A Real PioneerPosted: January 15, 2008
“When you give your stories, you are giving yourself. You are giving your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents to future generations. ” (One Memory at a Time by D. G. Fulford)
“I’m kin to Daniel Boone.”
After all, my grandmother was Anna Belle Boone and she was from Kentucky. Family legend guaranteed kinship. I’ve always claimed bragging rights to the most famous pioneer in the world. And I’ve always been able to muster just the right degree of snootiness when telling friends — a lift of the jaw and tip of the head while shutting the eye shades in conjunction with lifting the brows and sliding the name Boone out with a musical lilt.
I wanted to be a pioneer myself. I checked out every biography the public library had of early American pioneer women — Abigail Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Todd Lincoln, Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, and so forth. The books had hardback blue covers with a yellow swirl around the title. I liked the older ones that had softened with use and were easy to hold wide open, their pages bookmarked and worn at the edges. I was hungry for books about strong women who took a stand, women who followed their beliefs and dreams, women who migrated westward into wild land in covered wagons and slept under the stars at night. I wanted to be one of them. I was born in the wrong century. The gripping pull to explore new places on dirt traces with horses and wagons and long full skirts and bonnets pounded in my chest. I longed to sleep on a bed of soft blankets in the back of a Conestoga looking out at the Big Dipper — shaped like the real dipper we used to drink from Grandpa’s well with. I longed to cook a pot of stew over a campfire, then get lulled to sleep by the smell of woodsmoke, the sound of the blaze cracking, and the light and shadows thrown about by fingers of flames spurting out.
One night, when I was full of the spirit, I put a candle on the floor beside my bed. I asked Mama if I could do it, and she said no, but I did it anyway because I wanted to. My bed was about twelve inches from the wall, and I put the candle back there so Mama couldn’t see it. I struck a match to it, then dozed off staring at the flicker. Mama said “something” woke her in the middle of the night and reminded her that I’d asked about a candle. She wouldn’t do it, Mama thought. Would she? Yes, she would. She found the candle flaming two inches from a ruffle on my pretty tiered blue bedspread. She still brings up that incident every time she needs to remind me about the stupid things I’ve done, about how stubborn I can be — and how much like my father. Anyway, I got to sample bedtime by candlelight, and it didn’t take much imagination to pretend I was out in the wilderness under a starlit sky, especially since Mama had stuck luminescent stars to the ceiling in my bedroom.
“You could’ve burned your whole bed up with YOU in it,” she chided the next morning. “And burned your sister up, too.”
“I just wanted to be a pioneer,” I said. That should get her off my back. Besides, Mama encouraged books and storytelling and tall tales of wilderness adventures. She even told a few herself.
“We’re kin to Daniel Boone,” she told me one evening as she stirred buttermilk and eggs into corn meal and poured it over melted Crisco in a black iron skillet. “But I don’t know how,” she said to the rhythm of beating her long wooden spoon on the edge of the pan to knock off all the gritty yellow mixture.
Now everybody knows that Daniel Boone has high visibility as a pioneer. He blazed trails through the Kentucky wilderness and fought Indians and created new settlements.
My grandmother Anna Belle Boone was born and raised in the wilderness he settled. She played a harmonica and sang “My Old Kentucky Home.” Curious, I thought. She was a sharpshooter. My uncle said he remembered her shooting a rabbit out the front door and cooking it for supper. Even more curious. She loved to eat rhubarb and dandelion leaves and she concocted her own poultice for the Seven Year Itch. Sounded like a true pioneer to me!
“Did you ever ask your mother about Daniel Boone?”
“She always told me we were kin to him, but she didn’t know how.” Mama stuck the heavy skillet in the oven and let the door slam shut.
My shoulders fell. I groaned.
“You have to understand something,” Mama explained, setting her lips tight and shooting me one of those looks that said she had good reason for doing what she was about to tell me and I should not question her motives. “When I was in second grade, my reading book had a picture of Daniel Boone’s wife, Rebecca, jumping over a fence to escape the Indians. I showed my mother the picture and asked, ‘Are we kin to her?’ She said yes. I was embarrassed to be related to Rebecca Boone, that wild-eyed woman with her skirts flared, her legs spread, leaping through the air over that wooden rail with angry feathered Indians at her heels. I didn’t want any of my friends to know I was kin to her. I never brought the subject up again.”
I could understand how having an ancestor that unladylike and uncivilized would lower a seven-year-old a notch in the eyes of her peers. Besides, Mama had already told me she had a big enough burden to bear with her own name — Mahaffey. The kids called her Mahaf-ass. Still, I suffered disappointed.
I opened the encyclopedia and discovered that Daniel Boone helped establish the town of Maysville, Kentucky, in 1786. What made that so curious was that Anna Belle Boone was born there exactly one hundred years later. That made my heart pound. I collected my breath. It was sure evidence that pointed to a strong connection between Daniel Boone and my grandmother.
I came to find out later that Daniel Boone was Maysville’s first trustee. He ran a tavern and a ferry. After his first cousin died in Berks County, Pennsylvania, he visited the widow to persuade her and her grown children to move to Kentucky to have a better life. Three of her sons — cousins one generation removed of Daniel — built a boat and floated down the Ohio River to the site of Maysville. Jacob Boone, who it turns out is my fourth great grandfather, helped Daniel Boone lay out the town on the Ohio, used as a trading post for parties going up and down the river. He was the interpreter between the colonel of the army and the Indian chiefs and warriors. He lived and ran a tavern on Front Street, which was still standing the year my mother was born and during her childhood. The tavern was destroyed by the 1937 Ohio River flood, the same disaster that washed away the house Mama grew up in.
Jacob Boone is buried in the Old Pioneer Cemetery at the county museum in Maysville.
I really am in a real pioneer family.