pioneer.
“Let’s consider the narrative’s opening passage: ‘Curiosity is natural to the soul of man, and interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections. Let these influencing powers actuate by the permission or disposal of Providence, from selfish or social views, yet in time the serious will of heaven is unfolded. And we behold our conduct, from whatever motives excited, operating to answer the important designs of heaven.’
“Now, this is certainly a bold offering, but is isn’t the type of introduction one might expect to come from a ‘common farmer’s hand.’ Nor is it, with its constant nods toward divine Providence a type of sentiment one expect from a pioneer who appears to have been ambivalent towards religion throughout much of his life.
“The grandiose language also contradicts most accounts of Boone’s character, which tend to suggest a man given to far fewer words than the introduction of this document might otherwise suggest. This opening statement, then, stands at odds with what we already know about Boone. The flamboyant nature of the language seeming to jar with what we know about the historic figure from other sources.
“Instead of telling us about Boone, then, this opening section seems to be describing the views of someone else, most likely John Filson, who offered the book in which Boone’s narrative appears. But even then, this is not entirely certain, as at least one other source accused another settler, a man named Humphrey Marshall, of polishing up Boone’s final narrative.
“It is likely, then, that this work is the product not of one man, Daniel Boone, but of two, or possibly even three, working in tandem. Now whether or not Humphrey Marshall did contribute to this work is unknown, but we do know that this work, whoever contributed in the end, was not solely produced by Boone, and that means that other agendas were at play.”