The concept of the natural man was popularized during the Enlightenment, when thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau found in the "noble savage" a useful image to bolster their thinking on natural law and Reason. In America, the natural man was appropriated as a symbol of the yeoman farmer, Jefferson's ideal citizen. Not surprisingly, Daniel Boone as a person and a myth was also appropriated as the quintessential natural man, both by those during the Independence movement and the Romantic period. Finally, Boone as the natural man was utilized at the end of the nineteenth century to symbolize a simpler time, before the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the closing of the frontier were felt.
Wilmington, NC: James Adams, 1784
The first person to bring Daniel Boone and his exploits to fame was John Filson, a schoolmaster from Pennsylvania, who had spent a large sum of money in speculative land deals in Kentucky. According to John Mack Faragher, a recent biographer of Boone, "He possessed no talent for improving these holdings with an ax or plow, but with his pen he hoped to produce a book that would publicize the country and thereby increase the value of his investment. Like nearly everyone else in Kentucky, including Daniel Boone, Filson was speculating in land." (Faragher, 3)
Boone was a land speculator, a pioneer venturing ever further into lands already possessed by the Shawnee Indians. Filson sought to validate Boone's colonization attempts, in order to bolster his own monetary position, through the image of Boone as the natural man. "Filson told Boone's story as romantic myth. In so doing he demonstrated his thorough familiarity with the perennials of colonial American literature--narratives of Indian warfare and captivity and journals of spiritual revelation and growth. Even more obvious is his debt to an ersatz Enlightenment philosophy of 'natural man.' Filson's Boone declaims: 'Thus situated, many hundred miles from our families in the howling wilderness, I believe few would have equally enjoyed the happiness we experienced. I often observed to my brother, You see now 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 it requires but a little philosophy to make a man happy in whatsoever state he is.'" (Faragher, 5)
Filson's work was successful in its first printing in America, but successive printings did not receive the same interest. However, Filson's work was quite successful in Europe, where Enlightenment thinkers seized upon Boone as an American original, the "natural man."
The enduring resonance of the image of the noble savage influenced Romantic thinkers, as well. The most explicit example is Byron, who included an extended tribute to Boone in his Don Juan, Canto the Eighth, 1824.
Cincinnati: Applegate & Company, 1854
The naturalistic view of Boone is continued 30 years later in a poem to accompany a line drawing of "Boone's First View of Kentucky":
"Fair was the scene that lay Before the little band, Which paused upon its toilsome way, To view this new found land. Field, stream, and valley spread, Far as the eye could gaze, With summer's beauty o'er them shed, And sunlight's brightest rays. Flowers of the fairest dyes, Trees clothed in richest green, And brightly smiled the deep-blue skies, O'er this enchanting scene. Such was Kentucky then, With wild luxuriance blest, Where no invading hand had been The garden of the West."
This work is an excellent example of the myth of Boone as learned in the woodland arts, honest and honorable precisely because he is not learned in "civilized" ways:
"We suspect that he rather eschewed books, parchment deeds, and clerky contrivances, as forms of evil; and held the dead letter of little consequence." (9)
However, Flint was anxious to point out that Boone was honorable despite his uncivilized status as the natural man:
"Another circumstance of this picture ought to be redeemed from oblivion. We suspect the general impressions of the readers of this day is, that the first hunters and settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee were a sort of demi-savages...Nothing can be wider from the fact. These progenitors of the west were generally men of noble, square, erect forms, broad chests, clear, bright, truth-telling eyes, and of vigorous intellect.
All this is not only a matter of historical record, but the natural order of things. The first settlers of America were originally a noble stock. These, their descendants, had been reared under circumstances every way calculated to give them manly beauty and noble forms." (108)
In this light, his naturalness is a result of Providence, a mythical analogue to Jefferson's yeoman. His very uncivilized nature, in bringing him in line with Jefferson's ideal, is what makes him a hero.
"Contemplated in any light, we shall find him in his way and walk, a man as truly great as Penn, Marion, and Franklin, in theirs. True, he was not learned in the lore of books, or trained in the etiquette of cities. But he possessed a knowledge far more important in the sphere which Providence called him to fill...Where nature in her own ineffaceable character has marked superiority, she looks down upon the tiny and elaborate acquirements of art..." (7)
Nature has chosen Boone for his mission, as we have seen in other representations. However, there is significant irony in the idea that nature has chosen Boone, the natural man, to be the harbinger of civilization in the wilderness. The conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century over what America should look like, influenced by concerns over the Industrial Revolution and perceived dissolution of Revolutionary ideals, produced a natural Boone as a hero from a simpler and more noble time.
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Last updated 11/10/95