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An old book sheds new light

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

"It's a book that never was," says Ted Franklin Belue of The Life of Daniel Boone. Its author, Lyman C. Draper, spent much of his adult life researching a biography of the famed frontiersman, but he never managed to publish it. Thanks to seven years of painstaking transcription by Belue, Draper's magnum opus has at last appeared in print -- one hundred forty- four years late.

When Draper died in 1891, the massive manuscript lay on a shelf at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin with the rest of his voluminous papers. But it was not forgotten. "It is the Daniel Boone motherlode," says Belue. "It is packed with information, not only about Boone, but about the woodland Indians, arms and accoutrements of the day, and native American flora and fauna. "Researchers seeking contemporaneous information on Boone and the opening of the American West have pored over its pages, or since 1949, puzzled out Draper's handwriting on microfilm.

Belue was among those researchers when he decided in 1990 to change the situation. "I had a two-fold vision for the Draper manuscript: to make it accessible, and to make it palatable to a modern day audience without hurting the integrity of the text." Belue's vision translated into a seven-year task. "It's a staggering text," he explains, "and on each page Draper crammed in his footnotes. I transcribed every one, probably several thousand, numbered them sequentially, and put them at the end of each chapter." Draper's attention to the minutiae of his story adds considerably to its bulk. In the printed version, Chapter One runs to fourteen pages; Draper's notes add another seven. In a typical instance, a fifty-one-word journal entry rates a three-hundred-ten-word explanation.

Belue himself is not averse to notation, though he does not begin to compete with Draper for space. He explains the archaic terms, the biblical references, the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. He politely corrects Draper's inaccuracies. Occasionally, he even pokes a pin in Draper's balloon of puffy prose. Here is Draper's first introduction of Boone on page 101, after seventy pages of background:

In May 1869, a little over eighty years ago -- Daniel Boone, an obscure individual on the western confines of Carolina, started with an intrepid band of kindred spirits "to wander through the wilderness of America, in quest of the country of Kentucke." This, in his own expressive language, was the object he had in view, and here commenced his great mission of western exploration and adventure.

Boone's "own expressive language" refers to book published in 1784 as a Boone autobiography by a Philadelphia schoolteacher, John Filson. Belue points out the inconsistency of an unschooled frontiersman using such "expressive language," but notes that among the earliest adherents to the Boone myth was Boone himself.

To aver that Boone wrote his Narrative "in his own expressive language" or to imply that his biographer and amanuensis John Filson copied his words verbatim is a bit much . . . Boone, although literate, was far from lettered enough to wax eloquently about great cities of antiquity like Persepolis and Palmyra as he does in Filson's Kentucke. But Boone delighted in having his "autobiography" read to him. "All true. Every word true!" he would say. "Not a lie in it!"

Draper's book goes a long way toward debunking the myth. Belue reminds us that Boone "was not, as is often believed, the first white man to cross the Blue Ridge into Kentucky. He did not wear a coonskin cap. Nor did he resemble television's depiction of him as 'a big man' -- the 'rippin'est, roarin'est, fightin'est man the frontier ever knew!'" He was an honest, hard-working woodsman of Quaker stock who served his young country in many capacities, including as military commander and judge.

The hostility of both the Native Americans and native wildlife made the frontier a tough place to live; it was neither easy nor safe. Boone was captured by local tribes on several occasions, and was forcibly 'adopted' by a Shawnee chief for four and half months. Draper tells this tale with some relish, describing how the Indians hid behind a fallen tree and how Boone considered and then rejected his usual methods of defense and escape. "This was all the work of a moment, and as the Indians were now close upon him, he had no alternative but tamely to surrender without making a further effort or betake himself to his heels. Though now in his forty-fourth year and less active than formerly, he did not hesitate. An animated chase commenced. . . ."

Draper's biography ends in 1778, halfway through Boone's life. Over the next forty-two years, Boone hunted, skirmished with the Indians and British, and served as a judge in Missouri and an assemblyman in Virginia. He lost money on land speculation and moved houses several times. At the age of seventy-eight, he even tried to volunteer in the War of 1812. Nor did his fame diminish -- a plagiarized version of Filson's biography was translated into French and German in 1786, and Filson's book remains in print in the United States, one hundred fourteen years after its first publication.

As a professor at Murray State University and a speaker for the Kentucky Humanities Council, Belue continues to tell the tale of Boone and the Kentucky frontier. On January 22 he will be at the Stratton Center in Shelbyville, on February 2, he will speak at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville, and on Feburary 26, he will visit the McNabb Middle School in Mt. Sterling. Belue's edition of Draper's The Life of Daniel Boone is published by Stackpole Books.