By D.G. Martin
First there was Daniel Boone.
Boone’s real exploits on America’s frontier made him a legend in a new country whose people were ever pushing westward, driving the boundaries of their nation to the Pacific and beyond.
The history of our country’s push westward has never been easy to write, wrapped up as it is with contradictory themes. The tenacious heroism of the settlers braving the long dangerous treks to new homes has to be matched up against the greed, deceit and callousness that forced the original inhabitants off their lands.
While the expansion of democracy led to a land of freedom admired throughout the world, it was built in part on lands seized from a weak neighbor.
How can that story best be told?
North Carolina native poet, novelist and teacher Robert Morgan showed us one way in his recent biography, “Boone.” Using his great storytelling skills, Morgan demythologized Boone while at the same time showing him to be an extraordinary and fascinating person.
From his home base along the Yadkin River in North Carolina where he grew up, Boone explored Kentucky and then pulled his kinfolk, neighbors and countless others across the mountains to his new home country. Later, many of them followed Boone further west to Missouri.
Other men, some of them with adventurous spirits similar to Boone’s, continued the push westward long after Boone left the scene. In his latest book, “Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion,” Morgan continues the saga. Instead of focusing on just one man as he did with “Boone,” he uses short profiles of 10 different men to develop a panoramic look at a historic era.
He picked a variety of subjects. Some—like David Crockett, Sam Houston, Kit Carson, and John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman—are, like Boone, mythical figures, demigods in America’s national pantheon.
Others like Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and John Quincy Adams, though not as colorful, were even more important. They made controversial decisions that put the power of the nation behind their visions of an expanding country.
Most of us remember learning in high school history that the key event in opening the door to the expansion of the United States was Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Morgan’s portrait of Jefferson shows how his strong and continuing interest in the western part of North America arose long before 1803.
The largest acquisition of territory, other than the Louisiana Purchase, had a North Carolina connection. As president, North Carolina native and UNC graduate James K. Polk led the country into the war with Mexico and the acquisition of the Southwest and California. Even while pointing out Polk’s numerous flaws, Morgan praises him as one of the country’s most effective presidents.
Morgan includes another North Carolina-connected president, Andrew Jackson, for his role in opening the west. Today, historians criticize Jackson for his part in the forcible removal of the eastern tribes of Native Americans. But Morgan’s sympathetic portrait of Jackson’s bravery, tenacity and open democracy shows the reader why many historians admire him.
The tales of heroic fighters like Sam Houston, David Crockett and Kit Carson make them obvious choices for “Lions of the West.” But why did Morgan include “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman? Although apples and trees were important on the frontier, I think Morgan used him to show that the settlement of the West resulted more from the determination of ambitious ordinary people than from government direction.
“Lions of the West” is full of many more good stories, all told by a talented author, whose histories and biographies read like his much-admired fiction.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.