Fact from Fiction: Tom Clavin’s New Book Explores the Life of Daniel Boone

Author Tom Clavin in the Rockies with the Arkansas River in the background. George Mitrovich photo.

When you hear the name Daniel Boone, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the coonskin cap? His death at the Alamo, perhaps? Or maybe it’s that the most accurate onscreen portrayal of him was offered in the 1960s by actor Fess Parker?

Well, according to author Tom Clavin, none of the above is true.

“The real Daniel Boone never wore one,” said Clavin of the coonskin cap.

And dying at the Alamo?

“That was Davy Crockett.”

What about Fess Parker?

“The closest anyone has come to portraying him was Daniel Day-Lewis in the ‘Last of the Mohicans,’” said Clavin. “James Fenimore Cooper wrote that character based on Daniel Boone.”

It turns out that Clavin has learned quite a bit about Daniel Boone and he can share any number of tales about the legendary explorer and hunter thanks to his latest nonfiction book, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight For America’s First Frontier,” co-written with his longtime writing partner Bob Drury. During the week of May 9, the book debuted on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list at #8, just days after going on sale. “Blood and Treasure,” published by St. Martin’s Press, also made it on the bestseller lists of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, which Clavin concedes is something of a surprise, given its topic.

“This book is a hard sell,” he confessed in a recent phone interview. “It’s not a celebrity or addiction memoir. It’s not politics. It’s history, and Bob and I have a good following, but we’re not Malcolm Gladwell. Here’s a figure most people don’t know a lot about — the real Daniel Boone who’s heyday was the 1700s.”

So what is it about Daniel Boone that seems to have captured the imagination of 21st century readers? Likely, it was his adventurous spirit and the key role he played in leading settlers over the Appalachian Mountains through the Cumberland Gap in western Virginia. Beyond the mountains were the fertile fields of Kentucky, the first step in opening up the rest of the West to an ever growing number of white pioneers.

The cover of Tom Clavin and Bob Drury’s new book “Blood and Treasure.”

Interestingly enough, while Daniel Boone is a fascinating historical figure, Clavin says that at first, he and Drury didn’t set out to write a book about him. Initially, they were looking for a Native American figure who could anchor a prequel to their 2013 book, “The Heart of Everything That Is” about the 19th century Sioux leader Red Cloud.

“‘Red Cloud,’ which basically covered the last 20 years of the Indian wars, was about the closing of the frontier in the 1870s when the last of the tribes were shown to their reservations,” Clavin said. “After that was done, I wanted to go back to where it began — that template of taking Indian land and pushing them farther west.”

Clavin explains that initially, he and Drury set out to find a Native American leader akin to Red Cloud who could be the guide for a book detailing the earlier period of American expansion from the mid-1700s to the end of the American Revolution.

“We found intriguing Indian figures, but none of them had long careers. Hunters and explorers went into the Ohio Valley and Kentucky and were met by all kinds of different tribes — Kickapoo, Miami, Iroquois, Shawnee. Even though there were some dynamic leaders there was not one figure who all tribes paid fealty to,” he said. “That led us to Boone. He dressed like an Indian, had survival skills and his natural environment was the forest, not the farm.

“We found out that Boone had this amazing Forest Gump-like ability of showing up in these key 18th century events,” Clavin added. “He became our pathfinder and had a connection to the Indian tribes. It’s where Manifest Destiny began, though they didn’t call it that back then.”

Clavin admits that, like many of us, there was a lot he didn’t know about Daniel Boone when he set out to write the book. One aspect of Boone’s character that made him a sympathetic subject, said Clavin, was his enlightened view of Native Americans — not something that was typical in the 18th century.

“He was an outlier in that the prevailing view at the time is that the Indians are subhuman and savages and need to be gotten out of the way to make way for farmland and settlements,” said Clavin. “Even someone as enlightened as Thomas Jefferson said the best thing to do is exterminate them. But Boone grew up close to them. He admired how they looked and dressed. He learned hunting, shooting and survival skills. The Great Spirit was as valid to him as the Christian God.”

Conversely, Boone was a well-known figure to many of the Native Americans he encountered. Clavin notes that they referred to Boone as “Wide Mouth,” because he typically greeted them with a big grin.

“He wasn’t contemptuous of them and they had a great kindship. They were living the life he was most comfortable living and he was supporting his family with hunting. The natural world was where he wanted to be all the time.

“He was such a good woodsman and explorer people would get together and follow Daniel Boone through the Cumberland gap,” Clavin added. “In 1769, Abraham Lincoln — not that Lincoln, but Lincoln’s grandfather — followed him. That’s how they got to Kentucky.”

Boone was so skilled in the ways of Native Americans that he rejected farming in favor of long hunting, which was the practice of striking out into the wilderness in order to hunt game and live off the land. At the end of a long hunt, Boone would emerge from the forest laden with animal hides and skins that he sold for great profit in East Coast markets.

“It was common practice for him to be gone for months at a time, wandering and looking for game and exploring,” said Clavin. “He had amazing curiosity and wanted to see what’s on the other side of the river. What made him special is he was the poster boy for the American frontiersman and took it to the next level. His whole life he was on a long hunt.“

But being a poster boy has its downsides. While Boone’s wilderness skills and intimate knowledge of the various Native American tribes saved his life on more than one occasion, his ability to convince white settlers to follow him over the Appalachian Mountains and settle in what was then wilderness also made him a target.

Clavin’s book opens in 1773 with the brutal murder of Daniel Boone’s 16-year-old son, James, and several of his traveling companions at the hands of Shawnee warriors. Ambushed as they camped not far from Cumberland Mountain, James begged for a swift death which he received with a slit to the throat and a war club to the head, but only after his toenails and fingernails had been ripped away one by one. Seven years later, while Boone and his brother Ned were hunting in Kentucky, Ned was ambushed and killed, again by Shawnees. Believing they had killed Daniel Boone, the warriors tried to decapitate the body, thinking the head would be an enormous trophy to bring back to the tribe.

“Daniel Boone was the North Star and the most famous white man in terms of the western frontier,” said Clavin. “If you could kill him, then you’ve really done something special. But he was 85 years old when he died, and was never killed or defeated.”

There were certainly plenty of harrowing close calls. In 1778, not far from Boonesborough, the Kentucky settlement Boone founded, he was captured by a band of Shawnee and adopted into their tribe. After living with them for several months, Boone learned the tribe’s leader, Chief Blackfish, who was aligned with the British during the American Revolution, was planning to attack Boonesborough. Boone managed to escape and he returned to lead a successful defense of the settlement, which prevented the Shawnee and therefore the British from advancing from the west.

Writing about a figure from the 18th century, even one as fabled as Daniel Boone, can be quite a challenge when it comes to finding resource material, but Clavin notes that he and Drury were fortunate in that Boone not only lived a very long life, but a well-documented one as well.

“In the last 10 to 15 years of his life, people sought him out to write about him. There was some contemporaneous material and they talked to his surviving children. Then Lyman Draper came along after Boone’s death in 1820 and dedicated himself to writing a massive authoritative biography of Boone. “

Draper interviewed everyone he could find who could add to the Boone biography, which Clavin describes as the author’s magnum opus. Unfortunately, Clavin said that a third of the way through the project, Draper developed a case of writer’s block and was never able to complete the biography.

“The good news is he spent 20 years as the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society and eventually donated thousands of pages to the society, much of which has been digitized, and we made big use of it,” said Clavin. “We had authoritative information. With Davy Crockett, who came after Daniel Boone, it’s a lot of speculation, legends and exaggerations. But with Boone, even though he came before, there’s more reliable information.”

When asked if there were any unexpected revelations that came to light about Daniel Boone in the process of writing “Blood and Treasure” Clavin responded, “A pleasant surprise was his respect of the Indians. I think that would’ve been a turn off if he had been a racist. It was gratifying to find someone who lived 200 years ago who had a modern-day sensitivity to people of color.

“Another surprise was how important a role he played in the American Revolution,” he added. “We think of the Continental Army, the founding fathers, George Washington and battles in Virginia, Massachusetts and New York, but we’re overlooking the western front where the British were recruiting armies of Indians. In the siege of Boonesborough, he held off the Indians. If they had fallen, the British would have gotten in the back door.”

On Saturday, May 29, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Tom Clavin will take part in a sidewalk signing in front of Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Stop by to meet and chat with the author and purchase a signed copy of “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier.” Masks requested. To reserve a copy in advance, call Canio’s at 631-725-4926.

Clavin will also take part in an event with Amanda M. Fairbanks, author of “The Lost Boys of Montauk,” at the Montauk Lighthouse on Thursday, July 1 at 7 p.m., and Hampton Library’s “Fridays at Five” author talk on August 6 at 5 p.m.