Today's Reading


Rebecca Boone noticed something missing as she looked out over the garrison at Moore's Fort in southwest Virginia: men. Instead, she saw the other wives of the hunters and military officers staying at the fort. The early 1770s on the frontier—the sparsely populated stretches of Virginia and the areas westward across mountainous borders—meant residing either in standalone cabins or in cabins clustered into "stations" or forts, which included protective structures to keep attackers at bay. Conflicts with American Indian tribes came at a quick and bloody clip, so most frontier men were commissioned as soldiers by colonial governments, whether or not they wanted to be.

On this summer day, those men were out of sight. Some were away from the fort playing ball; others napped in the fields. They hadn't even bothered bringing guns with them. The father of one of the men, nicknamed Old Daddy, had stayed behind, but conventional wisdom held the elderly as irrelevant to the defense of the fort—much the way women were viewed. With Rebecca was her adolescent daughter Jemima. She had raven hair and tenacity like her mother's, and a stubborn, independent streak like her father's. Daniel Boone, the accomplished woodsman, was away on a mission into Kentucky, a purported promised land to which he had been drawn for years to the point of obsession. He continued to look for a way to settle there, against odds and logic.

Responsibility for the family, as often was the case, fell to Rebecca. Faced with the distressing sight of this unguarded fort, Rebecca decided to take a stand against the men. She instructed eleven-year-old Jemima to take a rifle. If the men weren't going to use their weapons, the women would.

Rebecca and Jemima, along with Jemima's older sister, Susannah, joined the other women of the fort. Upon a signal, they fired into the air as fast as they could. Then they raced to slam both gates of the fort, one in front and one at the back, locking them.

The men came stampeding toward the fort. "They were all exceeding mad," one woman recounted of the events she witnessed as a nine-year-old. In their headlong rush, some of the men tumbled into a pond outside. One man scaled the wall—in the process unwittingly proving that this fort would not keep out enemies particularly well. He discovered the ruse. As the other men realized the trick by the ladies, they began to argue among themselves over the cause, and two or three fistfights broke out. Calls were made to have the women whipped. Jemima, holding a smoking rifle, watched the startling scene unfold around her, and the sight of this girl gripping the weapon alongside the other armed women likely squelched the idea of whipping anyone.

Rebecca had just demonstrated to young Jemima a crucial lesson. When the men in authority stumbled, women would have to rise up.

Jemima carried the lesson to Kentucky, where the family set up not just a home but a community, and she continued to build on it as she entered the folklore of the American frontier when she was kidnapped in July 1776. Theodore Roosevelt, writing in the late nineteenth century, observed that the epic story of Jemima's kidnapping "reads like a page out of one of Cooper's novels," but the Rough Rider got it backward. In fact, the real incidents inspired James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, the 1826 adventure novel intertwining the fates of the colonists and Indians, a book that went on to become one of the most popular in the English language. But the transformation of life into literature can make the true story harder to observe independently from what it inspired. Another early chronicler of the West once complained about Cooper's advantages compared to the chronicler's attempts to gather facts about the Boones' frontier: "A novelist may fill up the blank from his own imagination; but a writer who professes to adhere to the truth, is fettered down to the record before him."

The records of the Boones' experiences are deep and complex, however. Cooper's novel and other literary and artistic interpretations retain only traces of the verve, excitement, and stakes of these original events. Nor was Jemima's kidnapping a standalone moment, but rather part of a chain reaction that included another kidnapping, all-out military combat, and a courtroom drama that effectively put those preceding events on trial. Jemima Boone was in the middle of it all from the moment that chain reaction began.

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