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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Border Series - Daniel Boone as a Virginian

By Walter H. Hendricks © 1990

Issue: April, 1990

The Border Series is a continuing series of articles about the Blue Ridge during the time period prior to and during the Revolutionary War, when Southwest Virginia was the border of our new nation.

Editor's Note... The following is an excerpt from an article which was published by the Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia (with an accompanying article by Dr. Jack Garland, "An Economic Survey of Southwest Virginia During the Ante-Bellum Period") and may be ordered for $3.00 (Series II, Number 24, 1987). The address is PO Box 484, Abingdon, Virginia 24210. This article also includes information on the marked Daniel Boone Trail through southwest Virginia. If you are traveling in this area, watch for the road markers.

During his lifetime Daniel Boone resided in seven of the present United States. For some 28 years he was a resident of the Virginia of his time. Four and a quarter of those years were within the bounds of the present Commonwealth. He was born November 2, 1734, in Oley Township in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. He died in Missouri on September 26, 1820, about a month before his eighty sixth birthday.

Boone was a significant participant in epochal stages of Virginia's history such as the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution, early settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the continuing cruel Indian depredations.

Boone served with Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry in Virginia's General Assembly, having been elected in 1780 as a Delegate from Virginia's Fayette County in present Kentucky. Later he again served, that time as a Delegate from Kanawha County in present West Virginia, after having been commander of Kanawha militia. Still later, with kinfolk and friends he moved in 1799 to the Spanish territory of Missouri. There, in 1800, he was appointed Syndic ("governing officer") of the vast portion of that territory north and west of the Missouri River known as the Femme Osage district. As Syndic he was "commandant, sheriff, judge and jury." He served until 1804, after the Louisiana Purchase by the United States.

In one of the crucial periods, from September of 1773 until June of 1775, Boone, with his nine member family, had their home at Castle's Woods which is today's Castlewood in Russell County, Virginia. In that period, as a participant in Dunmore's War, he was a Captain of Virginia Militia commanding forts along the Clinch River. The high point of Dunmore's War was the Battle of Point Pleasant in present West Virginia.

The life of Boone has inspired many books and even motion pictures. Much, especially during the early years, were based on myths and fiction. He did not wear a coonskin cap. In 1939 a comprehensive book was written by John Bakeless. But the more factual of all, "The Long Hunter", by Lawrence Elliot, was published by the Reader's Digest Press in 1976. On that book the dust jacket statement includes: "[This] is the first biography of Boone to make use of historical material uncovered in the last four decades." Among the historical material uncovered were the Draper Manuscripts, some publications of the Filson Club in Louisville, Kentucky, historical sketches by Emory Hamilton of Wise, Virginia and others. Foremost are the Draper Manuscripts, that vast store of historical data compiled by Dr. Lyman C. Draper (1815-91), the great scholar whose records had reposed for about a century in the archives of the State Library of Wisconsin. Eventually microfilming made these manuscripts generally available. Among his many fruitful historical researches Draper for decades had made extended efforts in amassing Boone data. He interviewed and corresponded with many of Boone's contemporaries, and was on verge of writing his Life of Daniel Boone when he died. Draper was born five years before the death of Boone.

When Daniel was fifteen and a half years old his family, on May 1, 1750, departed Pennsylvania. They first resided about a year and a half in the Linville Creek community near Harrisonburg, Virginia. There Squire Boone, Daniel's father, operated a blacksmith shop. Then in the autumn of 1751 they continued on to the Yadkin River valley in North Carolina.

Starting in 1759 the Cherokee warriors were desolating the flourishing upper Carolina settlements. The Cherokee were incited by the French "who had abandoned Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pitt) but not their hopes for the Ohio Valley. (They) continued to exploit the Indians' grievances, inciting them to take up the tomahawk against sparse settlements in western Virginia and North Carolina (Elliot)." Daniel, by then in his middle twenties, married with two infants, moved his small family for safety to Culpepper, Virginia. His family remained there for about three years. For a time Daniel was a wagoner from Culpepper to Alexandria, but he returned to briefly hunt and then take part in the Cherokee war. With the return of peace he brought his family back to the Yadkin.

The Draper Manuscripts indicate that Boone's "first venture westward," from the Yadkin river area in North Carolina into Virginia, with Nathaniel Gist as companion, was in 1760. They entered Virginia at Whitetop Mountain, which today is in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. They had an unobstructed view from Whitetop, so named because the treeless portions of the crest appear white during winter snows. The westward view was inviting, so they came to the spot that later was Abingdon. In the night they were disturbed by wolves lurking in the surrounding darkness, their eyes reflecting light from the camp fire. With morning they followed their dogs to the wolves' den, a cave which underlies the Washington County Courthouse hill in Abingdon. Boone named the place Wolf Hill, which became the name of the settlement starting there in 1768. Later, as Abingdon, it was the first English-speaking incorporated town on waters flowing to the Mississippi River. Before returning to the Yadkin, Boone extended his explorations down the Holston River into present Tennessee.

Boone's next long trip westward was in the fall of 1767. He, with two companions, proceeded to the location of Lick Creek in present Dickenson County, thence down that creek to Russell Fork in Virginia to Kentucky's Big Sandy River. Enroute Daniel carved "D. Boone" and the year on a beech tree at Sand Lick. Continuing downstream past the mouths of McClure River, Cranesnest River, and Pound River, they came to the spectacular Breaks Canyon, which is in the bounds of today's Breaks Interstate Park. That park borders Virginia and Kentucky. Along the rim of the canyon they made their way over the difficult terrain, thence down Russell Fork and Levisa River to a salt lick near present Paintsville, Kentucky, in the valley of the Big Sandy River.

This was Boone's first time in Kentucky. He found a rugged portion, not the fertile area he had envisioned which was only a short distance westward. Probably he did not realize he was in Kentucky. One might well assume that the early stage of the long trek to the Big Sandy valley was over the general route of Boone's first venture westward, he being acquainted with that region. They may have entered Virginia via the Indian Road, it being on the route toward their objective.

Boone's next and second trip to Kentucky, in 1769, guided by a long-time friend and fellow long-hunter John Findlay (Findley), was through Cumberland Gap. Afterward, Boone made repeated exploring and hunting trips to Kentucky. In early 1773, about five and a half years after his first time in Kentucky, he was returning home - not hunting nor exploring but returning along a preferred route, the historic Hunter's Trace. He came through Castle's Woods on the Clinch River, at that time the farthest settlement on the western frontier. The exploring McAffee brothers were there at the time and recorded in their journal that Boone conferred with Captain William Russell, a man of distinction and wide influence who resided at Castle's Woods. They reached a gentleman's agreement that Daniel, on return home, would sell his meager assets, enlist others, and return to join Russell and those he enlisted for a joint migration to Kentucky. Thereupon Boone disappeared into the wilderness, cut off from further communication.

In September of 1773 Boone departed the Yadkin, leading six families toward Kentucky. There were ten souls in his family including his wife Rebecca (Bryan), and their four months old baby, Jessee. Elliot wrote that" "They crossed into Virginia, then traveled northwestward to Castle's Woods." A line northwest to Castlewood enters Virginia at Damascus and the ancient Indian Road, continuing via alternate U.S. 58 to Castlewood.

There is logic in the group proceeding directly through Castle's Woods rather than, as some have presumed, from Wolf Hill (Abingdon) to Cumberland Gap over the then non-existing Wilderness Road that would be started many months later by Boone and his thirty axemen. At Castle's Woods Boone could be immediately assured that Russell had not been compelled to alter his plan to join in the dangerous expedition, and would supply the needed extra tools and provisions.

Emory Hamilton explained that upon entering Virginia, Boone sent his oldest son, James, and the Mendenhall brothers via Saltville to pick up Isaac Crabtree. The boys, without children and other encumbrances, could move rapidly. Their route was two sides of a triangle. The main party traveled the hypotenuse. The boys, by arriving a bit earlier could give that much advance notice to the William Russell group that the planned migration was under way.

A group of Rebecca's Bryan kinfolk and their friends, all men, had come a different route to join the others near Cumberland Gap. From Castle's Woods, Boone and his families pressed on, lest the Bryan group become impatient, or fearful, and abandon the plan. Russell's oldest son, Henry, and Boone's oldest son, James, with others assisting, followed at a slower pace driving livestock. Russell, needing more time after such short notice to arrange his many affairs, brought up the rear.

Those with the livestock not having yet reached the advance group were encamped for the night. About daybreak a band of Shawnee Indians in a most cruel manner killed five of those encamped, including the sons of both Boone and Russell. A thief, retracing the route when fleeing the advance party, stumbled upon the tragic scene and in alarm rushed back to inform Daniel. William Russell soon arrived. The intended move to Kentucky was postponed. The Boones returned to Castle's Woods where they lived in a house belonging to a friend, David Gass. Soon Boone became a Captain in the Virginia militia during Dunmore's War as previously stated.

In the spring of 1775 after Dunmore's War, with the transitory cessation of Indian hostilities, Daniel "came down from the Clinch" at Castle's Woods to participate at Sycamore Shoals (at present Elizabethton) in Tennessee in treaty negotiations between Richard Henderson's Transylvania Company and the Cherokee nation. The Cherokees ceded to Henderson and company their claim to most of Kentucky and a portion of Tennessee. Boone had been an emissary in setting up the negotiations.

A last item was agreement on a route to the newly ceded Transylvania. The Cherokees agreed to an access route on a line to Cumberland Gap approximately from Long Island at present Kingsport in Tennessee. Chimneytop Mountain nearby is easily seen from a distance. Boone, with thirty axemen, immediately started cutting a packhorse trail. They followed much of the Indian's ancient Warrior's Path, which apparently had been only a footpath. The use of thirty axemen indicates the need for upgrading the path to a packhorse trail. No fresh trail cutting was required from Sycamore Shoals to the Long Island, the area being recently settled. They started at a location near the soon to be built historic Blockhouse in Virginia, breached the Appalachian barrier, and when well into Kentucky established a fort and permanent community to be known as Boonesborough. Henderson with his advance party soon followed. In June Daniel brought his family from Castle's Woods, the first white woman and children in Kentucky.

One of the many stories of Daniel Boone is his involvement at the time of the long night ride of John ("Jack") Jouett, Virginia's "Paul Revere." Lord Cornwallis was near Richmond in the spring of 1781. Virginia's General Assembly had withdrawn to Charlottesville. Boone was a member. Cornwallis dispatched 220 mounted soldiers under Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the famous calvary leader known as the "Hunting Leopard," or "Bloody Ben" from the ruthlessness of his men earlier in South Carolina. They intended to capture the Virginia legislature in Charlottesville seventy miles to the west. Success would have crippled the already flagging morale of the newly declared nation and possibly broken the American spirit.

They were more than half way to Charlottesville when Tarleton's force was observed, in the night, by the young Captain Jouett who was on short leave. Mounting his rested thoroughbred mare, Jouett passed around Tarleton by side roads and trails. Rider and horse were brutally whipped by limbs and branches as they beat through the undergrowth and forded swift streams. By Jouett's early morning arrival Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and others of the assemblage escaped; but seven others, slower, were caught.

After Tarleton laid hold of the town, Boone and Jouett were taking a wagon load of papers apparently to the intended next state capital at Staunton, over the Blue Ridge, when they were captured. With his gift for evading dire consequences, Daniel managed to be paroled!

In the mid 1970's the U.S. Congress authorized studies by the National Park Service (NPS) toward establishing a Daniel Boone National Trail from the Yadkin River area in North Carolina to Boonesborough, Kentucky. The studies continued until 1983. The study team determined that certain of the routes Boone followed should be designated as Historic, Scenic, or Hunting Routes.

Unfortunately, their final conclusion was that no "National" Trail should be established, because (they said) the Boone trails are not of national historic significance. Their reasoning was that Boone was not first into Kentucky, nor did he plant the first settlement there, and that later more settlers came down the Ohio River than came through Cumberland Gap (the first permanent Kentucky settlement started at Harrodsburg a month before Boone's expedition arrived at Boonesborough). By that reasoning one might conclude that Christopher Columbus was not historically significant because he was not the first to reach the new world and did not bring the most settlers. Evidently, a foremost reason for the negative conclusion was the mounting fiscal straits of the federal government.

That conclusion, however, drew widespread indignation. Consequently, on May 1, 1984, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a compromising amendment to the National Trails System Act authorizing recognition of Daniel Boone through establishment of highway markings of a Daniel Boone Heritage Trail. A portion of the Act stated: "The markings .... shall be placed in association with the Daniel Boone Trail(s) identified on maps contained in the (National Park Service) study entitled "Final National Trail Study, August, 1983, Daniel Boone..."

The Historic route designated by the NPS traverses Virginia by way of Damascus, Abingdon, Castlewood, Dungannon, and Duffield to Cumberland Gap. Within Virginia this distance is about 138 miles. As a Heritage Trail it could extend farther eastward, within the trail study corridor, along U.S. 58 to the North Carolina line at the base of Whitetop Mountain to join a Boone trail being planned in North Carolina. The distance in Virginia of the Heritage Trail would then extend about 175 miles.

An additional twenty miles in Virginia should extend form Duffield to the Tennessee line at Kingsport. This would join a very important portion of an interstate Daniel Boone Heritage Trail. That portion should originate at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton, Tennessee; extend through Kingsport, Tennessee, and through Big Moccasin Gap to Duffield in Virginia. This should contribute to fidelity in recognizing Boone's Wilderness Road which originated in the Transylvania Treaty at Sycamore Shoals. The Wilderness Road followed the Boone Trail Historic Route to Cumberland Gap and continued to Boonesborough in Kentucky.