THE SONS OF LEATHERSTOCKING
The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
Is he some Southwesterner rais'd out-doors? is he
Behavior lawless as snow-flakes, words simple as grass,
---WALT WHITMAN, Song of Myself
Daniel Boone: Empire Builder or Philosopher of Primitivism?
During the summer of 1842, following his sophomore year at Harvard, Francis Parkman made a trip through northern New York and New England. After spending several days admiring the scenery along the shores of Lake George, he noted in his journal: "There would be no finer place of gentlemen's seats than this, but now, for the most part, it is occupied by a race of boors about as uncouth, mean, and stupid as the hogs they seem chiefly to delight in." 1 The tone is even blunter than that of Timothy Dwight's famous description of backwoodsmen in this area a generation earlier, but it embodies a comparable aristocratic disdain. Observers from Eastern cities made similar comments about uncultivated farmers along every American frontier. The class bias underlying the judgment was one of the dominant forces shaping nineteenth-century attitudes toward the West.
When Parkman got away from farms and hogs, out into the forest, his tone changed completely. He wrote, for example, that a woodsman named James Abbot, although coarse and self-willed, was "a remarkably intelligent fellow; has astonishing information for one of his condition; is resolute and independent as the wind." 2 The young Brahmin's delight in men of the wilderness comes out even more forcibly in the journal of his Far Western trip four years later. The Oregon Trail presents the guide Henry Chatillon, a French-Canadian squaw man, as a hero of romance--handsome, brave, true, skilled in the ways of the plains and mountains, and even possessed of "a natural refinement and delicacy of mind, such as is rare even in women." 3
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Parkman's antithetical attitudes toward backwoods farmers and the hunters and trappers of the wilderness illustrate the fact that for Americans of that period there were two quite distinct Wests: the commonplace domesticated area within the agricultural frontier, and the Wild West beyond it. The agricultural West was tedious; its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure and comradeship in the open air. Its heroes bore none of the marks of degraded status. They were in reality not members of society at all) but noble anarchs owing no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.
Parkman's love of the Wild West implied a paradoxical rejection of organized society. He himself was the product of a complex social order formed by two centuries of history, and his way of life was made possible by the fortune which his grandfather had built up as one of the great merchants of Boston. But a young gentleman of leisure could afford better than anyone else to indulge himself in the slightly decadent cult of wildness and savagery which the early nineteenth century took over from Byron. Historians call the mood "primitivism." Parkman had a severe case. In later life he said that from his early youth "His thoughts were always in the forest, whose features possessed his waking and sleeping dreams, filling him with vague cravings impossible to satisfy." 4 And in a preface to The Oregon Trail written more than twenty years after the first publication of the book he bewailed the advance of hum-drum civilization over the wide empty plains of Colorado since the stirring days of 1846.5
Such a mood of refined hostility to progress affected a surprising number of Parkman's contemporaries. Nevertheless, it could hardly strike very deep in a society committed to an expansive manifest destiny. A romantic love of the vanishing Wild West could be no more than a self-indulgent affectation beside the triumphant official cult of progress, which meant the conquest of the wilderness by farms and towns and cities. If there was a delicious melancholy for sophisticated and literary people in regretting the destruction of the primitive freedom of an untouched continent, the westward movement seemed to less imaginative observers a glorious victory of civilization over savagery and barbarism. For
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such people-and they were the vast majority-the Western hunter and guide was praiseworthy not because of his intrinsic wildness or half-savage glamour, but because he blazed trails that hard- working farmers could follow.
One of the most striking evidences of the currency of these two conflicting attitudes toward the westward movement is the popular image of Daniel Boone. The official view was set forth in a greatly admired piece of allegorical sculpture by Horatio Greenough in the National Capitol, which depicted the contest between civilization and barbarism as a fierce hand-to-hand struggle between Boone and an Indian warrior.6 George C. Bingham's painting "The Emigration of Daniel Boone" (1851) showed the celebrated Kentuckian leading a party of settlers with their wives and children and livestock out into a dreamily beautiful wilderness which they obviously meant to bring under the plow.7
These empire-building functions were amply documented by the facts of history. Boone had supervised the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals which extinguished the Indian claim to much of Kentucky, he had blazed the Wilderness Trail through the forest, and after leading the first settlers to Boonesborough in 1775, he had stoutly defended this outpost of civilization against the Indians during the troubled period of the Revolution.8 His functions as founder of the commonwealth of Kentucky had been celebrated as early as 1784 by John Filson, first architect of the Boone legend, in The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Filson represents Boone as delighting in the thought that Kentucky will soon be one of the most opulent and powerful states on the continent, and finding in the love and gratitude of his countrymen a sufficient reward for all his toil and sufferings.9 The grandiose epic entitled The Adventures of Daniel Boone, published in 1813 by Daniel Bryan, nephew of the hero, is even more emphatic concerning his devotion to social progress. Complete with Miltonic councils in Heaven and Hell, the epic relates how Boone was chosen by the angelic Spirit of Enterprise to bring Civilization to the trans- Allegheny wilderness. l0 When he is informed of his divine election for this task, Boone's kindling fancy beholds Refinement's golden file smoothing the heathen encrustations from the savage mind, while Commerce, Wealth, and all the brilliant Arts spread over
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the land. 1l He informs his wife in a Homeric leave-taking that the sovereign law of Heaven requires him to tread the adventurous stage of grand emprise, scattering knowledge through the heathen wilds, and mending the state of Universal Man.l2 Faithful to his mission even in captivity among the Indians, he lectures the chief Montour on the history of the human race, concluding with reflections on
By the side of Boone the empire builder and philanthropist, the anonymous popular mind had meanwhile created an entirely different hero, a fugitive from civilization who could not endure the encroachment of settlements upon his beloved wilderness. A dispatch from Fort Osage in the Indian territory reprinted in Niles' Register in 1816, described an interview with Boone and added: "This singular man could not live in Kentucky when it became settled.... he might have accumulated riches as readily as any man in Kentucky, but he prefers the woods, where you see him in the dress of the roughest, poorest hunter." 14 Boone's flight westward before the advance of the agricultural frontier-actually dictated by a series of failures in his efforts to get and hold land-became a theme of newspaper jokes. The impulse that produced Western tall tales transformed him into the type of all frontiersmen who required unlimited elbow room. "As civilization advanced," wrote a reporter in the New York American in 1823, "so he, from time to time, retreated"- from Kentucky to Tennessee, from Tennessee to Missouri. But Missouri itself was filling up: Boone was said to have complained, "I had not been two years at the licks before a d--d Yankee came, and settled down within an hundred miles of me !!" He would soon be driven on out to the Rocky Mountains and would be crowded there in eight or ten years.15 Edwin James, chronicler of the Stephen H. Long expedition, visiting Fort Osage in 1819, heard that Boone felt it was time to move again when he could no longer fell a tree for fuel so that its top would lie within a few yards of the door of his cabin. This remark set James, a native of Vermont, to thinking about the
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irrational behavior of frontiersmen. He had observed that most inhabitants of new states and territories had "a manifest propensity, particularly in the males, to remove westward, for which it is not easy to account." There was an apparently irresistible charm for the true Westerner in a mode of life "wherein the artificial wants and the uneasy restraints inseparable from a crowded population are not known, wherein we feel ourselves dependent immediately and solely on the bounty of nature, and the strength of our own arm...." 16 The Long party came upon a man more than sixty years old living near the farthest settlement up the Missouri who questioned them minutely about the still unoccupied Platte Valley. "We discovered," noted James with astonishment, "that he had the most serious intention of removing with his family to that river." 17
Seizing upon hints of Boone's flight before the advance of civilization, Byron paused in his description of the siege of Ismail in the eighth canto of Don Juan to insert an extended tribute to him. Although Byron's Boone shrank from men of his own nation when they built up unto his darling trees, he was happy, innocent, and benevolent; simple, not savage; and even in old age still a child of nature, whose virtues shamed the corruptions of civilization. Americans quoted these stanzas eagerly.l8
Which was the real Boone-the standard-bearer of civilization and refinement, or the child of nature who fled into the wilderness before the advance of settlement? An anonymous kinsman of Boone wrestled with the problem in a biographical sketch published a few years after the famous hunter's death in 1820. It would be natural to suppose, he wrote, that the Colonel took great pleasure in the magnificent growth of the commonwealth he had founded in the wilderness. But such was not the case. Passionately fond of hunting, "like the unrefined Savage," Boone saw only that incoming settlers frightened away all the game and spoiled the sport. He would "certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of Civilization, if he were obliged to be confined to one or the other." 19
Timothy Flint's biography, perhaps the most widely read book about a Western character published during the first half of the nineteenth century, embodies the prevalent confusion of attitudes.
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Flint says that Boone delighted in the thought that "the rich and boundless valleys of the great west-the garden of the earth- and the paradise of hunters, had been won from the dominion of the savage tribes, and opened as an asylum for the oppressed, the enterprising, and the free of every land." The explorer of Kentucky
had caught some glimmerings of the future, and saw with the prophetic eye of a patriot, that this great valley must soon become the abode of millions of freemen; and his heart swelled with joy, and warmed with a transport which was natural to a mind so unsophisticated and disinterested as his.20
Yet we learn only a few pages later that he was driven out of Kentucky by "the restless spirit of immigration and of civil and physical improvement." 21 Even in Missouri, "the tide of emigration once more swept by the dwelling of Daniel Boone, driving off the game and monopolizing the rich hunting grounds." In despair,
he saw that it was in vain to contend with fate, that go where he should, American enterprise seemed doomed to follow him, and to thwart all his schemes of backwoods retirement. He found himself once more surrounded(led by the rapid march of improvement, and he accommodated himself, as well as he might to a state of things which he could not prevent.22
On yet other occasions Flint credits Boone with a sophisticated cult of pastoral simplicity greatly resembling his own, which he had imitated from Chateaubriand. When the frontiersman seeks to induce settlers to go with him into the new land, he is represented as promising them that the original pioneers, in their old age, will be surrounded by
consideration, and care, and tenderness from children, whose breasts were not steeled by ambition, nor hardened by avarice, in whom the beautiful influences of the indulgence of none but natural desires and pure affections would not be deadened by the selfishness, vanity, and fear of ridicule, that are the harvest of what is called civilized and cultivated life. 23
The debate over Boone's character and motives lasted into the next decade. The noted Western Baptist minister and gazetteer John M. Peck, prepared a life of Boone for Jared Sparks's Library of American Biography in 1847 which repeatedly attacked the
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current conception of the hero as a fugitive from civilization. Peck says that Boone left North Carolina for the Kentucky wilderness because of the effeminacy and profligacy of wealthy slave owners who scorned the industrious husband man working his own fields. But by the time the biographer interviewed the aged hero ill Missouri in 1818, Boone had become aware of an imposing historical mission. Although he had not consciously aimed to lay the foundations of a state or nation, he believed that he had been "a creature of Providence, ordained by Heaven as a pioneer in the wilderness, to advance the civilization and the extension of his country." 24
James H. Perkins of Cincinnati, writing in 1846 in the North American Review, was equally interested in the problem of Boone's motives, but inclined to a more modest interpretation. Boone, he said, was a white Indian. Although he and his companions were not at all like the boasting, swearing, drinking, gouging Mike Finks of the later West, they were led into the wilderness not by the hope of gain, nor by a desire to escape the evils of older communities, nor yet by dreams of founding a new commonwealth, but simply by "a love of nature, of perfect freedom, and of the adventurous life in the woods." Boone "would have pined and died as a nabob in the midst of civilization. He wanted a frontier, and the perils and pleasures of a frontier life, not wealth; and he was happier in his log- cabin, with a loin of venison and his ramrod for a spit, than he would have been amid the greatest profusion of modern luxuries." 25
If one detects a patronizing note in this account, it goes along with a greater respect for the simple, hearty virtues that are left to the frontiersman. Such a view seems to have become general in the 1840's. William H. Emory of the Army of the West which invaded New Mexico in 1846 invoked the figure of the Kentuckian to convey his impression of an American settler in the Mora Valley northeast of Santa Fe: "He is a perfect specimen of a generous open-hearted adventurer, and in appearance what, I have pictured to myself, Daniel Boone, of Kentucky, must have been in his day."26
Yet the issue long remained unsettled. As a character in fiction Boone could still be made the spokesman of a stilted primitivism. Glenn, the young Eastern hero of John B. Jones's shoddy Wild
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Western Scenes, published in 1849, is traveling in the vicinity of Boone's last home in Missouri, and there encounters the venerable pioneer. The highly implausible conversation between the two men indicates to what unhistorical uses the symbol of Boone could be put. The Westerner asks Glenn whether he has become disgusted with the society of men. Glenn, who happens to be just such a rhetorical misanthrope as the question implies, welcomes the opportunity to set forth his views:
I had heard [he declares] that you were happy in the solitude of the mountain-shaded valley, or on the interminable prairies that greet the horizon in the distance, where neither the derision of the proud, the malice of the envious, nor the deceptions of pretended love and friendship, could disturb your peaceful meditation, and from amid the wreck of certain hopes, which I once thought no circumstances could destroy [it is a matter of disappointment in love], I rose with a determined vow to seek such a wilderness, where I would pass a certain number of my days engaging in the pursuits that might be most congenial to my disposition. Already I imagine I experience the happy effects of my resolution. Here the whispers of vituperating foes cannot injure, nor the smiles of those fondly cherished deceive.
Boone clasps the young coxcomb's hand in enthusiastic agreement.27 If Daniel Bryan's epic represents the limit of possible absurdity in making Boone the harbinger of civilization and refinement, this may stand as the opposite limit of absurdity in making him a cultural primitivist. The image of the Wild Western hero could serve either purpose.