The Court-Martial of Daniel Boone

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In September 1778, during the American Revolution, a combined Shawnee and British force attacked the frontier fortress at Boonesborough, Kentucky. Daniel Boone, the town’s namesake and one of its militia commanders, found himself caught in a web of ploys and questionable tactics that resulted in his court-martial.

Was he a traitor to the patriot cause?

A Captive Becomes a War Chief’s Son

The prelude to the siege of Boonesborough occurred seven months earlier. Boone had led a party of 26 men from the fortress on a salt-gathering mission to springs not far away. He parted from the group, apparently on a scouting sortie; when he reappeared, it was at the head of a band of Shawnee warriors — British allies. The militiamen, far outnumbered, surrendered without resisting.

By Boone’s later account, he himself had been captured by the Shawnee, commanded by Chief Blackfish, who was bent on taking Boonesborough. Boone subsequently claimed he befriended and connived with Blackfish to take the salt party into custody but, in so doing, persuaded Blackfish to postpone any attack on the fortress until later in the year. This, said Boone, was intended to gain time for those inside the fort to bolster their defenses.

Boone endeared himself to the Shawnee chief. Blackfish went so far as to proclaim the white man his adopted sun. Blackfish named him Sheltowee—“Big Turtle,” signifying Boone’s slow pace (he then was 44 years old) and large backpack. (Several others of the salt-gathering party were adopted by Shawnee families during captivity.)

The Assault on Fortress Boonesborough

In time, Boone slipped away from the Indians and made his way back to Boonesborough. When Shawnee warriors and British soldiers approached the fortress in September, Boone urged a committee of defenders to negotiate with Blackfish outside the walls.

Although suspicious, the Boonesborough inhabitants sent forth a small delegation. As they feared, the attackers tried to seize the negotiators. Fighting erupted in earnest, and for the next 10 days, the fortress was under siege.

The defenders, while outnumbered, were more than capable with their rifles. In the end, the Indians, having suffered lopsided casualties, vanished into the forest.

The Trial of Daniel Boone

Boone was charged with treason. Most of what is known about his court-martial comes from the record penned by presiding Judge Daniel Trabue many years later; all other related documents were lost.

The prosecutor was militia Col. John Bowman. Boone represented himself. He patiently listened to fellow militiamen claim he was a British sympathizer (some of his relatives were loyalists) and conspirator. He then explained that his seeming collusion with the enemy was all deceptive, that throughout his captivity he had fed them “tales to fool them.”

Boone prevailed. He not only was acquitted but was given the rank of major in the militia.

Even today, a few historians find Boone’s explanation of events questionable. However, most agree his primary interests in the affair were saving the lives of the salt-gathering captives and preserving the security of Boonesborough.

Despite his exoneration, Boone was haunted by the military blemish on his reputation for the rest of his life. He soon left Kentucky. He lived to age 86; he and his wife Rebecca died in Missouri Territory.