We all have our childhood heroes. Often, they are determined by the era in which we grew up. My childhood was spent largely in the 60s – the era of cowboys and Indians and TV westerns. But I didn’t grow up out west.
My childhood turf was “back east” just a few hours beyond the Appalachian Mountain range and my hero was Daniel Boone.
He was a trail blazer – opening up the eastern frontier for pioneering Americans. The Wilderness Trail Boone cut through the Cumberland Gap from the southeast was an epic accomplishment, providing a route for countless thousands of settlers to cross the mountains and enter the green forests and grasslands of the Kentucky interior and beyond.
The “Indians,” as they were called then, were not really his enemies, rather his respected adversaries, merely trying to retain their homelands from the tidal wave of pioneers beginning to lap over the eastern mountain crests and flow into their lands destroying their way of life.
Boone, much to his credit, admired them for their tenacity, their culture, and their relentless resistance to the western expansion of the American frontier. At times, he was their friend, their prisoner, their adopted son, and their adversary. But he was never their enemy, and he did not relish taking a Native American life.
Discovering My Childhood Hero
I have devoured almost every book ever written about Daniel Boone. He was made a legend in his own time thanks to John Filson, an author who interviewed him and wrote of his many frontier adventures. Translated into German and French, by 1790, these stories made Boone into a frontier hero – a mix of man and myth.
Those who knew him well would attest to the veracity of his exploits. He was well-liked, respected, and deeply admired, but he was not perfect.
Boone was an excellent surveyor, but a poor businessman and administrator. He was naive and taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. Boone was often in debt, but he had a force of character that I admired, and his superb skills as a woodsman were unsurpassed.
While I idolized Boone, he remained largely a legendary figure in my imagination. Growing up, I had my toy soldiers, fort, musket, coonskin cap and even strove to dress in faux buckskin or any other clothing that had that “frontiersman” look.
I watched every episode of the Daniel Boone TV series, but I never really traversed the ground that Boone walked on. I never got to explore his Wilderness Trail, or sit inside a frontier fort, or experience the lush forests, springs, and waterways of a verdant, virgin Kentucky.
In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone
For years I carried that yearning with me. When I finally retired after nearly 40 years as a naval officer, Department of Defense civilian, and defense contractor, I found the time to act on my dream.
Although I live in Southern California, I flew across country to Lexington, KY to begin my quest of walking in Daniel Boone’s shoes and trying to see the world he explored through his eyes.
In a way, I was working backwards, for the Lexington area was the place where Daniel Boone and others led their intrepid followers to settle. Here, wave after wave of pioneers followed, building their forted settlements to take advantage of the rich pasturelands and game-filled forests. It was the first terminus, not the beginning of the pioneer migration into Kentucky.
But the Lexington area appealed to me as it offered an unrivalled glimpse into the life of these hardy settlers and roving frontiersmen. The area has three historic settlements painstakingly restored to provide an authentic recreation of Kentucky pioneer and frontier life.
I made the journey alone for selfish reasons. I am a history buff and far too often I’ve had to cut my time short when my companions, whether friend, spouse, or family member, grew bored with my insatiable curiosity. Alone, I could spend as much or as little time I desired immersing myself in the wondrous world of Daniel Boone.
Old Fort Harrod
My first stop was Harrodsburg, KY roughly 30 miles southwest of Lexington. In Harrodsburg’s downtown stands Old Fort Harrod State Park where a highly authentic version of the original fort stands. This was actually Kentucky’s first white settlement.
In June, 1774, James Harrod led 37 men into Kentucky from the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. The fledgling settlement had to be abandoned later that year during Lord Dunmore’s War, but was re-established in March 1775. In 1936, Frankin Delano Roosevelt honored Harrodsburg with a monument as the oldest permanent American settlement west of the Appalachians.
The centerpiece of the 15-acre park is a full-scale replica of the original settlement once located just across the side street where the parking lot now resides.
I discovered from a guide that the recreated fort follows the original layouts of buildings per preserved town records. The actual fort was abandoned in the early 1800s as the Native American threat subsided, and the original fort fell slowly into disrepair.
There appeared to be no shortcuts to authenticity, and I immediately felt immersed in Kentucky’s frontier past. The reconstructed 264×264-foot fort contains several log structures including a militia blockhouse, family blockhouse, 18 cabins, a blab school, minister’s cabin, leader’s cabin, and a 10-foot-tall two-gated stockade.
Staff reenactors were eager to share with me as much detail as I was willing to absorb, and since there was no one else waiting their turn to ask questions, I was in my glory learning everything I could about life on the frontier.
I quickly discovered that the pioneers came to Kentucky with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few critical items like cast iron pots and pans. From the moment of their arrival, the land around them had to provide virtually everything for their existence – clothing, food, medicine, soap, shelter, tools, salt, and more. They became masters of living off the land.
One highlight was visiting the gunsmith shop to hold in my hands a true Kentucky Long Rifle – the very type of weapon Daniel Boone used to hunt game and protect his settlement. This famous rifle was a muzzle-loading flintlock nearly five feet long and exceptionally heavy. If the Winchester rifle tamed the Wild West, it was the Kentucky Long Rifle that conquered the Eastern frontier.
It required a small bolt of cloth and lead ball rammed down the barrel, and gunpowder in a pan which the flint percussion ignites sending the bullet flying. Cumbersome and slow, this smooth bore rifle in the right hands, however, was deadly even at an impressive distance. I didn’t get to fire it, but just holding an authentic piece in my hands was an incredible thrill.
In Harrodsburg, I also learned that James Harrod could have easily become as legendary as Daniel Boone. Like Boone, years before leading his settlers to this location, he explored and surveyed vast stretches of Kentucky.
As a hunter, surveyor, explorer, and pioneer leader, he was highly respected. He was an early political leader of Kentucky holding various positions such as legislature representative and justice. Even as a wealthy farmer, though, he loved his long hunts and his life was cut tragically short when in 1792, he left on a beaver hunt, never to return.
Logan’s Station (Fort Asaph)
My same-day journey took me 30 miles southeast to the quiet village of Stanford. Here, Benjamin Logan, another historic figure and contemporary of Daniel Boone, also settled with a small band of pioneers in 1775. Logan had selected this site near the Buffalo Spring water source after surveying the area the year before. Logan named it St. Asaph, but in typical frontier fashion, the site was usually referred to as Logan’s Station.
Logan’s fortification sat upon an offshoot of Boone Trace that led northwest extending to Harrodsburg, becoming part of the Wilderness Trail, eventually leading to Louisville on the Ohio River.
The small outpost was also intended as a refuge for families migrating along this route. Its fortification was only a stockade measuring 150×90-feet, with family cabins spaced along the walls. The frontier fort actually survived a 13-day siege by Native Americans in May 1777, largely due to the heroics of Benjamin Logan and a few others.
By the 1790s, these threats largely subsided and Logan’s Station lost its importance as settled homesteads and entire communities began to spring up on surrounding lands.
Finding this incomplete fort restoration turned out to be harder than I imagined. Twice I missed Stanford’s small Historical Marker #56 set well off a dirt road winding back into the countryside from an outlying side street.
Like the original, the fort was small and the rustic recreation had yet to be finished. Its main gate, rather than swinging open, actually flipped up by rope pulley – common for smaller fortifications. Two blockhouses were largely finished and where most of the settlement folk would “fort up” during attack. Several small cabins were built, but the last few did not yet have stockade walls linking them to the fortification.
It was nearing suppertime and there was no one on site except for me. No traffic noise, only the sounds of birds, crickets, and croaking frogs. The only hints of civilization were the electrical towers behind the fort and a couple of log cabin buildings along the dirt road that led me here.
That sense of profound isolation coupled with the incomplete construction only added to my unsettled feelings as I imagined how vulnerable these hardy pioneers must have felt as they began carving out their only means for survival in this beautiful, but hostile land.
The reconstruction project is locally organized by the Logan’s Fort Foundation, a non-profit organization in conjunction with support from the Stanford City Council and the Lincoln County Fiscal Court. Annual re-enactments of the 1777 siege are held to commemorate Logan’s Station’s role in opening up the Kentucky frontier.
Historic Daniel Boone Tavern and Restaurant
Winding east for 30 miles on state routes, I stopped for the night at the Historic Daniel Boone Tavern and Restaurant in the lovely college town of Berea. This historic southern gem opened in 1909. Restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Boone Tavern is considered one of the most prominent historic hotels in America and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I was a disappointed to learn that Daniel Boone himself had nothing to do with the tavern or even the site. He would have likely wandered through here on many of his long or short hunts, but there is nothing to validate this belief. Every locale, institution or town, landmark, forest, lake, or stream in Kentucky is more than happy to link Daniel Boone’s name to their identity.
The historic tavern was nevertheless quite a delight. Impeccably decorated, the classy inn exuded elegance and history. It was surprisingly reasonably priced, had a wonderful restaurant, and my room was well-appointed and comfortable.
Best of all, it lay only 25 miles south of my next, and most cherished, destination.
Fort Boonesborough State Park
This was the culmination of my dreams – to fully experience an authentic recreation of the historic settlement founded by my childhood (and adult) hero. It was big. Bigger (and realistically so) than Old Fort Harrod and it dwarfed Logan’s Station.
A monument stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to the fort’s entrance. On it was listed all the settler names who once called Fort Boonesborough home. Boone came from a large family as did his wife, Rebecca Bryan, and all the names were etched into the granite column as a testimony to their frontier spirit.
I later came to learn just how prevalent the Bryan name was in the greater Lexington area.
The first thing I noted about the reconstructed fort is that not all frontier forts were built the same. Much of Fort Boonesborough sported horizontal logging and the back walls of each cabin were actually part of the wall. Huge blockhouses were situated on the corners with an overhanging second floor enabling the defenders to fire down the lower level and along stockade walls.
Fort Boonesborough has been reconstructed as a working fort complete with 26 cabins, four blockhouses, and period furnishings. Expert resident artisans conduct craft demonstrations and provide an in-depth immersion into the many challenges of pioneer life.
The blacksmith shop stood in the center of the fortress, its fiery forge far from any timbered walls. Likewise, the powder magazine sat apart, partially buried underground as a safety precaution. Of course, the fort had an internal well for fresh water.
Boonesborough was a stalwart in the defense of the Kentucky frontier for nearly 20 years. When the American Revolution began, the frontier was alit with violence and many settlers fled back east. By the end of 1775, Fort Boonesborough, along with Fort Harrod and Logan’s Station, remained one of Kentucky’s only inhabited settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.
In 1778, Fort Boonesborough withstood an 11-day siege by Shawnee warriors led by Chief Blackfish after Daniel Boone escaped Shawnee capture and traveled 160 miles in five days to warn the settlers. This historic siege is re-enacted yearly at the State Park site.
It’s definitely on my bucket list.
My first Daniel Boone adventure only whetted my appetite to continue. Due to flood damage, I was unable to view the site of the original Fort Boonesborough. Visiting would be like walking on holy ground.
I need to travel beyond the populated Lexington area where civilization had set in and experience Eastern Kentucky’s lush forests, mountains, and springs to see the timeless wildness of Kentucky that Boone so ardently explored on his many trips into the unknown interior.
Future journeys will take me to the forested Cumberland Gap and follow the routes from the North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee borders to the Wilderness Trail and Boone’s Trace where Daniel Boone blazed through the mountains and into Kentucky.
Here, much of the land is pristine and undeveloped, making it easier to perhaps see through Boone’s eyes just why this magnificent wilderness beckoned him so.
For me, this quest is never-ending, the more I discover, the more I realize what’s still out there waiting to be revealed to me by my hero, Daniel Boone.