Is Daniel Boone Our Father?

by Mike Slate.

Nashville has not yet applauded all the cast members in its founding drama. Witness this sentence: “Boone went by way of Watauga [after surviving the 1778 Indian siege of Boonesborough] and was there enabled to make such representations to his old friend Capt. James Robertson as induced him the following year to visit the Cumberland country and become the pioneer father of Middle Tennessee.” For convenience, let’s call this revelation the “Watauga Statement.”

The Watauga Statement was made by 19th-century archivist and historian Lyman C. Draper in his book The Life of Daniel Boone (p. 521), a seminal work for later Boone biographers. Draper is our most renowned source for information about America’s first western frontier, the area from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. Not surprisingly, when Draper speaks, historians listen.

The Statement makes the legendary Daniel Boone a major catalyst for the founding of the city of Nashville. Heretofore, history has viewed Boone’s contribution to our area’s settlement as considerably more indirect – as an organizer for Richard Henderson‘s 1775 purchase of much of Kentucky and northern Middle Tennessee from the Cherokees, and as the blazer of the Wilderness Trail through Cumberland Gap, by which route James Robertson conducted Nashville’s first settlers. However, if we accept the Statement as an accurate assessment – and why shouldn’t we? – historical justice would press us toward adding Daniel Boone as the fourth in a quartet of Nashville founding fathers: James Robertson (1742-1814), John Donelson (ca. 1718-1785), Richard Henderson (1734-1785), and Daniel Boone (1734-1820).

Twentieth-century historian Samuel Cole Williams unwittingly reveals the likely progenitor for Draper’s Watauga Statement. Serious students of the Boone-Nashville connection will want to consult Williams’ book, Tennessee during the Revolutionary War (UT edition, p. 104, note 1), as well as that note’s correlative reference to Draper Manuscript #6XX50. There they will find convincing evidence that Lavinia Robertson Craighead, James Robertson’s youngest daughter, is at least one of Draper’s original sources for his Statement.

So why isn’t the Watauga Statement better known? The most obvious reason is that for well over a century Draper’s Boone manuscript existed in handwritten form only, found exclusively on microfilm, until Murray State University’s Ted Franklin Belue brought it to print in 1998 via Stackpole Books. Furthermore, any historians who have discovered the Statement may offhandedly have dismissed it for lack of complementary accounts.

Although corroborating evidence is scant, we can nevertheless make a strong circumstantial case for the Statement’s veracity. Circumstantial Fact One: Daniel Boone and James Robertson knew each other well. John Haywood, the father of Tennessee history, stresses that for a time both men lived in the Watauga area of East Tennessee (see The Civil and Political History of Tennessee, p. 53). Both also worked for land speculator Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company, with Boone the leader for Henderson’s Kentucky land interests and Robertson, for his Tennessee holdings. In addition, Williams provides insight into the extent of the duo’s personal relationship in his report that Boone’s children, along with Robertson’s, were christened or baptized in Robertson’s Watauga home, perhaps around 1772-1773.  (See Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 344.)

Circumstantial Fact Two: Daniel Boone had explored the lower Cumberland region – including the French Lick-Nashville area – and so was qualified to give Robertson a firsthand report about that country. Draper, also in his Boone biography (pp. 283-284), related a pertinent yet little-known anecdote:

“During this period, one Joe Robertson, an old weaver who had a famous pack of bear-dogs and was devoted to the chase, often accompanied Boone into the Brushy Mountain and over to the Watauga, securing loads of bear-skins, which they packed to the settlements and sold. On one of their adventurous trips, they penetrated as far as the French Lick [future Nashville] on Cumberland and found several French hunters there.”

Long hunter with deer (courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri.

Through the years, this fascinating passage has been repeated by other Boone biographers, including John Mack Faragher, who dates Boone’s French Lick exploration to the fall and winter of 1771-1772.  (See Daniel Boone: the Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, p. 88.) Although Draper’s account is the only one I know that positions Boone squarely in geographical Nashville, various state historians do place him in the Middle Tennessee area.  A.W. Putnam notes that “Boone, Rains, Mansker, and others…hunted and explored in 1769-70 upon the Cumberland” and reported “its marvelous herds of buffalo and deer” (History of Middle Tennessee, p. 619).  Similarly, Williams comments in his discussion of 1769-1770 exploratory crews that “Daniel Boone after a hunt in Kentucky joined one of the groups on the Cumberland in the Tennessee region” (Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 330).  Harriette Simpson Arnow mentions that Boone “hunted over and explored most of the Cumberland at intervals between1769 and 1775” (Seedtime on the Cumberland, p. 169).  And John R. Finger, apparently guided by Draper, observes that in 1772 Boone “hunted as far west as French Lick” (Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 42).

What shall we do with the Watauga Statement, circumstantially but not overwhelmingly confirmed?  A lone sentence – even when supported by the testimony of James Robertson’s daughter – does not a historical certainty make; so I’m not advocating that we rush precipitously to validate Daniel Boone’s ticket as a father of Nashville. But I am suggesting that we pay more attention to Boone, keep an open mind about his role in our founding, and be prepared to give him his Nashville due.

At the least, the Statement reminds us that our city’s genesis involves more personalities than we customarily credit. While Robertson and Donelson are Nashville’s leading physical founders, the conceptual founders could include not only Richard Henderson and Daniel Boone but also others as yet unrecognized.


This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect newspaper.  We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.