Nonfiction: Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

Like most people, I have big holes in my knowledge of the world.  Drury and Clavin helped me fill some of those holes with their new biography of Daniel Boone, Blood and Treasure.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Daniel Boone was, and I definitely owned a faux coonskin cap[1] purchased at Chimney Rock (in the olden times when it was privately owned and they still had the hill climb race).  But I’ve never read a book about Boone as an adult, and there is a lot I don’t know about southern Appalachia’s frontier history, even though it is my history.

Drury and Clavin’s approach is perfect for me.  I’m not a big biography reader.  When I do read one, I prefer it devote ample page space to putting a person’s life into historical context.  Drury and Clavin do that—there is an entire chapter devoted to the French and Indian War that elides Boone altogether.  Ample page space given over to Boone’s time in the Yadkin Valley is equally welcomed by me, as a North Carolinian.

History—good history at least—is hard in any circumstance.  Daniel Boone presents particular difficulties.  On one hand, there are centuries of mythmaking.  On the other, there is a contemporary insistence that American expansion was an act of unmitigated and unreciprocated evil.  The truth is much messier than either the triumphalist or revisionist narratives would have you believe.  It’s hard to squeeze into any one narrative.  History as written can be two-dimensional; history as it happened is always three-dimensional.

Frontier history is always messy.  The frontiersmen were cruel to the Indians, who were cruel to them (often first) and to each other.  The political situation was more than complex, with the antagonisms among the French, British, American settlers, and various Indian tribes shifting constantly.  Drury and Clavin know full well how foreign the violence perpetrated has become to us.  They respond by shooting us straight.

To modern sensibilities it is difficult to absorb the savageries practiced by both sides of the conflict: the crawling and bawling white toddler found scalped amid the scorched remains of his parents; the captured Indians hung from trees with their severed penises jammed into slit throats.

There is also the matter of balancing between taking care with the history and embracing the story.  There is a pull to repeat a story too good to fact check.  There is a countervailing pull to avoid proving Truffaut right.  Drury and Clavin seem careful in their history.  But they don’t shy away from telling many (and there are many) wild stories about Boone.

Boone’s rescue of his kidnapped daughter did, after all, form the basis for The Last of the Mohicans.  His escape from Indians and race to warn of their impending attack is as impressive as the Hugh Glass trek that inspired The Revenant, and better sourced historically.

The Abduction of Daniel Boone’s Daughter” by Charles Wimar (1853)

Boone didn’t think of himself as just a fighter and he wasn’t.  “Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. . . .  He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism.”

Boone was a skilled fighter to be sure, especially when it came to the kind of irregular action that dominated on the frontier.  He was an expert marksman.  But he was a man of many skills.  Able to survive and navigate in the back country for months at a time.  Able to talk his way out of trouble with Indians as quick or quicker than fight his way out.  Able to whip up a batch of homemade gunpowder.  Able to “restock a rifle with a piece of raw timber” while on the run and use it to take down a small buffalo.  Able to travel 160 miles across hard country in four days after escaping from Indians.

Most of the narrative is devoted to Boone’s work in “Kanta-ke,” including frontier skirmishing during the American Revolution.  A substantial early chunk of the book covers the French and Indian War.  But I was pleased to see how much page space was devoted to Boone’s time in Yadkin Valley and the North Carolina highlands.  And not just because I am a North Carolinian.  That time is essential to understanding Boone as a man and not just as a myth.

Boone had Quaker roots, but in many ways, he was a quintessential example of the Scots-English borderer who would dominate the American frontier.  His family followed a traditional hillbilly route, first moving west deep into Pennsylvania, then south along the ridges all the way to the Yadkin Valley.  Boone moving again into the mountains, then across them to Kentucky, wasn’t at all odd in a time and place where “it was not unusual for pioneer families to shift their homes six times or more in their lifetimes.”  Boone hewed to the moral casualness of the hillbilly, not the Quaker.  When he returned from a long hunt to discover that his brother had knocked up his wife, Boone readily forgave both and raised the girl as his own.

Boone was most adept at the skills most valued by hillbillies and carried immense respect in frontier communities because of it, even if he clashed with more refined, wealthy interlopers from the east who thought they were owed deference.  He was good with a rifle.  I mean good.  He could survive unsupported for months in the backcountry and move long distances through rough terrain at speed.  He didn’t believe in honorable combat.  He was quick to surrender to superior Indian forces and equally quick to escape.  He respected the Indians as peers—it only made him a more effective Indian fighter.  He didn’t worry much about legalities when it came to homesteading.

Blood and Treasure isn’t perfect.  Jim Cornelius and his readers over at Frontier Partisans have found some errors that suggest “the authors don’t have much hands-on feel for the material culture.”  I was surprised to see them describe the Battle of King’s Mountain as taking place “in the borderlands between the Carolinas and Tennessee.”  It is well over a two-hour drive from Kings Mountain to the Tennessee border, even today.  The similes employed by Drury and Clavin don’t always land (e.g., “The pang of betrayal stung the Shawnee like a copperhead’s strike.”).

Still, though, it is finally written.  The narrative raced along for me once I internalized the writing style and Drury and Clavin got into Boone’s adulthood.  Drury and Clavin’s approach was just the kind of history writing I like, especially given I walked in with a weak background on Boone and on Appalachia’s time as America’s backcountry.  It is a crunchy book full of interesting tidbits.  I highlighted dozens of interesting passages in my Kindle copy, greatly slowing the writing on this review but a delight in their own right to scan back over.

Drury and Clavin are quite the writing duo.  I need to pick up more of their work.

4 of 5 Stars.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Blood and Treasure.

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[1] Which Drury and Clavin taught me Boone never wore.

2 thoughts on “Nonfiction: Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

  1. So, interesting family history tidbit…my uncle is a Boone descendant. He and my mom had different mothers so I’m not. Anyhow for as long as I could remember he had a Boone Powderhorn that had been passed down through the family. He recently gave it to some other descendants in Tennessee but it was cool to look at when we’d visit. He and my mom were here a couple weeks ago and I took them to the grave site in Frankfort (though I know there’s controversy as to whether he’s really buried there). Anyway saw the review and it got me thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: April 2021 Month-in-Review | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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