Boone Blog # 3 — Rumors
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
John Filson’s lack of interest in Rebecca fueled my determination to learn everything I could about her. I went back to the book that had sparked my initial interest, John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone, and read it with fresh eyes, searching out every scrap of information, studying the ways Rebecca was woven into her husband’s story.
Contemporary accounts offer us only a handful of facts about her: she had black hair and dark eyes, and she was tall — nearly as tall as Daniel who stood around 5’ 10”. At 5’ 8” or thereabouts, she would have been conspicuous at any frontier gathering, since even today the average height for a woman in the U.S. is 5’ 4”. A granddaughter noted Rebecca was “one of the neatest and best housekeepers,” while a nephew recalled her “very mild and pleasant speech and kind behavior.”
Faragher briefly reported these details in just a few paragraphs, then spent five pages elaborating on the rumors that swirl around Rebecca to this day — rumors of adultery and an illegitimate birth in the family. There are several variations of the tale, but the crux of all of them is that Daniel returned home, having been away on a long hunt for nearly two years, only to discover that Rebecca had borne a child in his absence.
When Daniel asked who the father was, Rebecca supposedly replied: “Your brother. He looks so much like you I couldn’t help myself.”
To which Boone is said to have responded: “So much the better, it’s all in the family.”
That’s the tale that has come down to us, but it left me with a thousand questions. What, I wondered, would Rebecca have to say if she could tell her side of the story? This exchange sounded like the sort of wink and a nudge storytelling men indulged in while sitting around a campfire at night — the eighteenth century version of “locker room talk.” The tone was far too flippant for such an earth-shattering revelation between husband and wife.
More than a few tales of illegitimate births appear in the stories told about the men known as long hunters. They could be gone for years at a time, and at some point, wives might understandably conclude they were widows and feel free to seek out new partners. One story tells of a woman who was about to marry a much richer, handsomer man than her long-lost husband, until the husband reappeared just before the wedding. Upon seeing him, the exasperated bride exclaimed: “Hugh, are you alive yet?” Faragher noted that a tale of frontier adultery might well have become attached to the Boone family simply because Daniel was the most famous of the long hunters.
Whether the story is true or not, the label of adulteress remains embedded in any story of Rebecca, having attached itself to her memory like an obstinate burr. What makes the story even more provocative is that not only was Daniel’s brother married, his wife was Rebecca’s younger sister, Martha. As one backcountry resident noted: “That story might be the truth, or it might be a damned lie, but that baby’s a Boone, either way.”
If any clues remained in the surviving records that would point to Rebecca’s guilt, or prove her innocence, I was determined to find them. Leaning on the research skills I’d acquired during my years as a university reference librarian, I mapped out a plan.
I soon discovered that almost everything historians know about the Boones didn’t come from the pages of Filson’s first biography and the weeks he’d spent with Daniel and Rebecca, as I’d first assumed, but rather from the meticulous, some would say obsessive, record collecting of a largely forgotten librarian named Lyman Draper. Draper is hardly someone you’d pick as the hero of this, or any other, story. At barely 5 feet tall, he was sometimes described as gnome-like, and he was plagued by ill health, including migraines, digestive issues, and frequent toothaches. But despite these impediments, if it weren’t for Draper, so much of what we know, not just about the Boones, but about eighteenth-century frontier life in general, would almost certainly have been lost. It soon became clear that my search for the truth about Rebecca would mean spending a great deal of time in the journals and documents that Mr. Draper had left behind.