Revisting the war on the American frontier through the abduction of a girl

THE TAKING OF JEMIMA BOONE by Matthew Pearl, Harper, 272 pages, $27.99

The carrying away of women has been a staple of storytelling from Homer to Hollywood. The abduction of Helen by Prince Paris triggered the Trojan War in The Iliad and in numerous remakes down to Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and the 1992 Michael Mann movie of the same name pivoted their plot on the kidnapping of two daughters of a British officer during the French and Indian War. The seizure of Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanches in 1830s Texas inspired the John Ford epic The Searchers, based on the Alan Le May novel.

The connection of war to the taking of women is no accident. When the woman is a powerful man’s wife — Helen was married to King Menelaus of Sparta — the effort to retrieve her can hardly help escalating to armed conflict. When the women are the daughters of a soldier already engaged in war, they inject a personal element into the broader story. Sometimes a woman — or girl, in the case of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker — is a prize of war, her capture having the aim of making her a mother in a tribe with a declining population.

For Matthew Pearl, the kidnapping of Jemima Boone, daughter of Daniel Boone, serves as entree to his new history of the war on the western frontier in the American Revolution. Fighting on the frontier was not simply a consequence of the American break from Britain in 1776, but one of its principal causes. The British government, to trim expenditures in America, in 1763 suspended western settlement, which regularly provoked conflict with Indians of the Ohio Valley. Americans, including actual settlers such as Boone and speculators like George Washington, resented the suspension and interpreted it as an infringement of their rights.

Not all Americans thought British infringements warranted a severing of ties with the mother country, and after the Continental Congress declared independence, the struggle against Britain became a civil war among Americans, pitting patriots against loyalists. The Native Americans on the frontier found themselves swept into the contest, often against their will. In The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America, Pearl concentrates on the Cherokees and the Shawnees, the dominant tribes in the vicinity of Boonesboro, the outpost established by Boone and kin in what would become Kentucky.

The news of the independence declaration hadn’t reached Boonesboro when 13-year-old Jemima and two other girls ventured out to pick flowers and escape the gaze of their parents. They went too far and were captured by Indians, who quickly spirited them away.

Whether the kidnapping was planned or opportunistic was hard to know at the time and is no easier now. Pearl, like everyone else who has written on the subject, is limited by his sources, most of which come in the form of recollections recorded years or decades later. And although his story is as much about Indians as about Whites, essentially nothing survives about the former that hasn’t been filtered through the latter.

Such constraints are what drive some historically minded writers to fiction. This group has included Pearl, the author of several novels set in 19th-century America. The novelist employs imagination to fill in the blanks left by historical sources; the historian is compelled to leave many of the blanks unfilled.

Yet Pearl does what he can and deftly re-creates a fraught moment in the confusing struggle among American patriots, American loyalists, the British, and Indians. The experience of Jemima Boone reflected the larger confusion. Neither she nor her father knew what her taking portended. Would she be killed, as reprisal for settlers’ killing of Indians? Would she be adopted into the tribe of her captors or perhaps sold to another tribe? Would she be bartered to the British?

Pearl draws out the drama, which won’t be spoiled here. Along the way, he brings in numerous additional characters to broaden the story. Daniel Boone’s is the largest role, larger even than Jemima’s, but many others have supporting parts.

At times those parts obscure the central thread of the narrative. Pearl’s care to get the history just right may put off readers who find the repeated entrances and exits distracting. On occasion, his apparent desire not to offend obscures the meaning of events he describes. “Symbolically ‘adopting’ settlers, especially women and children, helped tribes rebuild their communities and families,” he writes. Forcibly would be a more accurate term than symbolically; rebuilding families meant treating the female captives as breeding stock.

Certain of Pearl’s conclusions are appealing but wishful. He asserts that Blackfish, a Shawnee leader, had a “truly groundbreaking” vision of comity among Whites and Indians. “Rather than absorbing a settler here and there ... an entire community of settlers could be welcomed and integrated. Instead of a map divided up by disputed treaty boundaries that inevitably led to conflict, they could combine the tribal and settler communities with benefit for all.” This would have been groundbreaking indeed, but it was utterly unrealistic in that time and place — or pretty much any time and place, as history has shown. Nor does Pearl present evidence that Blackfish actually entertained such a vision.

The strength of Pearl’s book lies in the narrative, not the conclusions. He has identified a gripping story and told it well. That’s accomplishment enough. ◀

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