Daniel Boone: Berks County’s Gift to the West
by The Historical Education Service
On November 2, 1734, in a little Berks County log cabin-which was built over a spring that still can be seen-there was born a boy whose career almost every American youngster would like to repeat in his own living. Daniel Boone became America’s foremost pioneer woodsman, pathfinder, and Indian fighter. He traveled on foot or horseback from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to Florida to Tennessee to Kentucky to Missouri and back and forth. But this Pennsylvania farm, situated off Route 422 near Baumstown, nine miles south of Reading, was the place Daniel never forgot.
Later in life Daniel returned to this farm, once with his wife and son Nathan, to show them his “home.” Here, until the age of 16, he was prepared for the life of an explorer, for he had all outdoors for his laboratory, and Nature and men (both white-and red-skinned) for his teachers. Here he attended the school of life from which Daniel was never graduated, but just “moved on” to new adventure and conquest.
This constant desire to move on, or, as he put it, “to find more elbow room,” was a family trait among the Boones. His father, Squire Boone, had this urge (Squire is a given name, not a title). And his grandfather, George Boone III, felt the same yearning to try new places long before Daniel’s birth, when he began thinking about coming to America. A weaver in Devonshire, England, George Boone III had heard about the Quaker colony which William Penn had established in America. There, it was said, people of all Christian religions-lived together in harmony, enjoying equal freedom and opportunity for all. Even the native Indians were considered human beings, treated with honesty and hospitality which had won their friendship to such an extent that the region where the Boones eventually settled was called Amity-a name which means friendship.
So George Boone III sent his three older children (in 1712) to America to investigate this incredible land of freedom and friendship. They were his oldest son, George Boone IV, his daughter Sarah, and Squire Boone (who later became Daniel’s father). After an eight week voyage across the Atlantic, they arrived in Philadelphia, but soon moved on to Abington (now asuburb of Philadelphia); and then to North Wales in Gwynned Township, where Welsh and English Quakers had settled. Perhaps the most enthusiastic of these youngsters about coming to America was Squire Boone. For Friend Sarah Morgan, a Welsh Quaker girl he had known and liked in Devonshire, had gone to Philadelphia with her family several years earlier. Squire soon found her and two years later they were married. With his bride he first moved to a farm in Bucks County. But finding this community too crowded for a Boone, he soon moved to what is now Berks County, where he bought land which adjoined the farm of his father, George Boone III, who, persuaded in the meantime by the glowing reports received from his children, had followed them to America.
In that early day Berks County was on the frontier, and the Blue Mountains, a few miles to the north, represented the wall between civilized America and Indian Territory. Though the white settlers of Amity lived in peace with the Indians, even letting their housedoors’ latchstrings out so Indians could come in and sleep beside the hearth at night, there were rumblings beyond the Blue Mountains of the conflicts known as the French and Indian Wars. Squire Boone built his first cabin over a never-failing spring, as precaution against Indian attack. Above the spring, and on the first floor he built the stone fireplace which became the “heart” of all later buildings, and still stands today.
At this hearth Daniel Boone probably studied the little he learned of reading, writing and arithmetic. Above the fireplace hangs a Conestoga (or “Pennsylvania”) Rifle, presented to the Homestead by Daniel Beard, another great scout and first National Commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America. The Pennsylvania Rifle was Daniel Boone’s chief instrument in opening up the West. It was the “secret weapon” of that day, for it possessed greater accuracy than the smooth bore British shotgun. The people of Kentucky later claimed this rifle, and called it the “Kentucky Rifle,” as they have also claimed Boone (!). It has been proven, however, that the Pennsylvania Rifle was first made by our Pennsylvania German (or “Dutch”) craftsmen, and was first manufactured in the water-power mills along the Wyomissing Creek in Berks and the Conestoga in Lancaster County. This rifle was as helpful to General Washington in the Revolution as it had been to Daniel Boone in exploring Kentucky.
As Squire Boone’s family and fortune grew, he enlarged the first log cabin and built outbuildings. His weaving business expanded until there were five looms in his home. As he prospered he built a blacksmith shop, where Daniel learned to shoe horses and repair harness and wagons-such as the Conestoga Wagon, which was then the principal means of freight transportation. This practical, blacksmithing skill aided Daniel in his first job, when (in 1755) he accompanied the Braddock Expedition as blacksmith and wagoner, and learned his first lesson on “How Not To Fight Indians.” General Braddock, fresh from Europe, insisted on fighting in formation, rushed about the battlefield reproaching the Colonial troops for “stooping” to fight from cover as the Indians did, until he met humiliating defeat at the hands of an inferior force of French and Indians. The knowledge of how to repair rifles and wagons was invaluable to Daniel on his later expeditions.
The present stone Boone Homestead, it is generally accepted, was built by a later owner, but it encloses the spring and the original hearth (which was “turned around” by creating an opening on the opposite side). The floor boards of “random” width (meaning uneven width, as they came from the primeval forest) are the very same on which Daniel Boone sat, cleaning his first rifle.
The rest of the Boone Homestead, including the barn, blacksmith shop, and log cabin, has been interestingly furnished with the household utensils, furniture, looms, blacksmithing tools-all of the type used when Daniel Boone was young. Indian scouts and woodsmen traveled light, so they did not gather collector’s items for posterity. But if Daniel Boone were to revisit his birthplace today, he would revisit the spring, the open hearth, and the broad floor boards.
Of indoor schooling, “booklarning,” Daniel had very little. Whether he ever attended a school is still disputed. And scores of letters and documents and reports he wrote show that he never mastered spelling. An inscription he carved on a tree in Tennessee “D. Boon cilled A. Bar on tree in the year 1760,” shows the experimental nature of his spelling. Another, (also in Tennessee), “D. Boon killa bar on this tree 1773,” shows little improvement in thirteen years. But the interesting point about these inscriptions is the woodcraft knowledge displayed by Boone. He usually carved his inscriptions on beech trees, which grow so slowly that the expansion of the bark does not distort the lettering for many years. The 1760 inscription was still clear enough to be photographed a hundred years later.
Daniel Boone’s grandfather, however, is known to have been well educated in England, and his grand-uncle was a teacher. So it may be assumed that Daniel’s relatives taught him, for when his teacher-uncle despaired of Daniel’s spelling, Squire Boone smiled and said, “Let the girls (10 the spelling, Daniel will do the shooting.” And the fact that Daniel spent much of his time in surveying, after the settlement of Boonesboro, Kentucky, shows that he did master mathematics.
For training in self-reliance and resourcefulness, Daniel Boone found in Berks County one of the best early schools in America. As John Mason Brown indicates in Daniel Boone: The Opening of the Wilderness:
A woodsman, a real woodsman of Daniel’s kind, is more than a man who is happiest in the woods and has learned every lesson they have to teach him. A true woodsman has no fear of the sounds heard in woods by night or the wild animals stumbled upon by day. Even the thought of being absolutely alone in them does not frighten him. If he really knows the woods, the woodsman knows that their silence will talk to him.
To gain this feeling of being safe in the wilderness, one must learn as a child to be safe among men. Berks County was then the ideal place to teach this to Daniel. For it was then a meeting place of many kinds of people who were learning to live cooperatively together in peace. Each national group brought gifts, and Daniel profited from all of them. The Pennsylvania Germans developed the Pennsylvania rifle and Conestoga wagon (mentioned earlier), and were so expert in farming that many of the English and Welsh turned from farming to hunting, trapping, mining and to the trades they had brought with them. The English contributed the language, law, government, surveying, weaving. This exchange of talents and skills was going on in many parts of Colonial America, but Berks County was one of the few places in which this friendly interchange included the Indians. It was this happy situation, this miniature “united nations,” that educated and prepared Daniel Boone to become the Great Pathfinder.
From these friendly savages the future Indian fighter was learning not only their woodcraft and the language of the Delawares, but also the red men’s habits, character, and way of thinking and feeling. Thus he gained that astonishing ability to “think Indian which in later life enabled him, when trailing Indians, to know exactly what they would do next. John Bakeless, in Master of the Wilderness: Daniel Boone, says, “Many documents from his Kentucky years show Daniel Boone assuring his companions that the Indians would do thus-and-so-as they invariably did !”
Many years later, when Daniel and his companion hunters were captured by a band of Indians, he observed that among them were braves he knew. Instead of being gloomy and fearful of scalping or torture, Daniel pretended to be delighted to meet his Indian friends again. He acted his part so well that some of his white comrades suspected him of treason. But he convinced the Indians so completely that he was adopted by the chief as his son. Daniel’s head was shaven to a forelock and he dressed and lived as an Indian. But eventually he seized the first opportunity to escape, and rescuing his friends, proved his loyalty.
While still a youth, when his family had moved to the Yadkin Valley (in N. Carolina), Daniel had an unhappy but illuminating experience with a red man. In contest after contest he outshot an ambitious brave who finally became so enraged by these defeats that he announced he was going to kill Daniel. The brave disappeared when he heard that Daniel’s father, forgetting his peaceful Quaker ways, had gone out, hatchet in hand, to get the man who was threatening his son. This experience taught Daniel to keep the Indians’ friendship by pretending he could not shoot as well as they could. He was already beginning to “think Indian.”
Daniel received his “high school” education in woodcraft and hunting on a plot of ground a few miles from the Boone homestead, which his father bought for grazing cattle. Since only enough of the pioneer farms was cleared of primeval forest to raise necessary crops for feeding the family and farm stock, many of the farmers sent their cattle in summer to fatten on distant bottom land. Until he was sixteen, Daniel and his mother took the family herd to these distant pastures. The two of them lived in a rough log cabin there, while Squire Boone stayed home, tending to his weaving, blacksmithing and farm.
Daniel was only ten years old when he made this first expedition. He created his own weapons, first a stick of wood with a cluster of heavy roots at the bottom, later a “javelin” he sharpened from a long staff. With these he “learned the hard way” to kill small game, and developed accuracy of eye and aim. At twelve or thirteen he received his first cherished rifle. His duties, driving the cattle out in the morning and rounding them into a gathered herd in the evening, left him plenty of time to hunt. But Daniel did not kill merely for the fun of it. He killed in order to live. The small game he brought in were needed for food, the deer for food and clothing, and the better skins sold for good prices in Philadelphia.
The fact that his father would trust this huge responsibility to Daniel proves not only that Amity was unusually peaceful and safe, but also that Squire Boone was a good teacher and had confidence in his son. This chance “to go it on his own” and to prove his dependability and manhood prepared Daniel Boone for the trials when he lived for periods of a year or two entirely alone in the wilderness of the Indian Territory.
In 1750, when Daniel was 16, Squire Boone moved with his family to the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina. Just why Daniel’s father moved is not clear. After prospering in business and rising to the position of “overseer” in the Quaker church, there were some difficulties with fellow church members over the marriages of a daughter and later a son outside the denomination. A stronger reason for his leaving, however, was that Amity had grown from a wilderness beginning into a “crowded” community and farmland without rotation of crops (known then only to the Pennsylvania Dutch) was becoming exhausted. By 1750 many Quaker and “Dutch” friends of Squire Boone had taken the trail through the Shenandoah Valley toward the southwest, where land was available for the taking.
In the Yadkin Valley, Daniel Boone met hostile Indians for the first time. Nearby lived the friendly Catawbas, but beyond were the Cherokees, who became Daniel’s problem for the coming years. In 1755, Daniel accompanied the Braddock Expedition against Fort Duquesne, not as a soldier but as driver of a Conestoga wagon, and he learned from this disastrous defeat how not to fight Indians.
The youth who had left returned a man. Soon afterward he married Rebecca Bryan, a neighbor’s daughter, “with jet black eyes and hair” and the sturdiness of character that life on the frontier demanded.
Wives then had little time to rest, for they had to cook food, make clothing, mold candles and bullets, tend the garden and live stock, churn butter, raise families and nurse illnesses, while waiting for their famous scout husbands to return home. Then they had to accompany their husbands with their families into the wilderness, continue all the home duties with improvised equipment, and be ready with rifle to join in fighting Indians. Rebecca Bryan Boone-who was “home manager” while Daniel was “advance agent”-might claim equal rights to the fame that Daniel won. And Daniel would probably have been the first to grant them to her!
Proud of their victory over the Braddock Expedition, the Indians invaded the border settlements, including the Yadkin Valley. And to save their family, Rebecca and Daniel Boone fled to Virginia for two years. By then the Cherokees had been defeated. They made peace, and with its coming, Daniel and Rebecca moved back to the Yadkin and bought a large farm there.
But Daniel was a hunter, not a farmer. During the next few years he roamed. He went as far south as Florida, bought a house and property in Pensacola, hoping his family would join him there. But for once in her life, patient Rebecca said, “No !” She could not imagine Daniel in a country without the game he was accustomed to shooting.
Boone returned and then made several hunting trips into Tennessee and Kentucky. But the turning point in his life came when John Finley, whom he had met on the way to Fort Duquesne, drove up to his door as a peddler. John Finley told him about the “secret door” through the mountains into Kentucky, later known as the “Warrior’s Path,” and set him dreaming about the rich hunting grounds beyond the mountains.
Daniel could hardly wait to find this secret and poorly marked Indian trail through the Cumberland Gap to a land where, Finley said, there were wild turkeys in abundance, the passenger pigeons “darkened the sun” at migrating seasons, and buffalo herds were so large that the hunter had to be wary not to be killed in a stampede. On May 1, 1769, Daniel set off with five companions, his brother Squire, brother-in-law John Stuart, and neighbors. They moved slowly, encumbered with pack horses and equipment for a long stay, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, found the Cumberland Gap, and came across the Warrior’s Path which was so skillfully marked that the scout had to “think Indian” to find it.
In seven months’ hunting, they accumulated a valuable store of skins, but found they had placed their main camp too near the Warrior’s Path and had been discovered. They were captured, the fruit of seven months’ hunting taken from them, and when the Shawnee chief released them he warned, “Go home and stay, or the wasps and the yellow jackets will sting you to death.” In an attempt to retrieve some horses Daniel was captured again, but putting on his act of pretending to be happy with Indian friends, he won the confidence of his captors so they relaxed their guard and he escaped with his companions. These men had had enough of Kentucky and returned empty-handed to their homes. But dauntless Daniel decided to stay on, his only companion for a year in the wilderness being “Tick-Licker,” his favorite long rifle. Daniel accumulated another huge supply of pelts. His brother Squire arrived with packhorses and supplies. But again when they had almost reached the Yadkin, a band of northern Indians captured and robbed them, so Daniel returned home with nothing but the knowledge he had gained in almost two years in the wilderness.
The “Great Pathfinder,” nevertheless, always accepted today’s defeat as “home work” to be studied for victory tomorrow.
Daniel spent the next two years restoring the fortunes of his family and preparing for his next expedition. He found the Yadkin was not what it had been before. Heavy taxes were imposed and dishonestly collected. Angry colonists were organized as “The Regulators” to resist the law. These early uprisings foreshadowed the Revolution which was soon to come.
Then Daniel made the big decision-to take his family with him into the wilderness-and Rebecca was willing. Now as obstacles he had not only “the (Indian) wasps and the yellow jackets” but the prohibition of King George III forbidding his “loving subjects” to settle beyond the Appalachian Mountains. On September 25, 1773, Daniel set out with his own and five other families and the brothers of Rebecca, who preferred to leave their families at home until a settlement had been started.
On the first family expedition, he encountered trials and reverses through which only the indomitable Daniel could go, and then ask for more. His son James, sent back for supplies, was captured and tortured to death. Lord Dinsmore’s War with the Indians had broken out and the Boone family had to retreat to Clinch Valley. Then Captain Daniel Boone served in the militia through this war.
On the next expedition Boone went as leader of thirty men all employed by Richard Henderson in a land development project. They reached their destination on April 6,1775. It was the Big Lick just below the mouth of Otter Creek on the Kentucky River. And Daniel achieved the ambition of his young life in founding Boonesboro, Kentucky.
But founding was much easier than keeping. The Revolutionary War was only a year away. Boonesboro had to be defended through it. Daniel spent several years in Indian captivity. And after the war there were the years of surveying and dividing the land. Honest Daniel, who could kill bears and buffaloes and face savage Indians in war paint, was no match for the politician and lawyer of his day. Several times he thought he owned vast tracts of land, but found he had lost them through a trick in the law. So Daniel kept moving on and on, finally to Missouri, where he died in 1820 at the age of 86-a remarkably old age for that time.
He never found the place of peace that he had left in Berks County. Yet he opened up the vast opportunities of the Mid-West for the millions of Americans who live there in security today.
If Daniel Boone were to revisit Berks County today, what do you think he would do? He would probably visit the remembered spring and the hearth in his old home, take down the Pennsylvania Rifle and see if it was exactly like “Tick-Licker,” and walk to the distant pastureland where his mother and he took the herd for summer grazing and he first learned “to go it alone.” And surely he would be pleased to discover that his home had been made a state historic shrine, that the Amity area that had taught him and made him the Great Pathfinder was now called the Daniel Boone Public School Jointure, and that youngsters interested in woodcraft and the out-of-doors are organized as the Daniel Boone Council of Boy Scouts.
As in Maeterlinck’s story, The Blue Bird, Daniel Boone might discover that the happiness he was always seeking and never found, was really here at home in Berks County where many different people learned early to live together in freedom and friendship.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1959-1960 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County
The Daniel Boone Homestead is located in eastern Berks County Pennsylvania.
Daniel Boone Homestead
400 Daniel Boone Rd.
Birdsboro PA 19508