The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America By Matthew Pearl (272 Pages)
Daniel Boone is an “American original” and some older readers (or viewers of old shows on television) might be familiar with the popular television show with Fess Parker.
In the 19th Century, the abduction of Daniel Boone’s teenage daughter (and two of her friends) was also a familiar subject in popular culture. This includes its portrayal in a famous painting (The Abduction of Daniel Boone’s Daughter by the Indians) and inspiration for The Last of the Mohicans, the James Fenimore Cooper classic. It is less familiar to people today.
The Taking of Jemima Boone is the nonfiction narrative historical debut of Matthew Pearl, who has written several books of historical fiction. The book takes us to the 1770s backwoods, white settlers struggling to start a settlement in the future state of Kentucky. This resulted in various clashes with the long-term residents, a range of Native American* tribes.
In hindsight, it seems that the destinies of both sides were set, with whites having some “manifest destiny” to occupy the whole nation, even slowing down the move westward seen as an “abuse” that justified a declaration of independence. Native Americans are significantly blocked out from this story, including the complexity of their responses to European invasions.
But, this book tries to show that in the mid-1770s, things were still in flux. This includes when the American Revolution began and there were many potential futures, perhaps even a way for whites and Natives to live together. The book uses the events in the Kentucky settlement of Boonsboro, including the famous abduction and its aftereffects, to show this complexity.
It is somewhat debatable how important the Americans’ success in Boonesborough specifically was in “shaping” America. Nonetheless, this book provides a useful and interesting window into the era with specific focus on Daniel and Jemima Boone, expanding into a look at the wider events of the 1770s American frontier and beyond.
* Michael Pearl explains his use of “Indians” and “American Indian” in the text. “Native American,” however, does seem to be appropriate. I will use the latter term here.
The book shows that the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter was but part of a wider story involving a series of events with a wide cast of historical characters with many complexities.
Should I Read It?
Fans of history, especially if they have an interest in early American history, should enjoy this book. A lot of material is covered concerning the life and times of the American frontier in the 1770s. The Native Americans, English authorities, and Americans all have their own individual stories. The history is well told, in a clear and nuanced account.
The book reads like an adventure story with a diverse range of characters. Again, the book reflects the author’s skill at narrative by showing the complexity of historical figures on all sides. Daniel Boone, for instance, comes off as a complex character whose strategic moves lead to some opposition among other colonists. He is also able to work with and sympathize with Native Americans while also having inclinations that in the long run will lead to their downfall.
And, Boone is just one of the many characters we read about. This provides a possible second audience — those who enjoy good stories, including from a different time and place. I can imagine this book being made into a movie, with various subplots — jumping from such scenes as the English controlled Fort Detroit to Daniel Boone in captivity to Boonesborough.
(Some might lose track with all the characters portrayed. A chart is provided, but a summary cast of characters list would have been helpful. There are also no illustrations. A map of the fort and the locations discussed would have been useful as well.)
Daniel Boone does still get pride of place. So, those who want a book more from another point of view, including from the perspective of the Native Americans, might want to look elsewhere. The book also does not hide the often brutal events that took place, which might upset some readers. The book can be enjoyed by teenage readers, but keep that in mind.
Overall, a good history for the general reader, with those who wish for more scholarly analysis of various subjects covered able to fortify it with more in depth materials. Likewise, those interested in colonial history and Native Americans might also enjoy his wife’s (Tobey Pearl) book, Terror to the Wicked, which focuses on an event that took place in the 1630s.
Rebecca Boone noticed one day that the men had left the fort she lived in, leaving it at risk. She protested, instructing her eleven-year-old daughter Jemima to join with her, by shooting rifles in the air and locking the men out. Jemima was taught to be independent from an early age.
Book I: The Taking
The Boone family along with some others settled in land that became the state of Kentucky in the early 1770s. Boonesborough fort. The settlers tried to peacefully negotiate with the resident Native Americans though some Natives warned the white settlers of trouble that would follow.
The various tribes, and even individual members of the tribes, had different views on how to respond to the new white settlers. Some sought peace while others were more willing to fight, especially as violent conflict broke out and accusations of unfair treatment arose.
The leader of the party (Hanging Maw) who took Jemima himself had complex sentiments of the proper path to take. Hanging Maw supported a dissident faction that was more combative against whites, but he also was concerned about the safety of the captives.
In mid-July 1776, Jemima Boone (13) and two friends related to a rival of her father went alone outside the fort. Jemima, nicknamed “Duck” for her ease in the water, showed her verve by leaving clues and doing things to help delay their captors. Some accounts suggest Hanging Maw was attracted to Jemima; the text notes this but is neutral on its accuracy.
Her father and a few other men eventually saved the captives, but killed the son of a powerful Shawnee chief in the process.
(The American colonies had declared independence earlier in the month, but the news had not reached Boonesborough at the time of the kidnapping.)
Book II: Retaliation
As Jemima Boone and the others tried to return to normal life, things were actually in flux.
Cornstalk, the Shawnee chief, tried to keep the peace. But, Henry Hamilton — the British leader in the western territory — negotiated with the tribes to work to fight against the American revolutionaries. Kentucky, including Boonesborough, would be a key prize.
Meanwhile, the Americans distrusted any Natives who tried to stay neutral, and tried to obtain Native allies themselves. Cornstalk was killed by rogue American troops who didn’t realize he was one of their best hopes for safe relations with Native tribes.
He was being held prisoner by a mistrusting American officer, who in the process left him helpless. The result was more violent conflict with the Native Americans, damned no matter what they did. It was not like the British really had their best interests at heart either.
The Shawnee war chief Blackfish joined with the British, but on his own terms. He was willing like other Natives to “adopt” white settlers to replace those killed by the whites. In fact, when Daniel Boone and others were trapped outside of Boonesborough, Blackfish adopted Boone himself. (Various whites adopted by Native Americans are discussed in this book.)
Rebecca Boone left to go back to her family in North Carolina, fearing her husband was dead. But, Boone eventually escaped and made it home. Jemima kept the faith and stayed in Boonesborough. Without Daniel Boone present, the fort split into two competing factions.
Book III: The Reckoning
Daniel Boone had escaped when he heard that Blackfish and others planned to attack Boonesborough. Boone was able to return and warn the remaining settlers (some were still in captivity, others had left the fort earlier). The fort was prepared for the approaching battle.
Before the attack, there seemed to be a possibility for a peaceful solution. Blackfish suggested the two sides could still live side by side. But, distrust on both sides (though exactly what happened is unclear) led to the battle occurring.
It looked hopeless for the settlers; they won in the end. Again, unclear why. Bad weather and Blackfish needing to help other Natives in need elsewhere might explain things. Blackfish also opposed a “scorched earth” approach.
On each side, there still was some room for a middle ground, but the failed attack of Boonesborough turned out to be the last chance for a major upset against the Americans on the frontier. Henry Hamilton himself would soon be captured.
Boone’s rival accused him of working with the Native Americans and British. A court-martial found Boone innocent. The last chapter provides a summary of what happened to various characters, including the final years of the Boones themselves.
Though not covered, the War of 1812 turned out to be the final turning point for the Native Americans. The British losing the war was basically the end — the Native Americans no longer could live peacefully on their original lands and were pushed west by “Indian removal” policies.
Points to Ponder
Chief Blackfish is argued in the book to be open to a “shared space” approach, hoping that whites and Native Americans can live together. Was this realistic? Was the means Blackfish used to promote it — including adopting whites into the tribe — helpful?
Daniel Boone comes off as a complex character here. He uses a careful strategy to negotiate the various events that arise. Boone also has typical characteristics of people of that time and place, including eventually likely to have owned slaves. Boone reminds me of an American Revolution Odysseus, the Greek hero portrayed by Homer.
About the Author
Matthew Pearl is best known for his historical fiction. The Taking of Jemima Boone is his first non-fiction book. A list of his works, both fiction and non-fiction, novels, short stories and articles, can be found here. His novels include:
- The Dante Club
- The Poe Shadow
- The Last Dickens
- The Technologists
- The Last Bookaneer
- The Dante Chamber
- The Professor’s Assassin (e-book prequel to The Technologists)
Matthew Perry has a good reputation as someone who provides the reader a window into the past. One review promised: “If the past is indeed a foreign country, Matthew Pearl has your passport.” He has won awards for this fiction and has experience doing historical research.
His entry into nonfiction narrative history is a good fit. The book is well researched with careful endnotes and help from various experts. Pearl repeatedly points out the incomplete and sometimes competing nature of the evidence. If a source should be taken with a grain of salt (Theodore Roosevelt’s “heavily researched” account is also a “bias-prone elegy”), we are so told.
A reader might wish to check with more scholarly works, but as a whole, it is reliable.
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