On a warm midsummer afternoon in 1776, Daniel Boone slept in his Sunday clothes and was awakened by his wife’s frantic shouts.
Rebecca had been watching her daughter Jemima and the Calloway sisters paddle a canoe downriver and lost sight of them in the trees. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of sunlight on metal and heard a “terrible shriek” followed by screams.
“The savages have the girls!” she cried.
Jemima, Fanny, and Betsy, who were 13, 14, and 16, had been warned not to go to the other side, where Indians were known to hunt. But “the far bank of the Kentucky River presented an almost biblical diorama of temptation” that included “grapes, ripe and juicy, and beautiful flowers.”
As they neared the bank, a figure thrashed into the water and grabbed the canoe.
“Simon! How you scared me!” one of the girls exclaimed, thinking it was an Indian who had recently stayed at Fort Boonesborough. But it was no prank.
A small band of Shawnee and Cherokee warriors led by Hanging Maw, a war chief known to Jemima, had captured the girls.
Hanging Maw laughed.
“We have done pretty well for old Boone this time,” he said in English. “Got all his young squaws.”
But “old Boone,” who was 41 and already a famous frontiersman, would lead a party of nine men from the settlement on a two-day journey north on foot to find and rescue the girls in a deadly firefight.
The ordeal occurred within two weeks of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a year after the establishment of Fort Boonesborough and Fort Harrod as the first colonial settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The kidnapping of the daughters in what is now Clark County and their rescue some 30 miles away became a frontier legend that inspired classic works, including an oil painting by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer and the novel “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper.
It is also the story around which revolves Matthew Pearl’s new study of Kentucky’s place in the Revolutionary War and conflicts between native peoples and settlers in the country’s westward expansion.
Although it is a serious work of history, parts of the book read like a novel, which might be expected, given that Pearl was a writer of historical fiction before he was a historian.
Consider, for example, his description of the moment when Jemima realized her father had found her.
“Jemima… peered into the dusk” and “met a pair of eyes.”
“Creeping on the ground, Daniel Boone looked to her like a snake. He had his rifle in hand. He reached his hand out and then signaled to her with his finger to remain quiet. He was waiting, though she did not know for what, or if anyone was with him. Her body went numb.”
“‘That’s Daddy,’ she whispered to the other girls.”
Jemima told the story many times until her death in 1834, and it was told by others, including John Filson, who interviewed Boone for his first biography.
Pearl relies on these accounts as well as those of other, more recent writers, including John Mack Faragher, Robert Morgan, Nancy O’ Malley, and Clark County’s own Harry Enoch. But he tells the story in a new way, showing how personal conflicts played into the wider hostilities that culminated in the Siege of Fort Boonesborough, the most significant battle between the American settlers and the British and their Native American allies.
Those conflicts, for example, included Chief Blackfish’s grudge against Boone for killing his son Catfish in the raid to rescue the girls and the leadership struggle between Boone and Richard Calloway, Jemima’s father-in-law, who falsely accused Boone of betraying the people of Boonesborough to the Shawnee after he was captured, along with a party of salt makers. Boone was adopted by Blackfish as a son to compensate for the loss of Catfish.
Boone, however, had escaped from the Shawnee north of the Ohio River to warn the residents of Boonesborough of the imminent attack and to reinforce the wooden fortification.
Boone had been warned by the Native Americans to abandon Kentucky, and the warning had included the torture and killing of his son, James.
Pearl’s account examines the close relationship between Boone and Jemima, who appears to have been the illegitimate daughter of his brother Ned and wife Rebecca, born when Boone was away from home for two years, but accepted by Boone as his own.
The book also emphasizes the bravery of Jemima and other young women and the role they played in defense of the settlement, including risking their lives to extinguish fires on rooftops during the siege and going outside after the fighting to pry lead balls from the palisade logs and melt them down to make more ammunition.
The Taking of Jemima Boone is a rousing tale of frontier adventure, one of the most current accounts of wilderness life in the 18th century, and a new and fascinating study of the British colonies’ war for independence in Kentucky.
If you like early American history and are looking for a good summer read, this is the book I would recommend.