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What the Kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s Daughter Tells Us About Life on the Frontier

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There is no reason to question that the warriors treated the girls as well as they could under the circumstances, but the rumor that Hanging Maw was besotted with Boone’s daughter seems to be entirely a construct of white settler gossip in the published and unpublished sources consulted by Pearl. More revealing are the parallel accounts of captured settlers that Pearl weaves into his narrative to provide historical context, in particular the well-known story of Mary Jemison, abducted with her family in rural Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century and adopted by Seneca Indians. Her biography exposes the inadequacy of the conventional depiction of westward expansion featuring white victors and doomed Native American resisters. Jemison opens a window into a vanished frontier world of blurred family lines and shifting loyalties, as white captives were sometimes adopted by tribesmen in compensation for kinsmen lost in the frontier wars.

Pearl meticulously reconstructs this world of tribes and settlers, caught between British and American military ambitions, interacting in a Kentucky that for a brief moment functioned virtually as a “shared space.” “The Taking of Jemima Boone” presents a fascinating picture of frontier Kentucky in which, contemporaneously with incidents of violence and atrocities, Native Americans and settlers intermarried, raised interracial offspring, traded, shared survival skills and changed alliances, as all struggled to survive.

Jemima’s rescue takes place less than halfway through the book, and she recedes into the background as the story shifts to conflict between Daniel Boone and two men: the Shawnee leader Blackfish, whose son was killed, possibly by Boone, during the rescue, and Richard Callaway, who competed with Boone for leadership of Boonesboro and who would subsequently accuse him of trying to sell out the struggling fortification to the British. These conflicts are intertwined with the geopolitical ambitions of Britain and the United States in the War of Independence; as the two nations vied for control of Kentucky, the survival of Boonesboro was seen as pivotal to the outcome.

All this is a lot for the reader to take in. Pearl opens “The Taking of Jemima Boone” with a quote to the effect that while a novelist can resort to his imagination, a historian is “fettered down to the record before him.” But effective history writing is more than just stringing together facts, and a novelist’s techniques can and should be used. In his historical mysteries, Pearl skillfully introduces back story by taking the reader on the emotional journey of a main character, whose private musings seamlessly move between the present and the past. In “The Taking of Jemima Boone,” by contrast, he has a tendency to interject essential historical context into the story rather abruptly, diverting us from the characters and events at hand. New characters are introduced frequently, together with their back stories — even in the midst of action scenes, such as those recounting Boone’s pursuit of the three girls — with the result that the suspense is punctured and narrative momentum is lost.

Pearl writes that literary and artistic interpretations of Jemima’s kidnapping fail to capture the full “verve, excitement and stakes of these original events,” telling us, in effect, that fact is often stranger than fiction. This is true, but fact is also usually much more complicated. That is a challenge for historians who wish to tell a compelling story, and their problems are further multiplied if they choose, as Pearl has done, a period and events that have dropped from the realm of common knowledge.

The story of Jemima’s abduction, an exciting and revealing episode in the history of America’s westward expansion, deserves to be retold. To his credit, Pearl resists oversimplifying a history that has been too often presented as a frontier romance, showing us that it is as much about the women, children and Native Americans who played a part in it as the famous men who ensured it would be remembered.