Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

150319BooneTrace0086Curtis Penix, left, and Givan Fox, hiked last Thursday in Laurel County along the historic route of Boone Trace, the 200-mile path Daniel Boone and his crew blazed through the Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Penix’s 5th-great-grandfather, Joshua Penix, took the path to Fort Boonesborough in 1779. Photos by Tom Eblen


RACCOON SPRINGS — As dawn broke, backpackers Curtis Penix and Givan Fox emerged from their shelter, rubbed their eyes and filled their water bottles from natural springs that trickled out of a hillside.

Daniel Boone camped here many times and drank from the same springs, which he supposedly named after being startled by a thirsty raccoon.

This became a busy way station along Boone Trace, the 200-mile trail that Boone and his crew blazed for the Transylvania Company from Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Raccoon Springs is now in Laurel County, a few miles southeast of London.

Penix, a steel mill worker from Michigan, was here because his fifth-great grandfather, Joshua Penix, walked Boone Trace in 1779 on his way to Fort Boonesborough, where he was listed among the settlers.

Fox was here because his father, retired Lexington physician John Fox, is president of Friends of Boone Trace, a non-profit group that hopes to preserve the historic route as a hiking trail, walking paths and a memorial to the pioneers.

Penix, 46, and Fox, 42, think they may be the first people in two centuries to walk all of Boone Trace.

“There’s so much history here,” Penix said. “Millions of Americans today, just like me, have ancestors who came through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. ”

150319BooneTrace0005While many of the well-worn buffalo and Native American paths Boone incorporated into his trail are now country roads, railroad tracks and even major highways, other sections of Boone Trace have all but disappeared.

Penix started his journey March 10 near Kingsport, Tenn. He hiked through Virginia to Martin’s Station near Cumberland Gap, where on March 15 he was joined by Fox, a medic in the Colorado National Guard.

The men carry a satellite communicator that transmits their position every 20 minutes to Penix’s website,, where they blog daily about their experiences.

“The first four days were rough, nothing but rain and highway,” Penix said when I met them at Raccoon Springs Thursday. “No Indians, but a lot of semi-trucks, a lot of spray in the face.”

After several days of walking 20 miles or more, the two planned a slightly easier schedule. They were to stop at the sites of other Boone Trace landmarks, such as Twetty’s Fort and Woods Blockhouse, before completing their journey Thursday at Fort Boonesborough State Park on the Madison-Clark county line. After a ceremony there, they plan a big steak dinner and a lot of rest.

Boone Trace is often confused with the Wilderness Road, which was built later and became more popular, especially after Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and state government funded improvements.

The two roads ran together through Cumberland Gap, but split below London. Boone Trace went to the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough, while the Wilderness Road went to Harrodsburg and on to what is now Louisville.

“Everybody talks about the Wilderness Road and forgets about Boone Trace,” John Fox said. “Once Daniel Boone opened the trail, people just flooded in. About 100,000 people may have traveled it before Kentucky became a state.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed stone markers at several key points along the route in 1915. Other groups added markers in 1942, the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.

But, over the years, the markers became overgrown and were forgotten as highways were improved. Many sections of Boone Trace were lost until Louisville architect Neal Hammon began researching it in the 1960s. He and others remapped the trail by using computer technology to piece together old records.

Penix familiarized himself with the route by studying maps and satellite images. He worked with John Fox to get permission to cross private land. Fox is providing occasional support from his pickup truck, but his son and Penix are carrying all of their camping gear and food.

“It was suggested by some people that we do it in buckskins and linen shirts,” Penix said. “There’s just no way we would have survived.”

Penix got into trouble early in his walk, when he was forced to spend a night in a motel after days of cold rain left him soaked and in danger of hypothermia. “I had the idea of doing this kind of independent,” he said. “I was going to carry my own food, sleep under the stars the way Joshua did, cross rivers the way Joshua did.”

Penix said he learned a lesson in Rose Hill, Va., when he couldn’t find his planned campsite and a store owner offered him shelter in a storage unit. As he was about to go to sleep on its concrete floor, Pam Eddy, a ranger from nearby Cumberland Gap National Park, came by.

Eddy persuaded him to stay the night at her cabin. And she explained that pioneer culture was as much about helping one another as being self-reliant.

“This was a community,” Penix said. “There were people all along the way with forts and blockhouses and stations where people could stop and rest and get a meal, get resupplied.”

Throughout their journey, Penix said, they have been met by town mayors, local historians and a lot of friendly, helpful people.

“We’ve been fed along the way, offered roofs along the way, just like the pioneers,” he said. “So when I wanted to do it just like Grandpa Joshua, I had it all wrong. I learned how to do it right.”



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Expert to speak March 19 about iconic Kentucky long rifles

March 11, 2014

140307KyRifles0002Two of the finely crafted Kentucky long rifles and a powder horn that were part of the Kentucky Treasures exhibit last weekend at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show. Below, Mel Hankla.  Photos by Tom Eblen


The Kentucky long rifle has been an icon for two centuries, thanks in part to the myth and folklore that grew up around the taming of America’s early Western frontier.

But recently, the best surviving examples of these weapons have been attracting attention for another reason: They are impressive works of art and craftsmanship.

“For art collectors, this represents a new frontier,” said Mel Hankla of Grayson, who has been researching Kentucky rifles for more than three decades.

He will give a lecture about them at noon on March 19 at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. Admission is $25, or $20 for Kentucky Historical Society members. Reservations must be made by March 14; call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414.

140307KyRifles0001Most of the long-barreled flintlocks that pioneers and settlers brought into Kentucky during the last half of the 18th century were made in southeastern Pennsylvania, where German gunsmiths pioneered the technology. They were called “Kentucky rifles” because that was where they were used.

But Hankla’s research has focused the fact that some of finest of these rifles were actually made in Kentucky, between about 1790 and 1840.

Hankla, 56, is a broker in early Americana and an actor who portrays pioneers George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton in the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua series. He also starred in Michael Breeding’s film, Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, on Kentucky Educational Television last year.

Hankla has always been fascinated by firearms and Kentucky’s pioneer era. As a graduate student, he learned how to make black-powder guns. Since then, he has investigated the handful of gunsmiths who made long rifles, tracing their development and movement into Kentucky from Virginia and North Carolina.

“It is an art form that is unknown even to most experienced collectors,” said Bob Noe, a major collector of early Kentucky furniture whose pieces are now at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. “Mel has pioneered this work.”

“These are decorative arts,” said Mack Cox, another major collector of early Kentucky furniture and paintings who owns several rifles. “This artistic tradition is important to Kentucky culture, and more Kentuckians should know about it.”

Cox said Kentucky rifles are especially impressive as art objects because gunsmiths had to master many different skills, from steel-making to wood-carving to brass, gold and silver inlay work.

Kentucky rifles were essential tools of survival for frontiersmen. They also became status symbols; a man’s most valued possession.

There were families of Kentucky gunsmiths: Rudolph Mauck and his sons, Henry Peter Mauck and Daniel Mock; Conrad Humble and his brother, Michael, who made Daniel Boone’s rifle; William Young and his son, Jacob; and William Bryan, a founder of Bryan’s Station, and his son, Daniel, who owned Waveland.

Only two guns signed by Daniel Bryan, who was Boone’s nephew, are known to exist, Hankla said. Other Bryan-style guns are unsigned because the family had a large shop with as many as 25 gunsmiths, each making a different part of rifles, much like a modern assembly line.

Hankla has studied geography, genealogy and similarities in rifle design to figure out how gunsmiths were related and who may have apprenticed with whom.

As with the gunsmiths, families sometimes fabricated the elaborate scrimshawed cattle horns that were used to store gunpowder. The most famous family of powder-horn makers was the Tansels of Scott County.

At the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Antiques & Garden Show last weekend, Hankla showed perhaps the largest display of fine Kentucky rifles ever assembled: 18 guns and 12 powder horns borrowed from eight collections.

Hankla said there are probably fewer than 50 surviving examples of early, fancy Kentucky-made rifles. At least two of those in his display last weekend had histories as impressive as their craftsmanship.

One was the state-owned rifle that Jacob Young made about 1800 for pioneer leader William Whitley. An eyewitness says Whitley used it to kill the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. Whitley also died in that battle. His horse, rifle and carved powder horn were returned to his widow, Esther, who was said to have been as good a shot as he was.

Thomas Simpson, who likely was Jacob Young’s teacher, made a rifle for Col. Gasper Mansker in 1791 that may have been the result of a boast Simpson made in the Kentucky Gazette the year before. He wrote the newspaper that he could make a rifle as fine as any man in the United States. Hankla now owns it.

The Chickasaw chief Piomingo was so impressed with Mansker’s rifle that he wrote Gen. James Robertson, the Indian agent and founder of Nashville, asking if the U.S. government would have Simpson make him one in return for his peace efforts. When Piomingo died in 1799, that rifle was buried with him.

Digging for answers at Fort Boonesborough: What did they find?

September 15, 2012

 Nancy O’Malley, a UK archaeologist, led a dig at Fort Boonesborough to learn more about the siege of 1778. She is holding what she thinks is one of the more accurate drawings of the fort. Photo by Tom Eblen


When I read in June that a University of Kentucky archaeologist was doing the first major exploration of Fort Boonesborough in 25 years, I had to know what she found.

Nancy O’Malley wasn’t just looking for 18th century artifacts, although she found some: a hoe, a skillet, buttons, buckles, bullets, hand-wrought nails, forks, bits of English ceramic and a blue glass trade bead.

O’Malley, an expert on Kentucky pioneer settlements who first confirmed Fort Boonesborough’s location in 1987, was trying to figure out exactly how much of the fort still exists. She was specifically searching for evidence of the most famous event that occurred there: a nine-day siege 234 years ago this week in which Daniel Boone and a small group of pioneers repelled an attack by several hundred Native Americans.

“This siege is just completely out of the ordinary in terms of what was happening in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War,” O’Malley said. “On the face of it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — some of the things that happened and, more to the point, some of the things that didn’t happen.”

While East Coast colonists were fighting the British for independence, settlers were streaming across the mountains into Kentucky. Shawnees and other northern tribes were alarmed and tried to run them out. The British took advantage of the situation, offering bounties for settlers’ scalps.

Boone, an explorer, hunter and surveyor working for the Transylvania Co., established Boonesborough in 1775. As Native American attacks escalated, the fort became an important shelter.

Shawnees captured Boone in February 1778 while he was with men who had gone to Blue Licks in what is now Nicholas County to make salt. Boone convinced them not to kill him and the 30 salt-makers, but to take them back to their villages as captives. Boone also made vague promises about arranging for Boonesborough’s surrender.

Blackfish, the Shawnee chief, grew fond of Boone and adopted him as a son, giving him the name Shel-tow-ee, which meant “big turtle.” But when Boone heard tribe members plotting to attack Boonesborough, he escaped and returned to warn the settlers and strengthen the fort.

Warriors from five tribes arrived at Boonesborough with a dozen French Canadians working for the British. Boone estimated the force at nearly 450, although O’Malley suspects it was smaller. Still, they greatly outnumbered the approximately 40 men and 95 women and children inside the fort.

After chastising his “son” for running away, Blackfish asked Boone to surrender the fort. During two days of negotiations, the chief promised settlers wouldn’t be harmed if they became captives. Boone made excuses and stalled for time.

“Of course, everybody was lying through their teeth,” O’Malley said. “Once it was clear the settlers were not going to give up, it was pretty much no holds barred.”

For nine days — Sept. 9-17, 1778 — settlers and warriors waged a battle of constant rifle shots. The attackers sent torches and flaming arrows into the fort, but settlers, helped by steady rain, extinguished the flames.

“There was a lot of trash talk going on,” O’Malley said. “And inside the fort there’s all this subterfuge.” Women dressed as men and hats were put on sticks along the stockade fence to make the garrison appear bigger.

“You have this huge force against this very limited number of people who are holed up in a pretty rickety fort,” O’Malley said. “I still don’t understand why the Indians didn’t figure this out.”

The Canadians convinced the warriors to try to dig a tunnel more than 100 feet from the Kentucky River bank into the fort, but, after days of work, the rain-soaked ground collapsed. Why didn’t they just storm the place? That probably would have worked, O’Malley said, “but that wasn’t a typical Indian tactic.”

After losing about 35 warriors while killing only two settlers, including a black slave, the attackers gave up and left. “All of these things could have gone differently,” O’Malley said. “There was a lot of luck involved.”

With a $27,000 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, O’Malley hopes to use historical archaeology to learn more about what happened and where.

She fully excavated a stone foundation and hearth she found in 1987 and now believes was Squire Boone’s gunsmith shop in the center of the fort. Evidence she found, compared with a survivor’s crude map, have led her to conclude that the tribes camp was about where the state park’s miniature golf course is now.

Using ground-penetrating radar, O’Malley hoped to find evidence of the tunnel, but she didn’t. “Unfortunately, with bank erosion, I’m pretty sure this tunnel is downstream,” she said.

The biggest challenge has been figuring out all of the dramatic changes in Boonesborough’s landscape over the past two centuries: later structures, massive silting and erosion, rechanneling of creeks and construction of park facilities.

O’Malley plans to keep looking at physical evidence and historical records to try to clarify the often conflicting accounts of siege survivors, whose memories were colored by the passage of time and other versions they later heard and read.

“There were just so many things about the siege that were very strange, and so many funny stories, that after a while you wonder what to believe,” O’Malley said. “History is a messy business.”

Farewell to Fess Parker, our Daniel Boone

March 19, 2010

Like most male baby boomers, I’m feeling sad and a little old because of the death of Fess Parker on Thursday at the age of 85.

Older boomers remember him most for his portrayal of Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett in the 1950s Walt Disney TV shows and movie. Kentucky boys my age, though, knew him best as Daniel Boone.

From 1964 to 1970, Parker starred as Boone in what was then one of NBC’s highest-rated TV shows. Boone was, according to the theme song, “The rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew.”

After rising to stardom in buckskin, Parker, like Boone, went into real estate, but with much more success. Parker also started making wine, although I imagine Boone would have preferred corn liquor. (Boone never wore a coonskin cap, by the way.)

Through modern, adult eyes, the Daniel Boone series seems corny, historically inaccurate and more than a little racist. At the time, though, it was high adventure. I had my own coon-skin cap and toy long rifle, and I insisted on carrying a new Daniel Boone lunchbox on my first day of first grade at Maxwell School.

When my family moved out to what was then the country in 1966, I thought it was pretty cool that we could look out the back window and see an early 1800s house that once belonged to relatives of Boone’s wife, Rebecca Bryan. (It’s now the Firebrook subdivision clubhouse.)

The Daniel Boone TV show helped interest me in Kentucky history, which I’ve come to discover was much more colorful and exciting than the plots those TV writers came up with.

The TV show was filmed in the mountains out West. Still, it was something my friends and I could relate to, because it was supposed to be taking place in Kentucky, not far from where we lived. Fess Parker made our little corner of flyover country famous, even if TV viewers got an image of a long-ago Kentucky wilderness covered in aspen trees and Ponderosa pines.

RIP, Fess Parker.

Daniel Boone’s truth more fascinating than fiction

October 12, 2009

Earlier this year, there was a national celebration of the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the most famous of all Kentuckians.

But this is also a landmark year for perhaps the second-most famous Kentuckian — Daniel Boone, who was born 275 years ago this month.

Like many Kentuckians, I’ve always been fascinated by Daniel Boone.

When I got too old for Captain Kangaroo, my favorite TV show was Daniel Boone, where coonskin cap-wearing Fess Parker was always blazing trails and fighting Indians. I could only imagine how his Kentucky was so much different than mine. When I started first grade, I proudly carried a new Daniel Boone lunch box.

Of course, most of what we all think we know about Daniel Boone is wrong.

A celebration is planned next weekend at Fort Boonesborough State Park to mark Boone’s birth. Perhaps some of the reenactments, pioneer crafts, performances and talks by Boone authors will dispel the myths.

Unlike the tall, handsome TV actor, Boone was a rather ordinary-looking man who stood 5 feet, 8 inches. He hated coonskin caps and never wore one.

Boone fought Indians, but only when necessary. He once said he knew of only three Indians he killed, and he regretted that because Indians had often been nicer to him than white people, even though they killed his brother and two of his sons.

Some of Boone’s best friends were Indians. Once, while a prisoner of the Shawnee, Boone was adopted as the son of Chief Blackfish.

Boone was a hunter and explorer at heart. But at various times in his life, he also was a military leader, a surveyor, a tavern keeper, a land speculator, a farmer, a slave owner, a Virginia legislator and a Spanish government bureaucrat in Missouri. Unlike many frontiersmen, he could read and write. His favorite books were the Bible and Gulliver’s Travels.

Boone was also America’s first celebrity, thanks to John Filson, whose 1784 book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, contained a long appendix said to be the autobiographical adventures of Daniel Boone.

Filson, who would have been a great choice for Kentucky’s first commissioner of tourism or economic development, was a colorful writer. His account of Boone’s exploits created a sensation across the young nation and throughout Europe.

“Boone became a legend in his own time because he had a good PR man,” state historian James Klotter, a history professor at Georgetown College, said of Filson. “But Boone was important in his own right, and his story is worth telling.”

Boone was born in Pennsylvania on Oct. 22 or Nov. 2 (calendars changed in 1752) and raised in North Carolina. He was a loner who also could be a leader when needed.

Boone first came to Kentucky in 1769 and, four years later, led his first group of settlers here. The next year, he was hired to blaze the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap for the Transylvania Co., which hoped to make a killing on Kentucky land speculation.

He built Fort Boonesborough from 1775-78 as a way station for settlers. He later moved several places in Kentucky — including Maysville and Fayette and Greenup counties — but lost all of his land in legal disputes and went into debt. He moved to Missouri in 1799 and died there in 1820, a month short of his 86th birthday.

Boone was a wanderer who, from his teenage years until well into his 80s, would disappear into the wilderness for monthslong hunting expeditions. “That wanderlust was part of him, just like it has been part of the American spirit,” Klotter said.

“In one sense, he represented the common people who settled Kentucky,” he said. “He’s an everyday man often thrust into difficult circumstances and responding in mostly honorable ways. He’s kind of what we want our heroes to be.”

While Boone has been the subject of endless fascination, Klotter would like to know more about his wife of 57 years, Rebecca Bryan Boone.

She had 10 children of her own, took in six more to raise and kept the family together despite her husband’s long absences. No images of her exist, and there are only a few written descriptions.

“She was a heroine in her own right,” Klotter said. “The story that hasn’t been told is the story of the women on the frontier.”

A good place to begin separating the real Daniel Boone from his myth is at Ft. Boonesborough State Park, where a generally accurate fort was built in 1974, up the hill from the flood-prone original site that historians hope someday to fully excavate.

About 40,000 people visit the fort each year to see costumed craftsmen make soap, pottery, fabric and firearms using authentic frontier tools.

Bill Farmer has been coming to work at the fort for a decade in homespun clothing and period steel-framed spectacles. Besides being the fort’s manager, he is an accomplished blacksmith.

“The truth about Boone is even better than the fiction … if people would take the time to find out the person he really was,” Farmer said.

Not far from the fort’s small museum is a surveyor’s office, where performer Scott New, 45, has portrayed Boone for a decade.

“This man is one of our founders, but his life is drowned in myth and fiction and nonsense,” said New, who will be performing next weekend along with Michael Fields as Chief Blackfish. “We need to make the road straight, as it were.”

Still, Daniel Boone can never fully escape his myth. Even in his own fort, the gift shop is well-stocked with coonskin caps.

“That’s one of those things that goes to the bottom line,” Farmer said with a sigh. “I couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of those we sell in a season.”