By Tom Clavin
“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it). Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!
It is nice to report that Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier (written with Bob Drury) has gotten off to a good start since its publication on April 20 and it will debut on the New York Times bestseller list of May 9. With much of the attention in (strong) reviews being given to the book’s dramatic ingredients – especially violent ones! – I want to devote one more column to the book, this one highlighting the humor in it. Boone was a great explorer and hunter and fighter when he needed to be, but especially when it came to the foibles domestic life, he could be a funny man.
There is a yarn that still circulates regarding Boone’s return to the Yadkin Valley one spring. It is said that on the night he and his brother Squire arrived in the valley, a barn dance was taking place on the Bryan property. Boone, covered in the huntsman’s normal cuts and scratches in various stages of healing, his clothes torn and filthy, stood at the edge of the crowd awaiting greetings from his friends and neighbors. No one recognized him. Although beards were in fashion along the eastern seaboard, borderlanders were fairly meticulous about shaving, and nearly every long hunter carried a straight razon in his kit.
It suddenly struck Boone that he had neither cut his hair nor shaved during the final few months of his two-year sojourn, and his face had cultivated such a density of facial hair that it qualified as topiary. With an impish grin, he approached his wife and made a motion inviting her to dance. Repelled by the stranger’s coarse appearance, Rebecca backed away. Finally, though, she recognized the pitch and tenor of her husband’s guffaws as he doubled over in laughter. Soon the entire crowd, including the musicians, were gathered about Boone eager to hear his tales of Kentucky.
Between his scouting missions and the aborted Byrd campaign against the Cherokees, Boone had been absent from the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina for just over a year. What greeted him upon his return came to be passed down in family lore as “Boone’s Surprise” – on October 4, 1762 his wife Rebecca had given birth to a second daughter, whom she named Jemima. Given the timing, Boone could not possibly have fathered the child.
When Boone asked Rebecca about the girl’s paternity, his wife tearfully explained that she had thought Boone dead, and in her grief had relied upon his younger brother Edward, called Neddy, for comfort and solace. Neddy was unmarried, and though a studious sort more at home carrying a Bible or a farmer’s hoe than a rifle, he bore a striking physical and facial resemblance to Daniel. Frontier widows with small children, as Rebecca had fashioned herself, were left with few good choices to carry on. She told her husband that in time she had not been able to help herself from becoming romantically attached to Neddy.
As his grandchildren were to later tell the story, the imperturbable Boone listened to his wife’s tale and came to a swift decision – he had married a woman, not a painting of a saint. He confessed to Rebecca his own dalliances over the years with several Indian maidens, and pronounced Jemima’s birth, “So much the better, it’s all in the family.” It was a typical Boone moment – slow to anger, quick to understand, and anxious to see life’s ironies from another’s point of view. Moreover, it never affected his relationship with either his new “daughter” nor his younger brother.
As for the 15-year-old Suzy Boone, as she was called, she had only weeks earlier married one of the company’s Irish-born axmen named Will Hays. Depending on the contemporaneous source, Suzy Boone was either the first prostitute to make for the Bluegrass Region or a free-willed proto-feminist whose strength of body and mind mirrored that of the men breaking ground into uncharted and dangerous territory.
A slim woman of medium height and “pretty good looking” according to one of her father’s associates, Suzy had met her future husband when the Boone family had forted up with Hays during Lord Dunmore’s War.Before emigrating to the colonies, Hays had taken a modicum of schooling in his home country, and Suzy had initially fallen for the 20-year-old’s suave manner and aristocratic mien. She was further impressed by the way her father had come to rely upon Hays to assist him in penning what passed for his military after-action reports during his defense of the Clinch Valley.
Hays in fact did help improve Boone’s writing and, in particular, his skill at calculating expenses. But when he asked for Suzy’s hand in marriage, the father gently attempted to dissuade the suitor. His daughter, Boone suggested with a diplomat’s grace, might have difficulty harnessing her affections to one man.
Sure enough, one story the meticulous researcher Lyman Draper managed to uncover had a disconsolate Hays approaching Boone not long after the nuptials to complain about Suzy’s “frolicking” ways. Boone, no doubt recalling his own intemperate youth as well as his wife’s dalliance with his brother, responded with a shrug. “Didn’t I tell you?” he said, “Trot father, trot mother, how could you expect a pacing colt?”
Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including his latest collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” published this month by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.