Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992


The Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site



The Nathan Boone Homestead is the seventy-seventh and newest unit of the Missouri State Park system. Acquired in August 1991 subject to a three-year continued, use provision, it is expected to be opened to the public in 1995.

This essay, printed with the permission of the University of Missouri Press, will appear in a book to be published this fall in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the system. Titled Exploring Missouri's Legacy: State Parks and Historic Sites, the book is edited by Susan Flader and co-authored with R. Roger Pryor, John A. Karel, and Charles Callison. It also features more than two hundred full-color images by Oliver Schuchard and others representing every park in the system.

He came to the prairie not so much by pleasurable design as by necessity, probably more driven than drawn. Colonel Nathan Boone, soldier, surveyor, explorer, son of the famed Daniel, was broke and starting over again at the age of 57. This was his second experience of this sort, having been uprooted from a Kentucky home as a young man when he and a sixteen year old bride followed his land-bereft father into Missouri at the turn of the nineteenth century. In fact, it is a sad historical irony that the Boones--several generations of them--probably blazed more new trails, discovered more new caves, springs and mountains, and walked over more unclaimed land than any other single family in American history, and wound up with very little of it for their trouble.

Colonel Daniel Boone, the storied frontiersman, hunter, and Indian fighter, and his enterprising sons left indelible marks on the history and geography of Missouri. Such places and place-names as Boonville, Boonsboro, Boone County, the Boone's Lick Trail and the Boone's Lick Country mark their enterprises and explorations. And, prominent among the family' s cultural legacies, is this frontier homestead and log house near the town of Ash Grove, northwest of Springfield, which was home to Nathan and his family for the last nineteen years of his strenuous life. Although never the subject of tall tales and sometimes fanciful biographies like his illustrious father, this son of Daniel Boone rivaled his father's contributions to the development of the American frontier -- particularly with respect to Missouri.

Daniel Morgan, the seventh child and third son, and Nathan, the tenth and youngest, helped their parents move to Missouri in 1799 after Daniel the elder had lost his holdings in what is now West Virginia in a land-title dispute. The Boones had been drawn to Missouri by the promise of grants of land from the Spanish authorities. Daniel was given land in the beautiful Femme Osage Valley, and his sons and other relations secured neighboring grants.

The elder Boone's land difficulties surfaced one last time late in his life when the land commission for the newly created Territory of Missouri refused to confirm his claim to the 1,000 arpents of land given him by the Spanish authorities. It took an act of Congress in 1814 to give Daniel title to his land as an honorarium for the "arduous and useful services" rendered to his country. Unfortunately the good news about the land and his creditors from earlier land problems in Kentucky arrived almost simultaneously, and after the sale of his newly patented land he was left virtually penniless at the age of 80.

Thus it was that he lived with one or another of his children, moving in with Nathan in 1820 on completion of Nathan's imposing two-story stone house on a hill overlooking the Femme Osage and his Spanish grant lands. It was in this new house that his famous father died later the same year, a circumstance that led it later to be called the "Daniel Boone Home." This beautiful house still stands and is operated by a private owner as a tourist attraction. (Efforts by the state to acquire it for a state historic site have repeatedly been rebuffed.)

Long before building his new home, Nathan had manufactured salt with his brother, Daniel Morgan, at the salt springs in the central Missouri region that bears their name (now Boone's Lick State Historic Site). When Indian attacks on American settlements were stirred up by British agents in the War of 1812, both Daniel M. and Nathan served as captains of companies of rangers formed by the U.S. Army to repel the attackers. Nathan's company was disbanded in 1815 and, until his return to military service in 1832, he prospered in civilian life in St. Charles County, serving as a delegate to the constitutional convention held in St. Louis in 1820.

When the Fox and Sac Indians behind Chief Black Hawk took arms against a federal order to leave their lands in northern Illinois and Wisconsin, Nathan once again answered the call. He was at this time in midlife, 51 years of age. For the next twenty years, Nathan's militaryservice was almost continuous, punctuated by occasional furloughs or leaves of absence. He was sent to Fort Gibson in Arkansas on recruiting service, and in 1834 joined the Pawnee expedition. It was probably during this period that he passed through and made note of the ash grove on the rolling Springfield plateau where he would one day move his family. Later he was stationed at Des Moines, Iowa, and led his dragoons on a campaign into Sioux territory.

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It was during one of his furloughs from military service that he had to make an adjustment in what must have seemed to be a recurrent family nightmare. In 1837 Nathan had to sell his beautiful home and all of his lands in St. Charles County to retire a debt he had acquired as bondsman for a friend who turned out to be less than trustworthy. The friend, a county official, had absconded with the county funds.

Nathan, then 57, turned his eyes to the prairies of southwest Missouri, where some of his sons may already have filed on part of the property that became Nathan's last home. The financial disaster in St. Charles County no doubt precipitated the move to the less grand accommodations of a log home on cheap prairie land. These prairies had remained largely unsettled by pioneers until a fairly late date owing to the common perception that a lack of trees indicated lesser fertility. The difficulty of turning heavy prairie sod also made these lands less attractive until the availability of the steel plow invented by John Deere in 1838.

The site of this new Boone home was on rolling prairie in a shallow swale formed by a tributary of Clear Creek, which itself runs west to the Sac River only a mile and a half away. This landscape probably looks today much as it did when Nathan first saw it, but with modem pasture grasses replacing the native prairie flora of those days. There are a few patches of trees along the creek and a few more marking the position of the several springs on the property and the family burial plot. One is struck by the fact that the house sits very gently on the land, small in scale, and emphasizing the horizontal rather than the vertical as the landscape itself seems to do. The house is sited as good pioneer houses tended to be, so that it is tucked under the brow of the low rise to the northwest,somewhat protected from the brunt of winter weather.

Nathan Boone's last homestead on the rolling Springfield Plateau has changed little since it was built in the 1830s. Photo by Martha Henderson.
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A youthful carver's alphabet -- one of the small grace notes of history. Photo by B. H. Rucker.
The house is comfortable, but not very large. (One wonders if there was lingering bitterness in the family's ongoing remembrance of their stone mansion in the Femme Osage country.) Architectural historians would call this a double-pen log cabin. That is, the rooms are two log "boxes" separated by a center hallway or "dog trot," the whole covered by one roof. The passageway may have had open ends like a breezeway for some period after the house was constructed, but it is enclosed now. There is a chimney and a fireplace at each end serving each of the two rooms. The facade of the house facing the hillside is plain, but the side facing to the southeast, toward the creek and down the valley, has a veranda. This veranda or porch is of the variety that seems to be subtracted from the mass of the house and is thus under the main roof, rather than tacked on.

The house was originally sided with hand-riven walnut clapboards, and these survive intact on the protected wall under the veranda roof. These clapboards remind us once again of the care and importance that in past times was accorded small details, since each is beaded at its bottom edge. That is, a molding plane was applied by hand to every board individually so that its edge is finished with a rounded groove. Some of this siding may yet survive on the other side of the house also, but it presently sports two -- possibly three -- complete layers of siding and architectural surgery will be required to determine if original material is buried under these modem repairs.

Occasionally a historic site provides a small grace note that reduces "HISTORY" to a more familiar scale. The Boone house gives us such a moment when we notice one of the clapboards under the veranda displays "A, B, C..." cut with a knife in style both antique and childlike. The alphabet is not complete, and we are left to wonder whether the child didn't know all of the letters, or whether we are seeing a moment of parental discovery and angst, frozen in time. In any case this small bit of graffiti reminds us that the Boones-- suspended somewhere between myth and legend -- were really people too.

The interior of the house is simply two large rooms, each some 17 feet square, and a hallway between. The degree of survival of the historic fabric on the interior is stunning as you realize the original fireplace mantles, doors, and woodwork trim are in place, and all demonstrate the care and precision of handmade work. The trim boards are beaded, all of the doors are made of planks with "Z" braces, and in one comer of the hallway a winding stair leads to a large one-half story loft above.

This space is essentially one large room, perhaps a sleeping loft, except for one small chamber at the head of the stairs. The purpose of this little room, perhaps eight feet square, is uncertain, but its construction is interesting. Its walls are built entirely of hand-cut walnut boards, and even in the gloomy light of this attic space you need only run your fingers over the surface to feel rather than see the shallow hills and valleys that proclaim that the entire wall has been painstakingly shaped by hand with a smoothing plane.

Nathan was able to enjoy his new home on the prairie only at sporadic intervals between his army assignments. Soon he was headquartered for several years at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later at Fort Gibson. From Fort Gibson he led three companies of dragoons on a 79-day horseback reconnaissance over the western prairies and up the Arkansas River to provide protection for traders using the Santa Fe Trail. He was 63 years old. After a furlough, he rejoined his company in 1845 and set up camp at Evansville on the Arkansas line, assigned "to preserve the peace among the Cherokee," who recently had been herded by the army from homelands in Georgia to Indian territory in Oklahoma.

Back at Fort Leavenworth and by now a major, Nathan took sick leave September 9, 1848, and returned to his home at Ash Grove. After years of rugged army life on the frontier, the old soldier's health was failing. Still on sick leave, he was promoted in 1850 by grateful superiors to Lt. Colonel, Second Dragoons, but three years later he resigned from the army at age 72.

He had only three more years to live on this final homestead, and following his death in 1856 he was buried a few hundred yards north of his home.Later his wife Olive, the once-sixteen-year-old bride joined him. There they still lie, amidst their children and grandchildren.

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The luck of the Boones with land had never run smoothly and even this last homestead left the Boone family 41 years later when it was sold at auction at the courthouse door in Springfield in 1897 to cover the indebtedness of one of Nathan's grandchildren. Perhaps fate finally smiled when on August 15, 1991, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources took title to over 300 acres of the original Nathan Boone farm. One feels an inner satisfaction in knowing that there will be a Boone homestead on the map forever, as if the grateful citizens of their adopted state are holding in trust for this illustrious pioneer family the land that eluded them in their own lifetimes.

Exploring Missouri's Legacy.' State Parks and Historic Sites will be available from local bookstores or directly from the University of Missouri Press, 2910 LeMone Boulevard, Columbia, MO 65201, phone toll free 1-800-828-1894.

Sources on Nathan Boone are scanty, but they include an interview by Lyman Draper with the aging pioneer in 1851, a copy of which is available in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Mis-souri-Columbia. Carole Bills has compiled an edited writings from Lucille Morris Upton and John K. Hulston in Nathan Boone: The Neglected Hero (Republic: Western Printing Co., 1984). See also Carolyn Foreman, "Nathan Boone," Chronicles of Oklahoma 19:4 (December 1941), 322-47; Charles W. Graham, "Presenting the Long-Hidden History of Nathan Boone's Life," Kansas City Star, July 21, 1946; and Martha L. Kusiak, "Nathan Boone House," National Register of Historic Places Nomination, 1969.

Two of Nathan Boone's grandchildren died in infancy shortly after the family's move to the Springfield Plateau. Photo by B.H. Rucker

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