Chapter 5

Daniel Boone: Empire Builder or Philosopher of Primitivism?

Eastern observers such as the young Brahmin Francis Parkman demonstrated aristocratic disdain towards uncultivated frontier farmers but expressed great enthusiasm for "men of the wilderness," the hunters and trappers. Parkman's 1840s travel journals reveal that there were two quite distinct "Wests": the domesticated agricultural frontier and the uncivilized wilderness. Parkman found the agricultural West tedious but thrilled to the open air adventure of the Wild West, a paradoxical rejection of organized society whose impulse might be located in the Byronic cult of savagery and self-indulgent affectation popular in cultivated men of the early nineteenth century. Most observers of the West viewed the Western hunter not as a half-savage hero but as a useful trailblazer for industrious farmers to follow in their efforts to bring the land under the plow.

The most interesting of the Western 'pathfinders' is Daniel Boone, who had led settlers to Boonesborough in 1775 and defended this outpost against Indians during the Revolution. Subsequent portrayals of Boone alternated between an empire-building guide, leading families into the Kentucky wilderness, and a child of nature fleeing the wilderness to escape the encroachment of settlements. Byron portrays Boone as a "noble savage" much more virtuous than the corruptions of society, while Horace Greenough, in his statue in the U. S. Capitol of Boone struggling with an Indian, dramatizes a conflict between civilization and savagery. Timothy Flint's biography struggles to distinguish between these two versions of the man. Boone is said to be driven by "the restless spirit of immigration" and yet also takes delight in conquering Indians and opening up lands for settlers. As a Wild West hero, Boone is made the spokesperson of civilization and refinement as often as he is made a half-savage primitivist, a "white Indian."

Chapter 6