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Ghost Writer To Daniel Boone

May 2024
9min read

John Filson first brought the frontier hero to notice, giving him fine words that made him the idol of the romanticists

Daniel Boone’s position in the pantheon of American heroes is due probably to merit and certainly to good fortune. The former has been questioned by a few historians; but the latter, although not often recognized explicitly, has never been denied. Although practically an illiterate, Boone told the story of his adventures in Chateaubriand-like prose to Americans and Europeans alike almost as soon as the Indian wars in Kentucky were over. This he was able to do because he had a ghost writer—John Filson.

Born on the banks of the Brandywine in Chester County, Pennsylvania, John Filson, an obscure school-master, appeared in the new settlements that were springing up on the meadowlands of Kentucky in the fall of 1783. Almost at once he began drawing a map of the region and writing a book about its prospects. Naturally he met Boone.

In the peace that followed the bloody warfare of 1782, the old wilderness scout was eager to tell the story of the conquest; and Filson wrote it down in what he pretended were Boone’s own words. In the late spring of 1784, Filson carried his manuscript back to Wilmington, Delaware, where it was published by James Adams under the title Kentucke. The next year it saw published in Paris and Frankfort—it was to go through three editions in Germany—and subsequent reprints appeared in both London and New York.


Thirty-three of the 118 pages of this quaint little volume are devoted to the Boone narrative; and, although the rest of the book contained eagerly desired information about the newest part of the New West, the story of Boone’s exploits was so popular that the entire work was referred to as “Filson’s Boone.”

As the prototype of the American hero, who, incidentally, embodied many of the virtues of the European natural man, Boone has directly and indirectly inspired many of the characters in American fiction. One of the first writers who became indebted to this legend was James Fenimore Cooper, whose Leatherstocking bore unmistakable similarities to Boone.

Also, whatever influence the Boone legend had abroad must be attributed to Filson. Since his book was published in France, Germany, and England, Europeans knew of Boone’s exploits only a year later than the Americans. The French, especially, with their interest in exoticism, must have found in this work a concrete and grand example of the natural hero. Whether they detected that he had been created, in part at least, in the image of their own ideal, is doubtful.


In orotund prose that certainly bore the stamp of Filson rather than Boone, the hero of the Indian wars begins his narrative by stating that he and his family were living on the Yadkin River in North Carolina, when a curiosity that “is natural to the soul of man” led him into the wilderness of Kentucky.

This natural curiosity must have been uncommonly strong in the Boone family. Daniel’s grandfather, George Boone, was an English Quaker, who migrated from his native Devon to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Daniel’s father, Squire Boone, started the trek westward by moving to Oley Township; later the family moved southward into the Shenandoah.

At the time Filson wrote the biography, Boone, who was fifty years old, had apparently reflected on his role in the course of empire:

The settling of this region well deserves a place in history. Most of the memorable events I have myself been exercised in; and for the satisfaction of the public, will briefly relate the circumstances of my adventures, and the scenes of my life, from my first movement to this country until this day.

Since there is certainly no evidence to indicate that Boone ever suffered any nostalgia for peaceful habitations, it is barely possible that Filson was engaging in some dry humor when he has this roving woodsman begin his story with:

It was on the first of May, in the year, 1769, that I resigned my domestic happiness for a time, and left my family and peaceful habitation on the Yadkin river, in North Carolina, to wander through the wilderness of America, in quest of the country of Kentucke.

But since Filson was devoid of a sense of humor, it must have been an incredible naïveté, or a punctilious regard for public opinion, that led him to begin the story with Boone’s expression of regret in having to resign his domestic happiness. Perhaps Daniel had remembered that his wife, Rebecca, had objected to his wandering off on a trip that was both unnecessary and uncertain. Perhaps she had resorted to “what will people say?” Out of fairness to her, when he spoke for the record he made it clear that his reason for leaving home was Homeric rather than domestic.

Boone and his companions, John Finlay, John Stewart, Joseph Holden, James Monay, and William Cool, wandered about Kentucky in peace until the twenty-second of December. On that day, he and John Stewart, while on “a pleasing ramble,” were captured by some Indians, who rushed out of a canebrake upon them; and for seven days they were held prisoners. But at the end of that time, in the dead of night “when sleep had locked the senses” of their captors, Boone gently woke his companion and both stole away to their camp. There they found their companions “dispersed and gone home” but in their stead, Daniel’s brother, Squire, who, with another adventurer, had come from North Carolina in search of Daniel. He had arrived at an inauspicious time, for the Indians, who resented the escape of their prisoners, recaptured John Stewart and killed him.

Daniel was pleased to see his brother and to share with him some of the natural and simple joys of the life in the wilderness:

Thus situated, many hundred miles from our families in the howling wilderness, I believe few would have equally enjoyed the happiness we experienced. I have often observed to my brother, you see how little nature requires to be satisfied. Felicity, the companion of content, is rather found in our own breasts than in the enjoyment of external things; And I firmly believe that it requires but a little philosophy to make a man happy in whatsoever state he is.

Here is the natural man, innately good, freed from the tensions of society and from the shackles of convention, finding supreme happiness in the simple life. That these were Boone’s own words, few believed; but that they expressed his philosophy was assumed by the readers who elected Boone the popular hero of the Romantic revolution.

Gilbert Chinard, a student of the American influence on French literature, has marveled at Boone’s philosophical powers and was forced to distinguish him from the French “philosophes en chambre":

Si Boone est un philosophe, il ne faut pas le confondre avec nos philosophes en chambre; l’homme reste singulièrement rude et même barbare àcertains moments. Un peu plus loin, on voit qu’il n’hésite pas à imiter les Indiens, àscalper ses enemis et à rapporter leurs chevelures comme de glorieux trophies.

Squire Boone returned to North Carolina on the first of May, 1770, leaving Daniel alone in Kentucky. Never, confessed Daniel, had he been under any greater necessity of exercising philosophy and fortitude. But the beauties of nature soon “expelled every gloomy and vexatious thought.” After gaining the summit of a commanding ridge—there is considerable doubt that a spot exists in Kentucky from which all the scenery described below is visible—but let him continue—

and looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains, the beauteous tracts below. On the other hand, I surveyed the famous river Ohio that rolled in silent dignity, marking the western boundary of Kentucke with inconceivable grandeur. At a vast distance I beheld the mountains lift their venerable brows, and penetrate the clouds. All things were still. I kindled a fire near a fountain of sweet water, and feasted on the loin of a buck, which a few hours before I had killed. The sullen shades of night soon overspread the whole hemisphere, and the earth seemed to gaip after the hovering moisture. My roving excursion this day had fatigued my body, and diverted my imagination. I laid me down to sleep, and I awoke not until the sun had chased away the night.

It was not until the twenty-fifth of March of the next year that Boone returned to his family in North Carolina. He sold his farm and, on the twenty-fifth of September, 1773, set out again for Kentucky, accompanied by his own and five other families. The enthusiasm of this hopeful beginning, however, soon subsided, for on the tenth of October they were attacked by Indians. Six men, including Boone’s eldest son, fell. This misfortune overtook them as they were approaching the Cumberland Mountains, which Boone described as follows:

The aspect of these cliffs is so wild and horrid, that it is impossible to behold them without terror. The spectator is apt to imagine that nature had formerly suffered some violent convulsion; and that these are the dismembered remains of the dreadful shock: the ruins, not of Persepolis or Palmyra, but of the world.

How this coonskin hero, entirely innocent of letters, knew that Persepolis and Palmyra were in ruins is a minor mystery; but like the romantic, natural man of his age, he had acquired an incredible store of classical allusions. If Filson’s book was more popular in Versailles than in Boonesborough, it is small wonder.

After this attack by the Indians, Boone stopped with his family on the Clinch River, where he remained until—in June, 1744—Governor Dunmore of Virginia asked him to run an 800-mile errand: to proceed to the Falls of the Ohio and conduct a party of surveyors into the interior of Kentucky. Returning to his family after 62 days, Boone was immediately placed in charge of three garrisons of Dunmore’s troops that were marching against the Shawnees. As soon as this tour of duty was finished, he again undertook the settlement of Kentucky, this time associating himself with Richard Henderson and the famous Transylvania Company.

As a result of this association, Boone became the founder of the fort that bears his name to this day, now a lonely, somnolent village between the Kentucky River hills, where the events of history are something less than a memory. To the site of Boonesborough, he brought Rebecca, his wife, and his daughter, Jemima, on the fourteenth of June, 1775, and they were “the first white women that ever stood on the banks of the Kentucke river.”

The Indians persisted in their attempts to harass them out of the land; and, on the fourteenth of July, 1776, they captured Boone’s daughter and the two daughters of Colonel Callaway. Boone and eight men from the fort immediately pursued them and three days later overtook the party, killed two of the Indians, and rescued the girls.

With the coming of reinforcements from North Carolina and a band of 100 Virginians, whom the Indians feared, calling them the Long Knives, open warfare ceased; but the red men continued their insidious forms of annoyance. On the seventh of February, 1778, while he was engaged in making salt at the Blue Licks, Boone, and some thirty others, were captured by the Indians. He was taken to old Chillicothe on the Little Miami River, and from there to Detroit, where the British governor, Henry Hamilton, offered a hundred pounds sterling for his release. The Indians refused the offer and took Boone back to their camp on the Little Miami, where, as a captive, he lived a life far different from that of prisoners in modern wars:


At Chelicothe I spent my time as comfortably as I could expect: was adopted according to their custom into a family where I became a son, and had a great share in the affection of my new parents, brothers, sisters, and friends. I was exceedingly familiar and friendly with them, always appearing as cheerful and satisfied as possible, and they put great confidence in me. I often went hunting with them, and frequently gained their applause for my activity at our shooting matches. I was careful not to exceed any of them in shooting; for no other people are more envious than they in this sport.—The Shawanese king took great notice of me, and treated me with profound respect, and entire friendship, often entrusting me to hunt at liberty.

Returning from a hunting trip one day, Boone was alarmed to find that the Indians, in the strength of 450 choice warriors, were planning to march against Boonesborough. He escaped just before sunrise one morning and made his way to the fort, a journey of 160 miles during which he had only one meal. On the eighth of August, the Indian army appeared before the gates. They finally sent a summons to Boone to surrender in the name of His Britannic Majesty. Boone asked for a period of two days to consider the matter, during which time feverish preparations for defense were made within the garrison; and at the end of the period, Boone returned the answer

that we were determined to defend our fort while a man was living—now, said I to their commander, who stood attentively hearing my sentiments, we laugh at all your formidable preparations: But thank you for giving us notice and time to provide for our defense. Your efforts will not prevail; for our gates shall forever deny your admittance.

The hero had defied the enemy. After attempts at subterfuge and a nine-day assault, to which the fort failed to capitulate, the enemy raised the siege and departed.

The crescendo of the Indian wars increased as station after station was attacked. On the fifteenth of August, 1782, about 500 Indians and Canadian French attacked Bryant’s Station near Lexington. In language strangely reminiscent of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Boone describes the battle:

Without demanding a surrender, they furiously assaulted the garrison, which was happily prepared to oppose them; and, after they had expended much ammunition in vain, and killed the cattle round the fort, not being likely to make themselves masters of this place, they raised the siege and departed in the morning of the third day after they came, with the loss of about thirty killed, and the number of wounded uncertain.

The pursuit of the fleeing savages ended in the bloody Battle of Blue Licks, “the last battle of the Revolution.” On one of the rolling hills south of the Licking River, overlooking the Blue Licks, the carnage of the fifteen minutes of fierce fighting was ghastly. Sixty white men, including two colonels—Todd and Trigg—and Boone’s second son fell. Four of the seven men taken prisoners were barbarously murdered by young warriors being trained in the arts of cruelty. Boone in reflecting on the horror of the battle described the panic and the slaughter and concludes with the laconic statement, “many widows were now made.”

This terrible battle was the end of serious Indian troubles in Kentucky. General Clark’s expedition against them beyond the Ohio left them with little taste for further warfare in Kentucky; and “the great king beyond the waters,” being disappointed in his expectations, had no more reason to encourage their depradations. The settlement of Kentucky was secure. Boone, reviewing the long and harrowing struggle, reflects on his mission and his sacrifice:

My footsteps have often been marked with blood . . . Two darling sons, and a brother, have I lost by savage hands, which have also taken from me forty valuable horses and an abundance of cattle. Many dark and sleepless nights have I been a companion for the owls, separated from the cheerful society of men, scorched by the Summer’s sun, and pinched by the Winter’s cold, an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness. But now the scene has changed: Peace crowns the sylvan glade.

One would hardly have been surprised had this wilderness scout closed with a paraphrase of

Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.


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