Remembering North Carolina's forgotten frontiersman

Ben Fortson

On October, 22, 1734, near Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, a small, insignificant lad came-forth from the womb. His father, along with a few hundred Quakers, had migrated from England in 1713 to escape persecution. He had married Sarah (another Quaker immigrant from Wales) and the two briefly celebrated their sixth child—of which there would eventually be eleven.

There was precious little time to rejoice. Cattle to tend, iron to blacksmith, cloth to weave; all occupations of the growing family. There was also little time for proper education. And it was perhaps this inattentive-style of tutoring—along with the official family-job of protecting cattle from predators—that led to the youngsters eventual passion for hunting and wanderlust.

Today, his birthplace—with a version of the original homestead, a museum, blacksmithing shop and a farm—is notably preserved and honored by the state of Pennsylvania.

Our pioneer’s story, in affirmation of his itchy-feet, eventually ended rather far away from Pennsylvania. Perpetually in search of the next-best-wilderness, and earlier, having lost all his property in Kentucky (in large measure due to inattentive legal documentation), he spent his final 21 years hunting and exploring in the Spanish-held Louisiana Territory (in what would become Missouri).

Noting his historical significance, Missouri designated his old homestead as a historical site and listed it on the National Register of Historic Places. A stone house, built by his son, and all the trappings of a late 18th-century pioneer farm, are attended regularly by tourists and history buffs.

Somewhere in the middle of his life, our frontiersman was hired by a North Carolina land speculator to build a trail and establish a fort in Kentucky. Purchased from the Cherokee, who argued the Shawnee didn’t own the land, he engineered a trail through the Cumberland Gap (bordering Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky) into northeastern Kentucky.

After erecting a fort, he, along with a small cadre of families, fought-off Shawnee attackers during the American Revolution. His daring perseverance in the face of life-and-limb danger opened up Kentucky for settlement (his Wilderness Trail was traversed by over 200,000 pioneers headed west).

This period of our adventurer’s life is gladly portrayed by the state of Kentucky at Boonesborough State Park, where a full-on replica of the fort commemorates his exploits and near-misses.

After his childhood/teenage years in Pennsylvania, but prior to his moxie-filled days in Kentucky and lengthy retirement in Missouri, our explorer spent some early-adult adventuring years—twenty-one to be exact—in North Carolina.

By the time Daniel Boone’s parents moved their family from Pennsylvania to North Carolina in 1750, he was on his way to becoming an accomplished longhunter—hunting for months at a time, far from home and family, in the hopes of procuring a large stash of hides and meat.

Residing near Mocksville, about 23-miles east of present-day Statesville, Boone met and married Rebecca Bryan, fathered nine children, fought in Lord Dunmore’s War, skirmished against the Cherokee and Shawnee, and began his longhunting forays into Tennessee and Kentucky—all while being a Tar Heel.

Oddly enough, not many people are aware of these days. Especially people who live in North Carolina.

In fact, beyond a few mentions in NC history museums, sparse log cabin displays, history markers, foot trails and outdoor dramas, comparatively speaking, Daniel Boone is somewhat of a mysterious, forgotten frontiersman of North Carolina. What’s that all about?

To the 1960’s mind, “…Daniel Boone was a man, yes, a big man; with an eye like an eagle and as tall as a mountain was he” (if you’re over the age of 50, who could forget the TV-series theme song, or Fess Parker and the 165-episodes of Dan’l, Mingo and his always-on-the-mark rifle, ticklicker).

As a 12-year old Boone-enthusiast, I recall visiting the town of Cherokee, where—of all places—Daniel Boone memorabilia was in high  fashion. I have photos of my kids still wearing the fringed-laced, leather pull-over I bought for $24.99. My complimentary coonskin cap, a Hollywood invention that Boone never adorned, was worn to oblivion.

Looking back, these memories caused me to believe North Carolinians revered the well-traveled trail-blazer. In retrospect, maybe it was just marketing hype.

Today—at best—postmodern youth seem to view Boone as a vague western character, or possibly the name of a restaurant. “Wasn’t he at the Alamo?” (no). “Was he a cowboy?” (nope). “Oh yeah, he was the guy that cut down trees with Paul Bunyan” (not really). Isn’t there a restaurant named after him? (yep).

For some reason, many young Carolinians are also obtusely confident that Daniel Boone must’ve lived in Boone, NC. Although he didn’t, that seems reasonable for a generation that’s barely acquainted with his story.

Considering his name is attached to a couple hundred establishments hoping to cash-in on his exploits, it’s an interesting conundrum.

Maybe it’s time for a Daniel Boone Museum in Mocksville (currently, along with a town of 5,216 people, there are two gravestones bearing the names of his mother and father). Boone, NC seems like a suitable spot for a Frontier Heritage Center.

Come to think of it, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision a Daniel Boone Center in Black Mountain—where Boone apparently passed through on a number of occasions.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter where you build it. A museum or memorial anywhere west of Charlotte would do (the man loved to wander).

His sensitivities don’t really jive with 21st-century America; but the guy had an amazing life and an incredible impact on colonial America—a fact Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri have seemed to notice. Not to mention, 21-years in North Carolina produced some exceedingly good stories.

It’s about time our kids heard them.