Sunday, August 13, 2006

Our Wicked Frontier Ways

A few weeks ago I finished Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer by John Mack Farahger. It attempts to separate fact from fiction and speculation, while treating the Daniel Boone folklore as an interesting phenomenon in itself. I learned that Boone had at least two West Virginia connections. His first "long hunt" was on Shenandoah Mountain, in West Virginia's Ridge and Valley region. Later, he and his family lived at Point Pleasant, home of The Mothman.

Boone seems to have been tarred with the same brush James Dickey used on later day natives of the back country. Here's a fascinating, wry quote from page 60 of my edition. (Note well the dig at William Byrd.)

Boone was...condemned by a number of his contemporaries as a man who "didn't live happily with his family, [and] didn't like to work." Such sentiments were akin to the criticism leveled by cultural outsiders at long hunters for the neglect of their families. In North Carolina backwoodsmen "live with less labor" than anywhere else he knew, said the Virginia aristocrat William Byrd, a man who knew whereof he spoke. They made "their Wives rise out of the Beds early in the morning, at the same time that they Lye and Snoer, till the Sun has run one third of his course, and disperst all the unwholesome Damps." Frontier men did "little of the work" around their farms, complained one missionary in the Yadkin settlements, leaving it all for their wives and children to perform, while they enjoyed themselves hunting. Consequently, the work around the home place was "poorly done," animals had to fend for themselves, even in winter, and Indian corn grew where there should have been good European wheat. It all added up to a pattern of "irregular living." "There are many hunters here who work little," wrote another preacher, but "live like Indians."

As this last remark suggests, the complaints amounted to the rejection of a way of life and had much in common with the European criticism of American Indians. The French emigrant Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevocoeur described backwoodsmen as "new made Indians," "half cultivators and half hunters" who lived a "licentious, idle life." In the rush to commercial farming in the nineteenth century these criticisms were transformed into a cant, in which frontier ways were made to seem the very essence of barbarism and backwardness. In this climate of opinion, Boone supporters both inside and outside the family attempted to salvage the reputation of the Boone household by claiming that it had been run on solid Victorian principles....The most unfortunate thing about such special pleading was its anachronism, its irrelevance to the real conditions and dilemmas of frontier life.

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