Daniel Boone: Master of the Wilderness

by John Bakeless
[Morrow, $3.50]
THIS might be called a biography of Daniel Boone to end all biographies of Daniel Boone, for little is left to be said after Mr. Bakeless has finished speaking. Too much credit can hardly be given the author for the careful, painstaking, and scholarly way in which he has sought out, checked, and rechecked all the material available, some of it hitherto unpublished, dealing with the life and times of the old frontiersman. His narrative is reënforced with a thorough bibliography, notes, and a valuable index.
Perhaps because of this careful and orderly preparation the book lacks sparkle and vitality. The tale is told in a bald, almost stodgy fashion. An occasional vivid phrase — ’The red men could drift through the woods with no more noise than a scalped ghost’ — merely shows what Mr. Bakeless might have done if his preoccupation with well-authenticated records had not forced a more workaday jogtrot tempo. But it seems to this reviewer that the story of Daniel Boone is more valuable as a human document than an historical one.
All Mr. Bakeless’s scholarship fails to demonstrate Boone’s importance or significance as an historical character. He was a superb woodsman, hunter, and trapper, like many of his contemporaries. He knew Indians and how to deal with them successfully, like many English frontiersmen and French coureurs de bois. As a soldier, he never exceeded mediocrity; even as an ‘Indian fighter’ he had his superiors among his contemporaries. He had neither vision in dealing with Indians and white men nor wisdom in handling his own I affairs.
He was a leader in pushing into the Kentucky wilderness, but his attempts at colonizing were abortive and personally ineffective. He had an itching foot and an aching hunger for owning land, as much land as he could get, one way or another.
No Norman follower of the Conqueror yearned more violently for acres than did Daniel Boone. Lord Tweedsmuir, writing as John Buchan in one of his romances, had Daniel Boone as a descendant of the princely Norman house of Bohun, so perhaps he came by his land hunger naturally. But the story, the authentic story of his life, boils down into an endless series of hunting expeditions and explorations, a good many bushwhacking adventures, and a vast amount of land claimings and speculations — the last uniformly unsuccessful, not so much, one suspects, because he was always the victim of knaves as because he was incurably shiftless in method, Mr. Bakeless does not trouble to make him a romantic figure, and he somehow fails to convince us of his importance as an historical one.
Yet Daniel Boone is as firmly embedded in American folklore as a fly in amber, He must have had a strong and compelling personality. He outlived his contemporary adventurers and his many adventures. He tailed to stop a bullet with any vital portion of his anatomy and lie lived to a great old age, the sole survivor of Kentucky s dark and bloody days. As such he was much sought after by the pack of near historians whose fairy stories of early American heroes spared no one from Washington down. His exploits were exaggerated and distorted, and round his head clustered legends which he would have been the first to disown.
Mr. Bakeless has not wasted much time debunking the legends. He has painted a sympathetic picture of the old frontiersman as a strong, brave, honorable man, skillful and adroit in the woods, always in the vanguard of the pioneers.
Daniel Boone was neither a Fenimore Cooper hero nor an important figure on the great page of history; and one wonders whether his biographer in writing so scholarly a treatise has not fired salvos of unnecessarily heavy artillery at an elusive figure, clad in buckskin, and carrying a long rifle, ‘drifting like a ghost’ through the glades of the primeval wilderness.