Beyond the myth, a flawed but admirable hero

Biography | Boone: A Biography, by Robert Morgan, Algonquin, $29.95, 576 pages

Like many other historical figures, Daniel Boone has been mythologized so frequently in so many directions that a casual reader cannot easily separate fiction from fact. Now comes Robert Morgan, primarily a poet and novelist, as an entrant in the Boone biographical sweepstakes. The result is stunning, and perhaps determinative in settling the frontiersman's reputation.

Boone (1734-1820) moved around a lot. Many readers probably identify him most closely with Kentucky and Missouri. (Not so incidentally, I live in Boone County, Mo.) But he started his life in Pennsylvania, moved to Virginia with his family, then settled in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley at age 16.

No biographer can ignore Boone's restless, peripatetic existence. But after that is established, just how to portray Boone is problematic. Morgan, a North Carolina native who teaches at Cornell University, realized that hundreds of books purporting to explain Boone's life had been published, but he found each one he read unsatisfactory. He decided to construct a biography around Boone's daily existence, rather than emphasizing allegedly heroic acts of Indian fighting and Western exploration that seem to have been mythologized.

Morgan is fond of Boone. Thankfully, though, he is not compromised by hero worship. On the first page of his introduction, Morgan discloses that Boone "was at different times accused of treason, fraud and hypocrisy. ... He was blamed for dishonest and incompetent land surveying, and sued again and again for debt." Boone established and lost a variety of businesses, including a warehouse, a tavern, a fur trade and a horse trade. But by using old documents wisely, Morgan demonstrates that as a landowner, surveyor and business owner, Boone was "sometimes careless with clerical and legal work," not dishonest or incompetent. It is difficult to feel animosity toward a protagonist who preferred a rugged outdoor life to sitting at a desk filling out paperwork.

Boone's reputation also suffered during his lifetime because of his attitude toward Indians. He demonstrated so much empathy for the original settlers that racist critics called Boone a "white Indian." Actually, he fought and killed Indians when he believed they were unjustified aggressors, including in altercations within North Carolina. But generally, whenever practical, Boone befriended Indians rather than shed their blood. Those relationships serve as one of many indicators to Morgan that Boone possessed a sterling moral character.

Above all, Boone comes across as a leader of men and women. His sense of exploration, his quiet competence, his empathy, his devotion as a family man and his eloquence combined to make him a natural leader. The eloquence came as a surprise to Boone's contemporaries and to Morgan. Although lacking formal education, Boone read books and wrote with a flair.

Morgan also writes with a flair. His talents as a poet and novelist enhance a biography that, like so many previous Boone biographies, could have read in a dry manner. Morgan's detailed descriptions of people and places are memorable. Even his generalizations sound pitch perfect: "All his life Boone's troubles appeared to come in waves. The good periods seemed to happen when he started out in the wilderness and experienced an idyll of hunting and trapping and exploration of new territory, digging ginseng, making maple syrup, boiling salt, clearing some land. But then misfortune caught up with him and his troubles accumulated and compounded." Morgan is eloquent and disarming as he concedes that "it requires a certain bravado to enter a field as crowded as Boone biography," and posits the question "what recklessness or delusion could tempt a writer to take on a subject so often studied, attacked, dramatized?"

It turns out that while growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina during the 1940s and 1950s, Morgan enjoyed "hunting and trapping, fishing and wandering the mountain trails." Morgan's father found Boone fascinating and sometimes quoted the frontiersman to Morgan. Furthermore, Robert wondered if a blood relationship might exist, given that Boone's mother was born Sarah Morgan.

As an adult, while researching what became his novel "Brave Enemies," Morgan studied the American Revolution as it played out in the Carolinas.

"I grew more and more preoccupied with life on the frontier, where white settlers mingled and fought with and learned from the Native population," Morgan says. "I came to see what an extraordinary story that was, the collision of different worlds right in my own backyard, as British confronted French, Indians fought Indians ... and finally Americans fought the Crown."

Morgan explicates each of the previous major Boone accounts, concluding that Boone "has been both lucky and unlucky in his biographers." With Morgan, Boone definitely lucked out.