Book Review: The Taking of Jemima Boone: The True Story of the Kidnap and Rescue That Shaped America

In his latest book, the New York Times bestselling author Matthew Pearl takes on the story of the kidnapping and rescue of Jemima, the daughter of Daniel Boone. He crafts a well told tale. Pearl then builds on his story to show its importance to the westward expansion of the budding United States. In that he may have overplayed his hand.

This is Pearl’s first foray into nonfiction. He is best known as the author of a set of historical mysteries, with names like The Dante Club and The Last Dickens. I admit I’ve not read any of them, though now that I’ve read this book I’m tempted.

In 1776, ten days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jemima Boone and two of her girl friends were kidnapped by the Cherokee chief Hanging Maw and several of his Shawnee followers. Boone and several men from Boonesboro set out in pursuit. They stole upon the kidnappers and rescued the girls, killing two of the Indians.

What followed was a tangled set of events. Indian attacks increased on Boonesboro. Eventually, Boone and several of the men were captured. A weakened Boonesboro nearly fell to a siege by British-supported Indians, but somewhat survived.

It is here that Pearl builds his case that the survival of Boonesboro was an important turning point for the westward expansion of the newly independent United States. This thesis was strongly challenged by Peter Couzzens in his review in the Wall Street Journal.

Couzzens is the author of Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation, a history that overlaps Pearl’s in timeframe and characters. He’s also a multi-award winning historical author so his concerns have some weight. As a reader of both Pearl’s and Couzzens’ books, I can say that I benefited by having read Tecumseh and the Prophet before I dove into the Pearl book. (My review of Couzzens’ book is here.)

Setting aside any concern about historical import, I find that Pearl has put together a compelling narrative. As he points out, the story of the kidnapping of Jemima Boone was a fascination in young America, and was retold in books a number of times. It even served as the inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans in 1826.

All of those earlier tellings romanticized both the kidnapped (clever but helpless girls) and their kidnappers (noble savages). Pearl takes it upon himself to use his book as a corrective, and to peel back the layers to show what most likely happened. And he did a great job with that.

I listened to the audiobook version with narration by Jeremy Arthur, who has done several audiobook narrations. His calm and clear tone worked well with this story.

One other thing about this book. As published, it carried the subtitle  “Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap that Shaped America”. Somewhere along the way that changed to “The True Story of the Kidnap and Rescue That Shaped America”. I haven’t been able to discover why, but I think the new subtitle better fits the book.

Anyone interested in early American westward expansion, or American relations with Indian nations on the frontier will be interested in this story. I give The Taking of Jemima Boone Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

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Title: The Taking of Jemima Boone: The True Story of the Kidnap and Rescue That Shaped America
Author: Matthew Pearl
Publisher: Harper 
Publish Date: October 5, 2021
ISBN-13: 9780062937780
List Price: $22.39 (Hardcover as of 1/2022)