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.

Novelist Matthew Pearl's "The Taking of Jemima Boone," published in 2021, is his first nonfiction book.
Novelist Matthew Pearl’s The Taking of Jemima Boone, pub­lished in 2021, is his first non­fic­tion book. 

“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.”

The kidnapping and rescue of Jemima Boone and the Calloway girls has been the subject of many works of art and literature, including this oil painting by the 19th century Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer.
The kid­nap­ping and res­cue of Jemima Boone and the Calloway girls has been the sub­ject of many works of art and lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing this oil paint­ing by the 19th-cen­tu­ry Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer. (Click to enlarge)

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.

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.