They were the legendary hunters and explorers of Kentucky and Tennessee, men like Daniel Boone (pictured at left,) Kasper Mansker, Joseph Drake, Isaac Bledsoe, and Uriah Stone, who set out from the mountainous edges of Virginia and North Carolina in the 1760s and early 70s. They were known as long hunters, because they were sometimes away for a year or more at a time. They brought with them everything they needed for survival: two pack horses apiece, traps, rifles, powder, lead, and a saucepan for melting the lead; knives, axes, tomahawks, and the tools need to fix them all; and a supply of flour for bread. In the winter they erected three-sided shelters, warming themselves with a fire by the open side.
The land that awaited them was teeming with game—deer, elk, and beaver, plus buffalo in herds so thick that you could not ride a horse through them. It was also occupied by Indians, who depended on the game for their survival, but who, in the beginning, saw in the new arrivals only competing hunters rather than invaders who would soon destroy their world. That did not mean that the long hunters were welcome. In areas where there were many Indians, they slept with their moccasins tied around their knees so as to be ready at a moment’s notice, and with their guns loaded and primed.
A skilled and lucky hunter might return home with hundreds or even thousands of skins, if he managed to keep possession of them. On the greatest of the long hunts, in 1769, Mansker and others built two flatboats and two pirogues (large canoes hollowed out of a single log), in order to float their skins down the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers for sale in Natchez. Another party carelessly left their camp unattended, and lost 1,500 skins, as well as their cooking utensils and most of their clothing. Still another maintained friendly relations with the local Indians throughout a winter’s hunting. When they were packing up in the spring to return home, however, their former friends arrived to take possession of their horses, furs and guns, and told them that they were on Indian land and should never come back.
Their heyday was brief. Within a decade, the land had been transformed. In 1765, game was abundant on the Cumberland Plateau; ten years later it was almost entirely gone.
Whether or not they had foreseen the change, the hunters had to adapt. They were not merely exploiting a resource to extinction, as so many of their countrymen have done before and since. They were clearing the way for the settlers waiting to pour over the mountains. When the game was gone, Daniel Boone became a guide for land speculators in Kentucky, and later a licensed surveyor—a job for which he was spectacularly unsuited. Bledsoe, Mansker, and others built walled “stations” in central Tennessee, to shelter the new arrivals from those Indians who had not yet accepted the loss of their land. After a few bloody years, those Indians, too, had vanished from the Cumberland.
Further reading: Boone, by Robert Morgan, is a grand, vivid portrait of Daniel Boone and his world.Share