Daniel Boone in Nashville

by Mike Slate.

Legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) is most often associated with blazing the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in 1775 and establishing Kentucky settlements. However, his many wide-ranging expeditions arouse our curiosity as to whether he also explored Middle Tennessee in general and the French Lick-Nashville locality in particular. Kentucky’s plucky pioneer has generated a torrent of literature, and I invite the reader to hike with me down the Nashville fork of the Boone trail. Along the way I think we’ll find that history’s subplots are both interesting and informative.

(photo by Bob Bowman)

Daniel Boone’s short “autobiography,” romantically ghostwritten by Kentucky land speculator John Filson (ca. 1753-1788) and published in 1784, launched the intrepid woodsman to national and international fame. A pertinent but inconclusive sentence therein reports that Daniel and his brother Squire Boone (1744-1815) “proceeded to Cumberland river, reconnoitring [sic] that part of the country until March 1771, and giving names to the different waters” (The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, Kessinger reprint, p. 56). The Life of Daniel Boone, the seminal tome of renowned archivist Lyman C. Draper (1815-1891), seems to place this exploratory event within a geographical swath ranging from near today’s Bowling Green, Kentucky, south to Castalian Springs (formerly Bledsoe’s Lick) in Sumner County, Tennessee (see p. 264 of the Stackpole Books edition, edited by Ted Franklin Belue). One contemporary writer, Robert Morgan, expands this expedition even farther south, all the way to the French Lick (Boone: A Biography, p. 121).  

Draper reports a more conclusive episode – occurring as much as two and a half years after the exploratory journey mentioned above – in this fascinating passage: “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 on Cumberland and found several French hunters there” (pp. 283-284). Here we have the earliest narrative I know that places Boone squarely in the heart of Nashville. The time frame for this visit is some seven or more years before the town was founded in 1779-80 by James Robertson (1742-1814) and John Donelson (ca. 1718-1785). Incidentally, I have discovered no familial kinship between Joe Robertson and Nashville co-founder James Robertson, yet the possibility remains intriguing. Furthermore, the fact that French hunters/traders occasionally headquartered at the salt lick on the Cumberland River known as the “French Lick,” site of today’s Nashville, has always been known, the most famous of these traders being Timothy Demonbreun (1747-1826), Nashville’s “First Citizen.”

Through the years other biographers have repeated Draper’s account of Boone at the French Lick: Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913), though he places Boone “sometimes with one or two companions” but not with Joe Robertson or his dogs specifically; John Bakeless (1894-1978); and more recently, historians John Mack Faragher and Michael A. Lofaro. In his acclaimed 1992 chronicle, Faragher sometimes even tags the event with seasons: “Whether with his family or alone, Boone certainly spent the fall and winter of 1771-72 hunting in what would become the state of Tennessee. With a North Carolinian named Joe Robertson, the owner of a notable pack of bear-tracking hounds, he hunted bear, pushing as far west as French Lick (later called Nashville) on the Cumberland River, where he met hunters of some of the numerous French parties that came to those licks each year to hunt buffalo” (Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, p. 88).

Other than in biographies, I am aware of no complete reference to Draper’s Boone-at-French Lick anecdote in any other Nashville or Tennessee history. The most obvious reason is, of course, that for well over a century Draper’s Boone manuscript existed only in handwritten form and often only on hard-to-read microfilm, until Murray State University’s Ted Franklin Belue brought it to print in 1998. Several state and local historians, however, do place Boone at least in the Middle Tennessee area. A.W. Putnam (1799-1869) 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, University of Tennessee edition, p. 619). Similarly, Samuel Cole Williams (1864-1947) comments in his discussion of 1769-70 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 and Tennessee History, Watauga Press edition, p. 330). Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986), who used Draper and many other primary sources, mentions that Boone “hunted over and explored most of the Cumberland at intervals between 1769 and 1775” (Seedtime on the Cumberland, Univ. of Nebraska edition, p. 169). And contemporary historian John R. Finger, using a Draper-like phrase, observes that in 1772 Boone “hunted as far west as French Lick” (Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 42—which book includes, by the way, the finest bibliographic essay on frontier Tennessee sources that I know of).

Equally germane to the case for a Boone visit to Nashville are his professional and personal ties to the Lower Cumberland region. He was above all a Long Hunter extraordinaire who stayed in the woods for months or even years at a time. It strains credulity that he would not at some point come to the French Lick, heralded at least since the late 1760s for its excellent hunting. In addition, Boone was (or became) well acquainted with several Cumberland pioneers including Michael Stoner (1748-1813), Kasper Mansker (ca.1750-1820), and, most notably, Nashville co-founder James Robertson. Both Boone and Robertson worked for the prominent Transylvania Company under Richard Henderson (1734-1785), with Boone the overseer of Henderson’s Kentucky land interests and Robertson of his Tennessee holdings. Williams provides insight into 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 in East Tennessee, perhaps around 1772-73 (see Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 344). Moreover, Draper asserts that their friendship directly influenced the founding of Nashville. Upon returning to North Carolina after the famous 1778 Boonesborough siege, “Boone went by way of Watauga 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” (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 521).

An argument against a Boone visit to Nashville could pivot on Draper’s interviews with the pioneer’s last-born child, Nathan Boone (1781-1856), who was an intrepid frontiersman in his own right, as well as Draper’s greatest wellspring of information. Fortunately, Draper cites sources for his Boone-at-French Lick passage, with this endnote: “MS. notes of conversations with Col. Nathan Boone and the late Henry Rutherford of Tennessee. Soon after the Revolutionary War, [Joe] Robertson resided in the family of Mr. Rutherford’s father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford, of Rowan County, North Carolina, and used to speak of his hunting and exploring with Boone (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 294). But his citation of Nathan Boone as a source for the French Lick event is problematic in view of his 1851 interviews with Nathan as presented in a 1999 book. in one interview with Nathan, Draper asked, “Did Colonel Boone ever mention hunting at the French Lick on the Cumberland River?” Nathan’s answer: “Not that I recall” (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 45, edited by Neal O. Hammon). Throughout his Boone manuscript Draper cited Nathan often, apparently at least one time too many.

Now we come to the testimony of Henry Rutherford (1762-1847), who is ultimately Draper’s chief source for the Boone-at-French-Lick account. If Henry did not receive Robertson’s story firsthand, then he may have garnered it from his father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford (1720-1805), in honor of whom, incidentally, Rutherford County, Tennessee, was named. Recycled reminiscences are common fare for historians of the American frontier, especially when researching such mythologically infilled lives as Daniel Boone and David Crockett (1786-1836); but this one seems fairly straightforward and plausible. A relevant example, however, of the vagaries of memory is that Nathan Boone remembered Joe Robertson and his bear-hunting dogs (though not specifically with any French Lick outing), but recalled him as “John” Robertson (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 37). Still, whether Joe or John, our Robertson hunting companion no doubt existed.

Did Daniel Boone ever visit the French Lick-Nashville area? A reasonable, one-word answer would be “probably.” If we zoom out a bit and ask whether Boone was significant to the process that led to the founding of Nashville, the consensus would be “absolutely.” Not only was Boone integral to Richard Henderson’s 1775 Transylvania Purchase, which included the French Lick area, but his Wilderness Road was the very route James Robertson and companions took to establish Nashville in late 1779. Although he died in Missouri in 1820, Daniel Boone belongs to many locations, certainly including Nashville.


Note: The author is grateful to Ted Franklin Belue, Michael A. Lofaro, and John Mack Faragher for taking time from busy university schedules to read and comment on this article. A special thanks, also, for the helpful comments of Katy Schuster-Luck.