I had no idea what I was setting in motion on the day in 1996 when I spotted a biography of Daniel Boone on a bookstore shelf. It had been decades since I'd thought of the frontiersman, until I saw Boone’s face staring back at me from the cover of a biography by Yale historian, John Mack Faragher. The random act of pulling that book off the shelf and taking it home was the beginning of a journey that would eventually span more than twenty-five years.
I was drawn to the book because Boone’s name sparked a long-buried memory of the catchy theme song from a popular television show that had been must-see TV when I was eight years old. I drove my older brother crazy singing the chorus loudly and often: “Daniel Boone was a man, yes a big man, with an eye like an eagle and as tall as a mountain was he.”
Even as an eight-year-old, I recognized that the scrubby landscape Daniel explored on the screen was nothing like the lush green mountains of my native Appalachia, but I was willing to overlook that visual dissonance in exchange for a weekly hour of frontier adventure. Between episodes, I joined the other neighborhood kids roaming the woods behind our houses, carrying what looked like sticks, but were really our trusty flintlocks. We built a rough fort out of logs and swept the hard-packed interior clean with brooms made of sassafras branches.
Sweeping the fort was the extent of our housekeeping duties, however, because none of us wanted to “be” Rebecca Boone — we all wanted to be Daniel, or at least one of the men who went out adventuring with him. On the show, Rebecca was mostly confined to the cabin, and on the few occasions she ventured out, Daniel usually had to rescue her from Indians, or a bear, or some other frontier calamity. But when I sat down to read Faragher’s biography, I found myself drawn to Rebecca and her daughters, wanting to learn more about their lives.
I was elated to learn that the first Boone biography was published when Daniel and Rebecca were very much alive, written by a land speculator named John Filson who’d traveled into the backwoods of Kentucky and spent time with the Boones. Filson published a book that featured the woodsman’s adventures, with the underlying goal of enticing settlers into the backcountry to purchase his land. I hurried to get a copy, thrilled that Filson could provide an eyewitness description of Rebecca, but after reading the slim volume, I was ready to throw it across the room. Filson hadn’t even bothered to record Rebecca’s name. On the rare occasion he’d mentioned her at all, he’d referred to her simply as “wife.”
I was dumbfounded. “She’s right there,” I thought, wishing I could reach back in time and grab Filson by the collar. “Rebecca has a story, too. Turn around and talk to her.”
But he hadn’t. Filson’s indifference — this missed opportunity to record Rebecca’s story from her own lips — was galling. I felt sure she’d lived a life as interesting, as adventurous, as Daniel, if only her story could be ferreted out of the historical record. So that’s how my journey began. Let that be a warning — an afternoon in a bookstore can wind up changing your life.