Photo by Barbara Bell of Ted Franklin Belue as a British gunner on the ramparts of Fort William Henry, during his seven week stint the summer of 1991 on the set of Michael Mann’s redux of The Last of the Mohicans.
Ted Franklin Belue is a Kentucky scholar who has published several books and numerous magazine pieces on 18th century frontier America, but unlike most of his fellow academics, Belue has made it a point to also live the frontier life he writes about. “Living history informs much of what I write,” he says. “When you sit, freezing, in a lean to and try to stitch your moccasins while your hands are numb, or you go to shoot a deer and your priming is damp, which means you’ll go hungry that day, you really understand what our ancestors dealt with.” When Belue writes about the frontier, this sort of bone-deep knowledge permeates every paragraph.
As a child, Belue was fascinated by Daniel Boone and developed a deep affinity for woodland Indian culture. While teaching history at Murray State University, Belue delved into the papers of Lyman Draper. When he encountered Draper’s unfinished biography of Boone that had slumbered, unpublished, since Draper had set it aside in 1856, Belue undertook the herculean task of shepherding it into print for the first time.
It took more than two years of hard work for Belue to transcribe and edit Draper’s handwritten pages. “I was teaching and writing full-time,” he recalls, “but I set a goal of transcribing 10 pages a day, as well as writing 2 or 3 footnotes.” Belue spent hours in front of a microfilm reader, “copying in longhand onto a yellow legal pad, and nights at home hunt-and-peck typing into my clunker computer what I had copied that day. My hands gave out; my already bad penmanship got worse. I switched to dictating the text into a hand-held Sony to take home and transcribe from that. In all, it was mighty slow work.”
In 1998, Stackpole Books published Lyman Draper’s The Life of Daniel Boone, accompanied by Belue’s extensive annotations that enrich the manuscript immeasurably. For example, where Draper wrote: “In all that fertile region, cane-patches were frequent and of a luxurious growth,” Belue’s note informs readers: “Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is Kentucky’s indigenous bamboo…During Boone’s day, cane blanketed much of Kentucky, growing more than twenty feet tall, providing cover for man and beast, lessening erosion, and providing buffalo with winter feed. Today Kentucky’s cane stands exist mostly along creek banks in marginal, less arable soil, resulting in short, spindly brakes. Worse, relentless habitat destruction to feed industry is wiping out the shimmering grasslands that once provoked astonishment and wonder among early travelers.”
Belue also wasn’t afraid to correct Draper when necessary. At one point in the manuscript Draper has Boone making his escape from Indian captivity “guided by the light of the stars by night and the moss upon the northern side of the trees by day…” (Chapter 6, 218) Belue’s accompanying notation says bluntly: “This is an old myth. Depending upon the tree and the amount of sunlight, shade, and moisture it receives, moss may grow on any side of a tree.”
Draper’s tenacious collecting, coupled with only sporadic writing, led to a partially completed Boone biography, but augmented with Belue’s rich annotations, readers now have at their fingertips an invaluable resource that numbers nearly 600 pages. “A doorstop of a book,” is Belue’s description. When pressed as to why he tackled such a massive undertaking, he says simply: “It needed to be done. I consider it my gift to Kentucky.”
Not only is the book a gift to Kentuckians, but to everyone with an interest in America’s 18th century frontier. We all owe Belue a hearty thank you for his willingness to sleep in a lean to in the dead of winter, go hungry because his flintlock has misfired, and then return from roaming the woods to describe his experiences in muscular prose that allows readers to feel they’ve experienced those things themselves, all while staying dry, warm and well-fed. Many thanks, Ted.