by Tom Clavin
On September 26, 1820, legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone died at the extraordinary age of 85. The following is an adapted excerpt from Blood and Treasure by Bob Drury and yours truly, covering Boone’s final adventures.
Daniel Boone’s stab at speculation during the early stages of the Kentucky land boom eventually resulted in a plethora of lawsuits and court rulings against him. In many cases, he had failed to properly register a number of the tracts that he had received as recompense from eastern conglomerates and land jobbers for his scouting missions. Over time, most of this acreage was seized and re-sold. But there was a hitch—Boone still owed massive amounts of property tax on land he could no longer call his own. Moreover, evicted settlers who had paid Boone for the plots were naturally inclined to appeal to the courts to recover their investments. Despite his business foibles, Boone was an honest man with a strong sense of decency, and he vowed to repay every debt he owed. To that end, as his son Nathan told Lyman Draper, “Little by little his wealth melted away.”
Boone’s complete bankruptcy was temporarily averted by the several post-war terms he served in the Virginia State Assembly. But even as a respected and iconic statesman he could not outrun the writs and summonses piling up against him. In November of 1798, with Boone having departed Richmond, a territorial judge ordered the Mason Country sheriff to serve a warrant and arrest Boone, who was in arrears to various entities for the lordly sum of 6,000 pounds, over $100,000 today. When the lawman arrived at Boone’s one-room cabin in the Kentucky woods, Boone and his family were gone.
The old frontiersman had become so disillusioned with what he felt was the ingratitude of the people of the territory which he had “purchased with a vast expence of blood and treasure” that he made a decision that heretofore he would have deemed unthinkable. He decided to abandon the United States.
As the 18th Century came to a close, Spanish authorities in New Orleans were ever more fearful of British Canada’s designs on their holdings west of the Mississippi. As a buffer, they sought to populate the interior by offering midwestern land to American pioneers at greatly reduced prices. An impoverished Boone accepted an overture from Spain to lead a train of families to settle a large tract in the community of Femme Osage on the north bank of the Missouri River, 30 miles west of St. Charles. Such was the frontiersman’s fame that the Spanish governor in St. Louis waived Boone’s entry fee as well as the stipulation that all emigres must convert to the Roman Catholic faith.
Throughout his life, the heart of Boone’s identity had been marked by his strong and affectionate attachment to family. So it was that as he moved west in the fall of 1799, he and his wife, Rebecca, were joined in their exodus by four of their progeny—their sons Daniel Morgan and the teenaged Nathan and his new bride, the 16-year-old Olive Vanbibber, and their daughters Suzy and Jemima and sons-in-law Will Hays and Flanders Callaway. At the last moment, Daniel’s brother Squire decided to join the entourage of 15 or so families herding their cattle, horses, and hogs toward yet another American frontier.
Much like his older brother, Squire had led a peripatetic life since the end of the American Revolution. Hobbled by his multiple wounds, some of which would never fully heal, Squire had attempted to settle in the Mississippi Territory, in New Orleans, in Spanish Florida, and had even returned to Pennsylvania to live with relatives for several years. Yet, again like his brother, he proved unsophisticated in the world of business and found himself hounded by creditors and tax collectors to the point where he was once reduced to stealing food from a slave to feed his family. Along his travels, Squire had become immersed in the Baptist faith and fancied himself a lay circuit preacher.
Though Squire’s wife, Jane, exhausted from their many relocations, declined to cross the Mississippi with him, he was certain that she would relent once he had established a homestead in Missouri. This was never to be, and five years later Squire returned east to settle with his wife, his four sons, and his brother Samuel’s four surviving sons just north of the Ohio River in the Indiana Territory. There his financial fortunes finally turned, and while serving as Justice of the Peace for what is today Boone Township, Indiana, he acquired a large tract of land upon which he built a stone house, operated a thriving quarry and gunsmith business, and founded one of the territory’s first churches.
Squire Boone would die of heart failure at the age of 70 in August 1815. His final request was that he be buried in a cavern on his property, the same cave where he and his brother Daniel had hidden from hostile Indians decades earlier.
During the Boone company’s trek to Spanish Missouri, the 40-year-old Suzy Boone contracted what was then known as bilious fever, most likely malaria. Only days after the emigrant train reached its destination, she died. It took the heartbroken Daniel and Rebecca several months to recover from the demise of their eldest daughter, yet within the year Boone seemed rejuvenated by his new surroundings. He spent his time hunting and trapping the wild Missouri River’s feeder tributaries with his sons and sons-in-law while, as in the old days, he took charge of attempting to reconcile disputes between the pioneers and the often-hostile Osage Indians naturally suspicious of the intruders settling on what they considered their lands.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 allowed the United States to take possession of the territory and cancel Boone’s land grants. After a brief burst of anger, he eventually took the decision with equanimity, and was content to move himself and Rebecca first into a cabin on Daniel Morgan Boone’s land and, later, onto the property of Nathan and Olive. There he delighted in regaling his dozens of grandchildren with adventure stories from his youth. These included the eight children his son-in-law Joseph Scholl brought to Missouri from Kentucky after the untimely death of the 36-year-old Levina Boone Scholl. Two years later, in 1805, the Boones received word that their daughter Rebecca Boone Goe, who had also remained in Kentucky, had passed away from “consumption” at 37. This left Jemima as the only Boone daughter to survive past what was then considered child-bearing age.
Like almost all men who had spent their lives wandering cold and wet forests, the elderly Boone suffered from bouts of near-disabling rheumatic disorders in all his joints that often curtailed his hunts. But despite the fact that his thinning hair had turned badger gray, and his patchy white skin highlighted his red-rimmed eyes, those eyes never lost their light, particularly when his old friend Simon Kenton paid a visit to Femme Osage around Boone’s 75th birthday in 1809. Boone, ever the optimist, had spent the occasion carving a new powder horn, polishing his rifle, and hoping that he could negotiate the steps from his rocking chair and disappear into the woods for one more adventure with the frontiersman who had once saved his life. It was not to be, although he and Kenton passed several weeks reliving old times.
Kenton’s travails had been equal to Boone’s. Over time he had lost all his Kentucky lands and landed in debtor’s prison. It was only through the largesse of his son and daughter, with whom he now lived, that he had not died behind bars. As it was, Kenton returned to Kentucky long before Boone summoned the energy for one final long hunt. That occurred in the fall of 1810 when, at the age of 76, he and his sons-in-laws Will Hays and Flanders Calloway joined a company of visiting Kentucky huntsmen journeying up the Missouri. Hays later reported that their party made it as far as the Yellowstone River—an assertion never verified—although it is known that the company returned after six months in the mountains ladened with valuable beaver and otter furs. A mountain man who had crossed paths with Boone on this final wilderness journey described him thusly: “The old man was still erect in form, strong in limb, and unflinching in spirit.”
Boone died on September 26, 1820, at his son Nathan’s home on Femme Osage Creek in Missouri. He was buried next to Rebecca, who had died on March 18, 1813. The graves, which were unmarked until the mid-1830s, were near Jemima (Boone) Callaway’s home on Tuque Creek, about two miles from present-day Marthasville.
In 1845, the Boones’ remains were disinterred and reburied in a new cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Resentment in Missouri about the disinterment grew over the years, and a legend arose that Boone’s remains never left Missouri. According to this story, Boone’s tombstone in Missouri had been inadvertently placed over the wrong grave, but no one had corrected the error. Boone’s Missouri relatives, displeased with the Kentuckians who came to exhume Boone, kept quiet about the mistake and allowed the Kentuckians to dig up the wrong remains. No contemporary evidence indicates this actually happened, but in 1983, a forensic anthropologist examined a crude plaster cast of Boone’s skull made before the Kentucky reburial and announced it might be the skull of an African American. Black slaves were also buried at Tuque Creek, so it is possible that the wrong remains were mistakenly removed from the crowded graveyard.
To this day, both the Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky and the Old Bryan Farm graveyard in Missouri claim to have what is left of Daniel and Rebecca Boone.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.