WITH DANIEL BOONE THRU THE WILDERNESS (1926)

Issue Essay

Distortions of the Daniel Boone Legend and Their Impact

[1]    The silent film, With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness, was produced in 1926: a time of prosperity, an era without the skepticism of the modern American mind.  People were not yet questioning the stories and histories they had been taught as children.  The entertaining story told in this Robert North Bradbury film is loosely based on the life of an American hero.  However, the presence of several insidiously inaccurate historical representations demonstrates how an entertaining film might not be as innocent as it initially seems.  This film fails to question certain key issues concerning the Daniel Boone legend.  In fact, it does quite the opposite.  The creators of this film wholeheartedly bought into the many warped myths and distorted “facts” surrounding the story of Daniel Boone. Amazingly, the ethnocentric (read racist and colonial) ideals found in 19th century whites apparently still existed in 1926, and, to a certain extent, still do today. This essay will explore the factors that contributed to the twisted representations found in With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness.  Hopefully, the work of this essay and many others like it will help the next generation of Americans (and filmmakers) to avoid the same injustices and societal pitfalls that have plagued mankind for ages.

[2]    So, then, what exactly are the problems with this film?  Notably, nearly every film or TV show based on Daniel Boone has similar twisted depictions and representations of Boone, the native Americans, the white settlers, and the interaction therein.  This suggests something deeper, and subtler maybe, than a few misinformed filmmakers.  Something hidden seems to be imbedded deep within American consciousness, perhaps even to this day.  Something universally accepted.  Something unquestioned.  What is going on here?

[3]    Perhaps the answer lies within a series of other, more precise questions.  Who was the “real” Daniel Boone?  Why was this person chosen over other similar frontiersmen by early hagiographers to be the next American hero?  Who distorted the story of Boone’s life and why?  What societal factors went into the making of the Boone legend?  Why was this legend still immensely popular in the 20th century?  How did With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness represent, or misrepresent, the story of Daniel Boone, and why is that important?  What does all of this mean to Americans today as this nation continues to redefine itself in the early years of the new millennium?

[4]    That is a lot to consider, but with good cause.  Only by asking the tough questions and demanding accountability can a nation hope to correct its past wrongs, learn from its mistakes, and prevent similar injustices from occurring again.  This process must begin by taking a new, more responsible look at history.  Only when the “facts” are gathered from every possible perspective can one begin to truly comprehend history and its importance.  What, then, are the “facts” behind the Daniel Boone legend?  (To learn more about Daniel Boone’s life, click here to visit the Historical Context page)

[5]    Boone was indeed an early American frontiersman and explorer.  During Boone’s life and continuing long after his death, several authors published “authentic auto-biographies” (click here to see an extensive Boone Hagiography List) supposedly written by Boone himself.  This is highly unlikely, for not only was Boone barely literate, he was reported to have been disgusted by all the half-truths and outright lies written by these authors (Herman) .  These books were nothing more than hagiography.  Even Natty Bumppo, the fictional hero of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, including The Last of the Mohicans (click here to go to The Last of the Mohicans film page), was based largely on the life of Daniel Boone.

[6]    These sensationalistic stories were accepted and believed by nearly everyone until the 20th century.  These writers turned an uneducated backwoodsman/capitalist failure into a moral hero, physically and mentally superior to all men of all races (Fishwick) . Boone’s hagiographers attributed to Boone all sorts of wonderful traits and wondrous feats.  Historical accuracy and responsible fact checking were of little interest.  Most likely such yarns were spun for entertainment value.  In short, the fabulous Boone stories sold well, so many were produced.  That the reading public greedily devoured and soon emulated these books is a complex issue worthy of discussion.

[7]    18th and 19th century Americans needed a hero like Boone for several reasons.  The capitalistic environment pushed the United States to begin its rapid expansion across the continent.  Cities were popping up and growing at previously unheard of rates (Herman).  People were moving away from farms and rural life and into the cities.  At this time, living in the country and farming were considered very masculine.  Now, however, thousands of young men were growing up removed from the rural setting.  Cities and city life were becoming known as effeminate.  "Cities-- where non-manual workers proliferated-- produced 'black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth'" (Holmes and Herman). Similar to modern societal misogynistic trends, young males felt that this strange sense of feminization was somehow an inferior trait to masculinity.  They needed some way to identify with their manhood, and manhood meant living a simple, rough life close to nature.  Along came stories of the toughest, “woodsiest” man around, and before long nearly every young male in America was toting a rifle and wearing a coonskin cap.  Of course Boone’s life was going to be exaggerated.  How much better the ideal man seemed if he was not only a frontiersman and physically superior but also a cunning leader and morally perfect.

[8]    This was partly why Boone was chosen over his compatriots to be the idol for the masses to worship.  He came the closest of any frontiersman to actually meeting the moral standards that heroes must live up to.  He was faithful to his wife (usually).  He claimed to have killed only one Indian in his whole life (highly doubtful), while most frontiersmen killed many.  He also claimed to pay back every debt he ever had-- the budding capitalistic society loved that (ignoring his repeated failures as a farmer and landowner). He founded Boonesborough and successfully defended it against the Indians (usually)-- proponents of westward expansion considered that a very moral act (Fishwick).

[9]    Whether they actually were good people or not, frontiersmen were necessary to open up the way for westward expansion.  They filled a huge need for society.  Thus, the frontiersmen were highly valued and respected.  Although cities were often what frontiersmen were fleeing, people like Boone opened up the way for later settlers to fulfill what would later be referred to as their Manifest Destiny.  Americans believed it to be their God-ordained right to colonize and populate with large cities all the “unclaimed” lands within reach.

[10]    The glaring oversight in this theory is the rights of the Indians.  Whites saw the continent as unsettled, virgin land, completely overlooking the fact that millions of people already called this place home.  They were viewed as savages who either needed to be “civilized” or eliminated.   The first whites to enter the uncharted territories had a difficult, dangerous job.  They not only had to survive adverse conditions, but they were charged with the task of taming or killing all Indians.  The point being that the young capitalist nation needed someone to do its dirty work and was more than willing to heap praise upon anyone who wanted the job.

[11]    An odd perspective began to arise regarding the Indians.  Sure, they were irritating and more than a mild inconvenience, but at some point people began to notice that they could be put to good use.  Once trained and converted to Christianity, Indians were easily led and manipulated to do whites’ bidding.  Evil whites were believed to have the same power over the Indians, exploiting their supposed “savage” natures in unsavory ways.  Thus, white settlers reasoned that the Indians must be “civilized” as soon as possible to prevent bad guys like Simon Gerty from getting to them first.  True to capitalist nature, every possible resource was duly noted and exploited to the fullest capacity-- even when those resources are people.  Especially when the people are not those in power.  Had native Americans had the same or superior technology and weapons as the Europeans, perhaps history would have turned out much different (Lofaro).

[12]    Such was not the case.  White settlers with their massive armies and assimilate-or-die ideology eventually defeated the Indians, eradicated entire cultures, and set out to completely tame (read deplete and destroy) all wild lands.  This fact is pretty well understood now, but what isn’t so clear is why these same beliefs continued to pop up in multitudes of 20th century historical films.  Whether the film was about a historical figure such as Christopher Columbus, Cabeza de Vaca, or Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, or about a particular group like the Pilgrims, the Jesuits, or plantation slaves, the historical representations were almost invariably and atrociously inaccurate.  With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness is no exception.

[13]    The Bradbury film presents Boone precisely as the legend built him up to be.  He was able to physically apprehend and overpower any Indian or evil white in multiple skirmishes.  He was chivalrous to a fault while courting his future wife Rebecca Bryan.  On several occasions he used superior strategy skills to outwit whole groups of Indians led by Simon Gerty.  It was Boone who captured Gerty and made peace between the Indians and the settlers.  Interestingly, when Gerty was released after his first failed attack on the innocent white settlers, Boone told him, “I’ll spare you because you’re white, Gerty.” (Scene Log 0:12:24)  (click here for more Key Passages like this one) This occurred shortly after Boone needlessly shot a fleeing Indian in the back.  This may have been just the sort of thing a frontiersman may have done two hundred years ago, but the problem is that the film praises Boone as being a morally perfect being.  Every action he made was right.  Every word was gospel.

[14]    This is to be expected though. Americans still needed a frontiersman hero.  Boone was (one of) the first.  Being first equates with being the best in the American mind, so just like Columbus, Daniel Boone is still venerated as an American hero, complete with films depicting him as the embodiment of all that is just and good.

[15]    Daniel Boone’s character was not the only distorted representation here.  Any actual native Americans would be outraged at the Indian portrayals in this film.  These cinematic constructs called Indians were always shouting, running, jumping, shooting arrows, dancing war dances, and attacking.  They looked crazed most of the time and were always trying to kidnap a white girl or some other “innocent” settler.  Well, only when the Indians were associating with Simon Gerty, that is.  The very same Indians were friendly and calm when under the influence of Daniel Boone’s magnificent moral guidance.  Chief Grey Eagle even began quoting scripture at the end.  (Key Passages 1:19:27)  This film was obviously “under the influence” as well for buying into the belief that Indians were primitive beings, nothing more than animals who, like horses, needed to be broken, trained, and exploited.

[16]    Somehow this seems strangely hypocritical.  The same whites who were taking land from a comparatively powerless race were persecuted themselves but a few years earlier.  Most Americans were former Europeans of all different creeds, yet a common bond was the fact that most American immigrants were fleeing some sort of peril in their homeland.  Whether it was religious persecution, the law, war, poverty, or simply overcrowded cities, these immigrants should have understood the evils of oppression and societal displacement.  Not so.  Before long one of the most thorough genocides in world history took place, greater, perhaps, in impact and total annihilation than the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.

[17]    Granted, much racism existed in America throughout the entire 20th century.  This seems, however, more than just simple racism against the native Americans by an early filmmaker.  The fact that this silent film was produced and watched by many proves that the belief in white superiority and rightful inheritance of the North American continent still pervaded American thought to a large degree in 1926.  Later Boone films are not much better.

[18]    To a large degree, the same factors influenced minds in 1926 as they did during Boone’s life.  Movies like With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness became popular because they provided justification for the subconscious ethnocentric superiority felt by many white Americans.  It is easy to see the “logic” that supports this sort of oppressive thinking.  After seeing out-of-control Indians and the need for the ideal man, Daniel Boone, to gain control over them, a viewer would “know” deep down that every action taken by previous generations was morally right.  After all, wouldn’t they see that history provided the means for a happy, successful existence for everyone, right?  Well, everyone except non-whites maybe.  But wait… what about Social Darwinism?  Isn’t that the force that makes capitalism the best form of governance in the world?  Isn’t Social Darwinism okay?  So what if a few people have to suffer for others to indulge.  Isn’t that the way things are supposed to work?  Isn’t that how nature works: survival of the fittest?

[19]    That sort of “logic” is nothing more than a thinly veiled argument for might-makes-right.  Might-makes-right is an uncaring and hypocritical way to live.  Social Darwinism only works if you are the one with the power.  As soon as someone else comes along with a bigger weapon or a larger voting population, that power is taken away and the roles are reversed.  Ultimately, such a system is not in the best interests of anyone, to say nothing of its complete lack of compassion for minorities.  Unfortunately, this is the ideology under which the United States operates.  Fortunately, one can live in a competitive environment without letting it control every thought.  A conscious, conscientious person, with some diligence, can be alert and aware of the distortions forced upon the unwatchful mind by outside sources.

[20]    Such inherent distortions in “historical” films are inspired by the myths perpetuated by the self-serving ruling class and must be exposed.  If they are left unexposed, anyone who believes in those stories is unconsciously buying into ethnocentric and colonial ideologies that have caused oppression, genocide, and complete cultural eradication all too often in the planet’s history.  This is not a good thing.  America is supposed to be the land of freedom and equal opportunity.  Where is the freedom in taking land from indigenous people?  Where is the equality in making oppressing film after oppressing film?  New films must be made to retell old stories in more responsible ways.  Textbooks must be rewritten to include multiple perspectives and tell a more complete story.  People must be made aware of the far-reaching implications of their seemingly-simple beliefs and stories. Children must be taught to question the stories told in both the written and visual media.

[21]    Long ago, stories and lessons were passed down through the generations in family gatherings around campfires.  For better or for worse, television has become the modern campfire (Walsch).  Television and its close cousin, cinema, teach modern children much of what they know about society, history, how to communicate, and how to interact with others.  Most importantly, this omnipresent medium gives children the power of judgment, teaching them right from wrong and good from bad.  What goes into the TV goes straight into the minds of the populace.  That is why it is of utmost importance to make sure that:

A. Americans are made aware of the injustices existent in years and films past

                    and

B. Extreme care is exercised by filmmakers to be as historically accurate and responsible as possible.
 

[22]    Admittedly, much of this essay’s focus has been on what occurred in the distant and recent past.  It is vital that the past is studied and understood, but that pales in comparison to the importance of the present moment.  What is occurring now?  What do people believe now?  What choices are being made now?  This is important because what is happening now dictates what will happen next.  Building a fully-educated world where people live harmoniously with each other and the environment is more than just a pipe dream.  It can and will happen, but much work needs to be done today for that to become a reality.  That means each and every individual must take responsibility for even the most far-reaching effects of their actions and attitudes.  It means history classes that teach more than a few pre-selected facts and films that admit that there may be more than one side to every story.

[23]    Diagnosis may be simple, but remedy is never easy.  Awareness is the key.  As more people become more aware of the half-truths, distortions, injustices, and outright oppressions occurring in the world today, the future will become less of a variable.  Americans can gain conscious control of their future, making choices that will allow for freedom and equality, for spiritual growth and renewal.  A nation cannot learn from its own mistakes unless and until those mistakes are admitted and reconciled.  That process must start now.

[24]    America is redefining itself once again as the new millennium rolls in.  Hopefully, this time around everybody will be well-represented in that definition.
 
 

Copyright © 2000 by Matt Sparks, Undergraduate at Lehigh University

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