recess radio program

11/01/05
Daniel Boone
    by John Cech

It's the birthday tomorrow of one of the major, mythological presences of American culture, Daniel Boone -- pioneer, woodsman, hunter, colonizer. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1734, and in a life that spanned 86 years -- a remarkable feat in itself for that time -- he became the symbol of America's westward expansion, of its self-reliant, rugged individualism that opted out of gritty, urban life and fenced-in farms in favor of an unspoiled Kentucky. It's said that more biographies have been written about Daniel Boone than there have been about George Washington. And perhaps that's not surprising. As a culture, we're more in sympathy with Daniel Boone's yearning for solitude in nature, which is what he kept moving himself and his family west for, that and making a killing on land speculation in Kentucky -- than we are with the weights and responsibilities of being a Founding Father.

Boone's adventures were the stuff of Dime Novels and provided the models for more serious literary fare, like James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Even a president to be, Theodore Roosevelt, in his The Winning of the West, would devote considerable time to Boone, whom he saw as a representative of something noble and positive, "the ceaseless strivings to penetrate deeper than his neighbors into the remote forest hunting grounds, where the perilous pleasures of the chase and of war could be best enjoyed." It's not clear that Boone enjoyed warfare, though he saw plenty of it in his life. But he did like to ramble, going on his famous "long hunts" that often took years when you figured in the months of captivity among the Shawnee, who were, in fact, already living quite happily in the wilderness that Boone sought to claim for himself and the other settlers he led through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky in the 1770s.

Something of Boone's spirit lives on, of course, and not just among the fans of the still-popular 1960s Daniel Boone TV show which starred Fess Parker and is usually in reruns somewhere. But we all know someone, or are that person who likes to get lost in the woods and then find his way out. Perhaps that's why men don't ask for directions. It's that Boone impulse which has been subtly incorporated into the American boy culture since Daniel Carter Beard founded The Society of the Sons of Daniel Boone, an organization for boys, in 1905. The Sons would be absorbed in 1910 into the Boy Scouts, who still use the salute of the Shawnee that Boone would have learned when he was inducted into the tribe, renamed Big Turtle, and adopted by Chief Black Fish. We can only imagine the legend we might be telling today if Boone had settled down, then and there.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."