The Hunter and His Gun: An American Myth That Just Won’t Die
How Daniel Boone and Last of the Mohicans Built a Colonialist Origin Story
Seventy-four percent of gun owners in the United States are male, and 82 percent of gun owners are white, which means that 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men, and this group accounts for 31 percent of the total US population. The top reason Americans give for owning a gun is for protection.
What are the majority of white men so afraid of? Does anyone believe that centuries of racial and economic domination of the United States by white men have left no traces in our culture, views, or institutions? It’s not likely, given all the evidence to the contrary. The ongoing influence of this history is compounded by the lack of acknowledgment of the colonists’ savage violence across the continent that continued until the 20th century, and the legacies of African slavery through such practices as convict leasing, legal segregation, rampant institutional racism, discrimination, police killings, mass surveillance, criminalization, and incarceration.
There is another historical paradigm that contributes to the white American male’s affinity for firearms, namely, “The Hunter.” Norman Mailer characterized this type in his 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead:
A lean man of medium height but he held himself so erectly he appeared tall. His narrow triangular face was utterly without expression. There seemed nothing wasted in his hard small jaw, gaunt firm cheeks and straight short nose. His gelid eyes were very blue. . . He hated weakness and he loved practically nothing. There was a crude uniformed vision in his soul but he was rarely conscious of it. . .
His ancestors pushed and labored and strained, drove their oxen, sweated their women, and moved a thousand miles.
He pushed and labored inside himself and smoldered with an endless hatred.
Many people in the United States who have not grown up with guns appear to think that the Second Amendment and gun rights are about hunting; they are mystified as to why a semiautomatic AR-15 or an assault rifle might be needed for hunting. But gun affinity isn’t about hunting, although it is related to the myth of the hunter.
Whereas white supremacy had been the working rationalization for British theft of Indigenous lands and for European enslavement of Africans, the bid for independence by what became the United States of America was more problematic. Democracy, equality, and equal rights do not fit well with genocide, settler colonialism, slavery, and empire. It was during the 1820s—the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s era of populist settler-democracy, called “The Age of Democracy” by many US historians—that the unique American origin narratives evolved reconciling rhetoric with reality. Novelist James Fenimore Cooper was among its initial scribes.
“Gun affinity isn’t about hunting, although it is related to the myth of the hunter.“
Cooper’s reinvention of the birth of the United States in his novel The Last of the Mohicans became and has remained the populist US origin story. Herman Melville called Cooper “our national novelist.” Cooper was the wealthy son of a US congressman, a land speculator who built Cooperstown, named after himself, in upstate New York, where James grew up, on land taken from the Haudenosaunee. His hometown was christened all-American with the establishment of the National Baseball Hall of Fame there during the Depression year of 1936. Expelled from Yale, Cooper did a stint in the US Navy, then married and began writing.
From 1823 to 1841, he published the five books in his Leatherstocking Tales series, beginning with The Pioneers, followed by The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer. Each featured the character Natty Bumppo, also called variously, depending on his age, Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, or Deerslayer. Bumppo is a British settler on land appropriated from the Delaware Nation and is buddies with its fictional Delaware leader Chingachgook (the “last Mohican” in the myth). Together the Leatherstocking Tales narrate the mythical forging of the new country from the 1754 to 1763 French and Indian War in The Last of the Mohicans to the settlement of the plains by migrants traveling by wagon train from Kentucky and Tennessee. At the end of the saga, Bumppo dies a very old man on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, as he gazes east.
The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, was a bestseller throughout the 19th century and has been in print continuously since. Two Hollywood movies were based on the story, the most recent made in 1992, the Columbus Quincentennial. Cooper devised a fictional counterpoint of celebration to the dark underbelly of the new American nation—the birth of something new and wondrous, literally, the US American race, a new people born of the merger of the best of both worlds, the Native and the European, not a biological merger but something more ephemeral, involving the disappearance of the Indian.
In the novel, Cooper has the last of the “noble” and “pure” Natives die off, with the “last Mohican” handing the continent over to Hawkeye, the nativized settler, his adopted son. This convenient fantasy could be seen as quaint at best, were it not for its deadly staying power. Cooper had much to do with creating the US origin myth that generations of historians and textbooks have dedicated themselves to rationalizing. In the process, he fortified the exceptionalism that weaves through much of the literature produced in the United States (not only the writing of historians) and is parroted by anyone who wishes to excel in politics, the military, or academia—and even by poets, from Walt Whitman to the Beats of the 1950s. The late writer Wallace Stegner decried the devastation wrought by US domination and destruction of Indigenous peoples, wildlife, and the land, but reinforced the idea of US exceptionalism by reducing colonization to a twist of fate that produced some charming if confounding characteristics:
Ever since Daniel Boone took his first excursion over Cumberland Gap, Americans have been wanderers. . . With a continent to take over and Manifest Destiny to goad us, we could not have avoided being footloose. The initial act of emigration from Europe, an act of extreme, deliberate disaffiliation, was the beginning of a national habit.
It should not be denied, either, that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west. Our folk heroes and our archetypal literary figures accurately reflect that side of us. Leatherstocking, Huckleberry Finn, the narrator of Moby-Dick, all are orphans and wanderers; any of them could say, “Call me Ishmael.” The Lone Ranger has no dwelling place except the saddle.
“Daniel Boone. . . was intruding upon sovereign Native land so as to covertly survey it and sell it to white settlers, who would then form themselves into militias to murder the families who had been living there for generations.”
The publication of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales paralleled the presidency of Andrew Jackson. For those who consumed the books in that period and throughout the 19th century, the novels became perceived fact, not fiction, and the basis for the coalescence of US civil religion and nationalism—Americanism, white nationalism.
Behind the legend was a looming real-life figure, the archetype that inspired the stories, namely, Daniel Boone, an icon of US settler colonialism. Boone’s life spanned nearly a century, 1734 to 1820, precisely the period covered in the Leatherstocking series. Boone was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, on the edge of British settlement. He is an avatar of the moving colonial-Indigenous frontier. To the west lay “Indian Country,” claimed through the Doctrine of Discovery by both Britain and France but free of Europeans save for a few traders, trappers, and soldiers manning colonial outposts.
Daniel Boone died in 1820 in Missouri, a part of the vast territory acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. When the Spanish opened Missouri in 1799 for foreigners to settle, the Boone family led the way. Yet, decades later, his body was taken for burial to Frankfort, Kentucky, the cultish covenant heart of the Ohio Country—Indian Country—for which the Revolution had been fought and in which he had been the trekker superhero, almost a deity.
Daniel Boone was re-created as a celebrity at age 50 in 1784, a year after the end of the War of Independence. Real estate speculator John Filson, seeking settlers to buy unceded land in the Ohio Country, although it was still densely populated with Native towns and farms, wrote and self-published The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, along with a map to guide the intruders. The book contained an appendix about Daniel Boone, purportedly written by Boone himself, but surely written by Filson, as Boone is not known to have ever written anything, although he was literate. That part of the book on Boone’s “adventures” subsequently was published as “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone” in the American Magazine in 1787, then as a book. Thereby a star was born—the mythical hero, the hunter, the “Man Who Knows Indians,” as Richard Slotkin has described this American archetype:
The myth of the hunter that had grown up about the figure of Filson’s Daniel Boone provided a framework within which Americans attempted to define their cultural identity, social and political values, historical experience, and literary aspirations. . . Daniel Boone, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson were heroes to the whole nation because their experiences had reference to many or all of these common experiences. “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a popular song that swept the nation in 1822 to 1828, helped elect Andrew Jackson as President by associating him with Boone, the hero of the West.
Yet the Leatherstocking’s positive twist on genocidal colonialism was based on the reality of invasion—squatting, attacking, and colonizing the land and people of Indigenous nations. Neither Filson nor Cooper created that reality. Rather, they created the mythological narratives that captured the experience and imagination of the Anglo-American settler, stories that were surely instrumental in sanitizing accountability for the atrocities related to genocide, and set the narrative pattern for future US writers, poets, and historians.
What Daniel Boone, like George Washington, was up to was intruding upon sovereign Native land so as to covertly survey it and sell it to white settlers, who would then form themselves into militias to murder the families who had been living there for generations. Some were successful and grew rich and powerful, such as George Washington, while others, like Boone, never attained wealth, his land speculations resulting in bankruptcy.
Regarding Boone’s hunting career, it was purely commercial; he killed animals not for food, but to sell their pelts for profit. Boone made a modest living as a market hunter. Annually, trekking alone or in small groups of other market hunters, he would go on “long hunts”—months-long expeditions into unceded Indian hunting grounds. Collecting hundreds of buck deer skins in the autumn, he would then trap beaver and otter for their valuable pelts over the winter. In the spring, market hunters returned to sell their bounty to commercial fur traders. In this business, buckskins came to be known as “bucks,” originating the slang term for “dollar.” But the legend and lore that mushroomed around Daniel Boone advanced notions of the hero explorer and adventurous hunter, and were written over the fact that he was a merchant, a trader, a land speculator, and a failed businessman.
In a 2016 New York Times opinion piece on free trade agreements and deindustrialization in coal country, rural Kentucky writer and self-identified “Second Amendment person” Daniel Hayes makes a compelling point about the symbolism of possessing firearms: “In the heartland, these are people who feel they’ve been the victims of sustained economic violence at the hands of tyrannical governments of both parties. In 2008, Barack Obama’s notorious misstep got one thing right: Rural people will ‘cling’ to guns. Not because they are sad or misguided, but because it is the last right they feel they still have: a liberty at least, in place of opportunity.” After narrating the painful dysfunctional economic and social conditions in rural Kentucky, along with the de-peopling of the region, particularly the flight of youth, he continues, “Outsourcing and guns: These are the twin issues animating Trump voters in rural Kentucky. The two are linked and feed off each other; the only difference between them is that white rural voters see outsourcing as a losing battle, whereas protecting and expanding Second Amendment rights is the only policy they’ve been able to get politicians to move on. For that reason alone, it is totemic.”
Another of Hayes’s essays, “Why I Hunt,” reflects an even deeper symbolism and mythology of guns that is a part of the Kentucky story and part of the national story. Hayes tells of the first shot he ever fired while hunting, his distance from the prey—a white-tail buck—being the length of a football field and a half, viewed through his rifle’s scope. On a snowy January day, he writes, “One grand buck and his ladies and children moved nervously on a white background. They bunched together, the big male turned his head this way and that. . . moving as one. . . I pulled the trigger and the buck rolled back to his left. He took a half dozen staggered bounding steps, fell, and lay still in the snow. As the adrenaline died down I started coming to myself again.”
Hayes gives even more specific reasons why he hunts: “I hunt because I’m an environmentalist and conservationist. I hunt because I believe that I’m closer to the Earth when engaging with it and there’s something at stake. . . Something could very well die. In fact, that’s the goal.” But he abhors industrial meat production: “What I do is the antithesis of the stockyard. It’s the key to that imprisoning gate. . . I hunt for love and I hunt to escape. . . I hunt for competence, discipline, and craft.”
These words echo from the narratives created by the real estate entrepreneur John Filson about Daniel Boone in Kentucky. But Boone was an industrial hunter. Like him, most of the settlers who hunted and the famed “mountain men” of the West, they set traps to capture animals for their fur. They killed for pelts, not for food, not for love of nature. The central role that the myth of the hunter continues to play in Americana is to perpetuate the contemporary romance with firearms and justification for the sacredness of the Second Amendment, eclipsing the fact that this was a capitalist enterprise carried out through atrocities of violence, territorial theft, and mass displacement, not an adventure.
From Loaded: The Disarming History of the Second Amendment. Used with permission of City Lights Publishing. Copyright © 2018 by Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz.