The poor spelling and simplistic phrasing of the words Boone etched on the tree nearly a decade before he encountered the first white settler on this side Appalachians, "D. Boon cillED A BAr on tree in YEAR 1760,” are testament to Boone’s skill as a woodsman and also to his literary shortfallings.
A scholarly investigation into the literacy of Boone and his contemporaries on America’s first frontier, “Reading Boone’s Writing: Issues in Backcountry Literacy,” by Hope Hodgkins of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro puts the story behind the Boone tree in perspective.
In it, Hodgkins reveals “suggestions of an American backcountry revaluation of literacy, in ways which contravene European ideals of progress and still have power to disconcert scholars today.”
“The American backcountry, as it resisted class distinctions, only crept slowly toward valuing literacy. When literacy became a necessary attribute for leadership, the frontier was no longer the frontier.
“The literacy of Daniel Boone and its liminal nature typifies the indefinite status of reading and writing on the frontier. Boone’s brilliance lay in reading his environment and making his mark upon it. Or, as the young Daniel’s father Squire Boone supposedly told a frustrated schoolmaster, ‘let the girls do the spelling and Dan will do the shooting.’
According to Hodgkins’ work, literacy estimates among the backcountry inhabitants of Virginia and the Carolinas of Boone’s day varies widely and were tainted by the elitism of their sources.
“Numbers, sometimes cited without question, are disputed,” Hodgkins said, because they are largely based on “signature literacy,” or the ability to sign one’s own name on deeds, wills and other legal documents that excluded the poor.
One estimate based on the limited signature studies of the Southern Highlands in the mid-18th century was that 20 to 30 percent of males were unable to read and another put the number of those who were unable to sign their name at 50 percent.
Other approaches to backcountry literacy included book ownership from which one historian concluded that in 1780s Kentucky, about a third of settlers possessed a book.
Hodgkins’ own conclusion is that while “ultimately, the act of reading and writing does not leave artifacts,” what is known is that reading and writing were taught separately in the colonial America up through the 19th century.
That brings her back to Boone and his sworn testimony in a 1796 land dispute that was ultimately settled by the then-62-year-old explorer, hunter and surveyor’s recollection of a fireside reading of “Gulliver’s Travels” during a hunting excursion more than 25 years earlier.
Boone’s deposition that one of his hunting companions had given a riddled account of his killing of “two Brobdignags in their capital,” which the group eventually interpreted as a reference to the giants in Jonathan Swift’s novel incarnated in two large buffalo the rider slaughtered by a creek that Boone subsequently named Lorbrulgrud after Swift’s “capital of the giants.”
While the court record established Boone was indeed literate, his son would later tell biographers that, as a general rule, Boone did not care for novels and instead preferred histories, a clue that Hodgkins concludes “suggests a serious reader, perhaps even a learned man by today’s standards.”
According to her study, “the scraps of writing” Boone left fall into three categories — military dispatches, business records and a few personal letters — all short, to the point and with little show of emotion.
“Daniel Boone himself illustrates the complications of defining literacy in the southern backcountry,” Hodgkins said. “Born in settled Pennsylvania, he attended only a bit of school, at most.”
At age 14, he was taught “to read and spell a little, and in a rude manner, to form letters,” by the “amiable and intelligent” wife of his older brother.
She quotes Boone biographer Lyman Draper, who wrote, “To these humble beginnings, (Boone) added something as he grew up, by his own practical application. He could read understandingly and write intelligently. His compositions bear the marks of strong common sense, yet as might be expected, exhibiting defects in orthography, grammar and style by no means infrequent.”
Of his spelling, Hodgkins said, “although spelling variations were common in written English throughout the 18th century, Boone employed variations more typical of 17th- and early 18th-century English writers, and this old-fashioned approach characterized backcountry learning, such as it was.”
“In colonial schooling, spelling books were used to teach reading, not as standard references for writing, which meant elaborate penmanship. During Boone’s lifetime, even in the American colonies, standardized spelling for one’s own writing was very gradually becoming the norm.
“For the many lightly educated people who only advanced partway along the literacy path, it is hardly surprising then that precise ordering of letters seemed unneeded. Scholars and socially prominent citizens concerned themselves with correct spelling. Thomas Jefferson advised his daughter to ‘Take care that you never spell a word wrong. If you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary.
“Another United States president, the backcountry born Andrew Jackson, jested that he could never respect a man who only knew one way to spell a word.
“Daniel Boone himself inadvertently played a part in literacy’s temporary recusant status in the backcountry, through becoming a leader, hunter, explorer, calm in danger and at home in the wilderness, with virtually no need of books or writing.”
While Boone rarely mentioned his own thoughts or feelings in writing, Hodgkins’ work includes one striking exception. In a letter written in his old age to Sarah Day Boone, the sister-in-law who had taught him to read and write, Boone wrote:
“how we Leve in this world and what chance we Shall have in the next we know Not. For my part I am as ignerant as a Child all the Relegan I have to Love and fear god, beleve in Jeses Christ, dow all the good to my nighbour and my Self that I Can, and Do as Little harm as I Can help.”
Email Sue Guinn Legg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.