Biography of Daniel Boone, Legendary American Frontiersman

How Daniel Boone Led Settlers West and Became a Frontier Legend

painting of Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap
Daniel Boone depicted leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap.

MPI / Getty Images

Daniel Boone was an American frontiersman who became legendary for his role in leading settlers from the eastern states through a gap in the Appalachian Mountain range to Kentucky. Boone did not discover the passage through the mountains, known as the Cumberland Gap, but he demonstrated that it was a feasible way for settlers to travel westward.

By marking the Wilderness Road, the collection of trails heading westward across the mountains, Boone assured his place in the settlement of the American West. The road, one of the first practical paths westward, made it possible for many settlers to reach Kentucky and helped spark the spread of America beyond the East Coast.

Fast Facts: Daniel Boone

  • Known For: Legendary American frontier figure, known widely in his own time, and enduring as a figure portrayed in popular fiction for 200 years
  • Born: November 2, 1734 near present day Reading, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Squire Boone and Sarah Morgan
  • Died: September 26, 1820 in Missouri, aged 85 years.
  • Spouse: Rebecca Boone, with whom he had ten children.
  • Accomplishments: Marked the Wilderness Road, a major pathway for settlers moving westward in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Despite his reputation as a trailblazer, the reality of his life was often difficult. He had led many settlers to new lands, but eventually his lack of business experience, and the aggressive tactics of speculators and lawyers, led to him losing his own lands in Kentucky. In his final years, Boone had moved to Missouri and lived in poverty.

Boone’s status as an American hero grew in the decades following his death in 1820 as writers embellished his life story and made him something of a folk legend. He has lived on dime novels, movies, and even a popular television series of the 1960s.

Early Life

Daniel Boone was born November 2, 1734 near present day Reading, Pennsylvania. As a child he received a very basic education, learning to read and do arithmetic. He became a hunter at the age of 12, and during his teens he learned the skills necessary to live on the frontier.

In 1751 he moved with his family to North Carolina. Like many Americans of the time, they were in search of better farming land. Working with his father, he became a teamster and learned some blacksmithing.

During the French and Indian War Boone served as a wagoner on the ill-fated march General Braddock led to Fort Duquesne. When Braddock’s command was ambushed by French troops with their Indian allies, Boone was lucky to escape on horseback.

In 1756, Boone married Rebecca Bryan, whose family lived near his in North Carolina. They would have ten children.

During his time serving with the military, Boone had become friends with John Findley, who regaled him with stories of Kentucky, a land beyond the Appalachians. Findley convinced Boone to accompany him on a hunting trip to Kentucky. They spent the winter of 1768-69 hunting and exploring. They collected enough hides to make it a profitable venture.

Boone and Findley had passed through the Cumberland Gap, a natural passage in the mountains. For the next few years Boone spent much of his time exploring and hunting in Kentucky.

print depicting Daniel Boone seeing Kentucky for the first time
Depiction of Daniel Boone seeing Kentucky for the first time. Photoquest / Getty Images 

Moving Westward

Fascinated by the rich lands beyond the Cumberland Gap, Boone became determined to settle there. He convinced five other families to accompany him, and in 1773 he led a party along the trails he had used while hunting. His wife and children traveled with him.

Boone's party of about 50 travelers attracted the notice of Indians in the region, who were becoming angry about encroaching whites. A group of Boone's followers who had become separated from the main party were attacked by Indians. Several men were killed, including Boone's son James, who was captured and tortured to death.

The other families, as well as Boone and his wife and surviving children, returned to North Carolina.

A land speculator, Judge Richard Henderson, had heard about Boone and recruited him to work for a company he had started, the Transylvania Company. Henderson intended to settle Kentucky and wanted to make use of Boone's frontier skills and knowledge of the territory.

Boone worked to mark a trail that could be followed by families headed westward. The trail became known as the Wilderness Road, and it eventually proved to be the main path for many settlers moving from the East Coast into the North American interior.

Boone eventually succeeded in his dream of settling in Kentucky, and in 1775 founded a town along the banks of the Kentucky River, which he called Boonesborough.

Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War, Boone saw action fighting against Indians who had allied themselves with the British. He was taken prisoner by the Shawnees at one point, but managed to escape when he discovered the Indians were planning an attack on Boonesborough.

The town came under attack by Indians who were being advised by British officers. The residents survived a siege and eventually fought off the attackers.

Boone's wartime service was marred by the loss of his son Israel, who died fighting Indians in 1781. Following the war, Boone found adjustment to a peaceful life difficult.

engraved portrait of Daniel Boone
Portrait of Daniel Boone. Stock Montage / Getty Images 

Struggles in Later Life

Daniel Boone was widely respected on the frontier, and his reputation as a revered figure extended to the cities in the East. As more settlers moved into Kentucky, Boone found himself in difficult circumstances. He had always been careless about business, and was particularly negligent in registering his land claims. Though he was directly responsible for many settlers arriving in Kentucky, he was unable to prove legal title to land he believed he rightfully owned.

For years Boone would battle with land speculators and lawyers. His reputation as a fearless Indian fighter and tough frontiersman did not help him in local courts. Though Boone would always be associated with Kentucky, he became so frustrated and disgusted with his newly arrived neighbors that he moved onward to Missouri in the 1790s.

Boone had a farm in Missouri, which was Spanish territory at the time. Despite his advanced age, he continued to embark on long hunting trips.

When the United States acquired Missouri as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Boone again lost his land. His hardships had become public knowledge, and the U.S. Congress, during the administration of James Madison, passed an act restoring his title to his lands in Missouri.

Boone died in Missouri on September 26, 1820, at the age of 85. He was virtually penniless.

The Daniel Boone Legend

Boone had been written about life as a frontier hero as early as the 1780s. But in the years following his death, Boone became a larger than life figure. In the 1830s writers began churning out stories that portrayed Boone as a fighter on the frontier, and the Boone legend endured through the era of the dime novels and beyond. The stories bore little resemblance to reality, but that didn't matter. Daniel Boone, who had played a legitimate and important role in America's move westward, had become a figure of American folklore.

Sources:

  • "Boone, Daniel." Westward Expansion Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2000, pp. 25-30. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Daniel Boone." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2004, pp. 397-398. Gale Ebooks.