Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

History is problematic.

American history is very problematic.

I only recently started reading American history seriously. During the last three years of my teaching career, I kept trying to get an 8th grade history position. If I had, I might still be teaching. The closest I came was teaching it via Zoom during lockdown. Prior to that my historical interest was ancient and Medieval, largely western but that’s what easily available in my local bookshops.

Say what you will about it, and there certainly is a lot to say, America has a rich, fascinating history. Blood and Treasure looked like it would help fill in a large part of my own knowledge, the early westward expansion, Revolutionary period.

Previously, I knew Daniel Boone through the 1960’s television series starring Fess Parker which I watched as a child. I can still sing most of the theme song. Like many Americans, I suspect, I tended to conflate Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett who came along later and famously died at the Alamo. Daniel Boone lived a full life, dying in old age a fairly successful man all in all.

Blood and Treasure does cover Mr. Boone’s entire life, but the focus of the book is on the expansion into the Ohio/Kentucky Territories and the wars with Britian and the Native Americans who sided with them against the Colonists. It is a ‘rip-roarin’ tale, as they say, that is for sure. Which was both a benefit and a burden for the book overall. When the story is going, the reading is easy, kind of a page-turner in places. The men who first headed west into the territories were really something. Daniel Boone’s story is the one many of us know, but all of them had incredible tales to tell. Too, incredible to be believed? Maybe. But that is not something the authors deal with in Blood and Treasure.

Instead, they tell the story of Daniel Boone as though it is all true, which is fine, I guess. There are endnotes and a decent bibliography in the end to back up the story they tell so I can’t say this was really a problem for me. But I would have liked some evaluation of the sources along the way.

What was a problem for me was that there was not much more in Blood and Treasure than a straight-forward telling of this period in Boone’s life. I would have liked some grander conclusion about this period, a larger point to be proved. The authors did do a little reflection on bigger picture issues in the closing section of the book which raised some interesting points. Points that could have been discussed along the way.

It seems to me that any account of American history has to deal with either the question of Native American removal or the suppression of Black Americans or both. I think it would be correct to use the term genocide in both cases. It would be difficult to find a single historical issue not affected by one or both of these questions. Blood and Treasure does not do enough with either question in my opinion, which made the reading experience a slightly queasy one for me.

Too often, atrocities against the native population were paired with atrocities against white settlers as though one was a legitimate response to the other. There were examples of terrible violence on both sides of this war, but too often the fact that one side was invaded by the other was left out of the discussion. We don’t have to approve of torture to support the Native populations right to “stand their ground” in the face of invasion.

I guess my sympathies were with the Native Americans, while the authors are clearly with Daniel Boone, but I kept thinking that an opportunity was missed here by not presenting more of the story from the Natives point of view. I think that would make an interesting book–alternate points of view chapter by chapter maybe. Or just present this same story from the Native’s point of view.

The morality of Boone’s settler project is not really examined in Blood and Thunder. Boone is shown as a man to admire, a hero. I suspect this is largely true about him, overall. At one point, he flees a native village where he was held as a “prisoner” travelling over 160 miles with not much more than the cloths on his back and the pieces of a gun. Along the way he carves a tree branch into a gun stock, assembles the gun and kills a buffalo with the very first shot he takes. At least, that’s what he said. The authors do not really investigate the veracity of this story. Not sure I believe it myself, though it is a very good story.

But this bravery, these feats of physical strength and mental tenacity, are in service of Native American genocide. Late in life, after he has become a successful businessman, he owns several enslaved people. How do we judge the entirety of this man’s life in this context? Some folks argue that we cannot. That historical people cannot be judged by modern standards. But don’t we have to judge them somehow, or at least begin to consider the harm they caused along with whatever admirable qualities they possessed?

The authors of Blood and Thunder didn’t do enough of this for me until the closing of the book. They discuss a lecture given by a visiting scholar from mainland China who argued that the United States fought the longest war in history, a 300-year-long war of subjugation against the Native population. I’m not sure what I think of that idea, but it certainly has me thinking. In spite several hundred pages of more-or-less ‘rip roarin’ adventure, that argument has become my main take-away from Blood and Thunder.

I would love to read a book about it.

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