Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnapping That Shaped America

The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnapping That Shaped America
by Matthew Pearl
Harper Collins (October 2021)
272 pages
Link to The Taking of Jemima Boone in LFPL’s collection
Link to titles by Matthew Pearl in LFPL’s collection

Most Kentuckians are familiar with Daniel Boone and many have even been to Boonesborough, the fort Daniel and other settlers built on the outskirts of what is now Harrodsburg. The stories and legends about Daniel Boone are numerous, especially in regards to his dealings with the indigenous settlers who already called Kentucky home. One story that gets less attention, but is no less important is the kidnapping of Boone’s daughter Jemima. 

On July 14th, 1776 Jemima Boone and her friends, sisters Elizabeth and Frances Callaway were enjoying a rare break from chores and canoeing along the Kentucky River. They were attacked and abducted by a party of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians (a quick note: Pearl uses the term Indians over Native Americans on guidance from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian). Attacks and abductions like this were not uncommon. European settlers encroached on valuable hunting ground that sustained several tribes and indigenous settlements, and attempts at treaties and peaceful coexistence were unsuccessful, so in an effort to deter permanent settlement Cherokee and Shawnee tribes began policies of attacks and kidnapping. To a certain extent this was working, and by 1776 there were fewer than 200 settlers in Kentucky, comprised of white Europeans, slaves, and free Blacks.

After their abduction girls were quickly marched north through various Shawnee towns in an effort to throw off rescue parties. Not content to be passive captives the girls began using subtle non-compliance to leave clues for rescuers. Jemima began tearing her dress and leaving scraps behind. They dug in their heels and left footprints whenever possible. The plan worked and a rescue party made up of Daniel Boone and other men from Boonesborough caught up to the girls and their captors. What followed was a fast skirmish that left two Native men dead, including the son of prominent leader Blackfish.

The fallout was swift, a few months later Boone and others were captured by the Shawnee. Boone was adopted into the tribe and given the name Big Turtle. For months he lived and worked among the Shawnee, assumed dead by those back in Boonesborough. His family left the state. Boone eventually escaped and made his way back to Boonesborough, pursued by the Shawnee (and also the British, who had a somewhat tepid alliance with the Shawnee and the Cherokee). A standoff ensued with the folks at Boonesborough narrowly persevering. Conflict was far from over, but this was a turning point for the settlers, confirming their grasp on this stretch of “wilderness”.

This was Matthew Pearl’s first foray into non-fiction, but it’s written much like a thriller. It’s an engaging read about a part of history little remembered. Jemima Boone’s kidnapping was well known in the 18th and 19th century, it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, as well as famous works of art, but her name is now more of a footnote than a plot point in our understanding of early America. The same can be said of Native leaders like Dragging Canoe and Hanging Maw, names we don’t often hear in history class, but whose decisions and interactions with European settlers shaped the frontier. Pearl does a great job at helping the reader understand the struggle between indigenous tribes like the Cherokee and the Shawnee and European settlers who moved in and threatened their livelihood. This is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the early days of Kentucky.

– Review by Jenny, Middletown Branch