In the middle of the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue that passes between two Boston College landmarks, the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola and White Mountain Creamery, there stands another older, though less identifiable, landmark. Every day, thousands of cars driving in and out of the city pass by the twelve-foot tall, arrowhead-shaped stone structure on the median between them. Like so many of the other additions to the Boston area’s built environment, once documented by the local newspapers and left to fade into the landscape, the monument goes unnoticed both by students who have been at Boston College for four years and community members who have been in the area for 30. On the rare occasion someone stops to check out the monument, the resulting reaction, upon identifying it as a Daniel Boone Trail Highway marker, is one no less confused than that of a person upon first learning the Renaissance-style statue on the other end of Commonwealth Avenue is supposed to be Leif Erikson.
The Leif Erikson statue and the Boone marker share a similar creation story. They are the products of two men’s obsessions: Eben Horsford’s determination to show proof of a New England Viking settlement and J. Hampton Rich’s mission to memorialize Daniel Boone. Leif Erikson never set foot on the Shawmut peninsula, and Daniel Boone never traveled through Newton; however, when the city erected the Leif Erikson statue in 1887, historians had not yet debunked Horsford’s claims that the Viking explorer had found a settlement there. On the other hand, Rich never tried to convince anyone that Boone had ventured that far up the east coast. The Boone marker made it to Newton the same way frontier imagery permeated the American consciousness—through the malleability of the pioneer image cloaked under the broad banner of American patriotism.
When he began his work, Rich did not set out to spread the Boone image across the nation. He originally used the legend of Daniel Boone in service of his plan to improve western North Carolina’s rural roads. In the early 20th century, increasing numbers of Americans were purchasing automobiles, but most of the country’s rural roads were still unpaved. The Good Roads movement, which originally sprung up in the nineteenth century after the outcries of bicyclists, gained momentum during this period. Just as Smokey the Bear would later become the mascot of forest fire education, Daniel Boone became the icon of Rich’s branch of the movement. He recognized Boone as the original Good Roads advocate. Boone was one of the first American pioneers and trailblazers: he created the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap among other paths, allowing future pioneers to move westward by following his path.
The association recruited members and printed certificates of membership in exchange for a fee, and they encouraged donations. This money went to building monuments. Rich’s original plan was to place monuments along existing roads he thought should be improved in western North Carolina, but with the success of that endeavor and the creation of the Daniel Boone Highway across the Blue Ridge Mountains, his association embarked as early as 1918 on a transcontinental highway in honor of Boone. After he expanded outside of North Carolina, Rich reversed his mission. Beforehand, he was using Boone in service of his roads project, but it increasingly appeared that he was using his roads project in service of Boone.
Boone stood for a certain kind of patriotism that he thought was lacking in the country, and he aimed to spread it the same way he pictured Boone spreading American civilization across the frontier. Rich was quoted in the association’s newsletter, the Boone Trail Herald, as saying that when the transcontinental highway is completed, “it will be the longest highway in the world . . . and every foot of it will radiate history of the richest, best and most wholesome sort.” The Boone Trail Herald stressed the importance of Americanism and quoted Rich as saying that the markers along the transcontinental Boone Trail Highway are “placed by the association in order to stress the type of Americanism for which Boone, and such men as he, stood.”
The term “Americanism,” associated with nativism, popped up at the dedication ceremonies of the Boone Trail Highway markers, which were usually large patriotic events with Boy Scouts, preachers, and numerous other speakers. After Rich carried the Boone flag from the East to West coasts, he started on another project to form a Boone Trail Highway from the Southeast up to Boston, where Boone never traveled but where Rich creatively identified as the beginning point of an old Indian trail that the Boone family crossed in Pennsylvania during their migration to North Carolina. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Boone, Rich planned to distribute 25 Boone tablets and monuments to Boston area elementary schools, the Boston Common, the Boston Public Library, and Boston College. At the Edison School ceremony on March 1, 1935 in Brighton, where the school accepted the tablet featuring Daniel Boone sitting on a rock holding a rifle, the superintendent told the audience, according to the Boston Globe, that “whenever this tablet is looked upon it is to remind the present and coming generations of the hardy character and fundamental qualities of pure Americanism which were possessed by this old frontiersman.”
Recipients interpreted the meaning of the markers, which were either tablets or monuments usually showing Boone on one side and a bust of Cherokee Indian Chief Sequoyah on the other, in different manners. In 1917, a Missouri newspaper reported that the markers on the route of the Daniel Boone Highway “are done in copper, black and white, symbolizing the Indian’s copper skin, the black embers to which the Indian reduced the white man’s home, and white, a symbol of the supremacy of the white man.” The real Daniel Boone did not scalp Indians and did not enjoy bloodshed.
The ceremony at the dedication of the marker next to Boston College celebrated Boone not as an Indian fighter, but more as a contemporary of the Cherokee and Shawnee Indians. However, the attitude of the Boston Daily Globe reporter who attended the event, and likely the actual event itself, belittled and patronized the Indian attendees of the ceremony. On October 21, 1934, around 200 people gathered, more than half of them children, “who were fascinated by the little group of Indians that took part in the exercises,” according to the Daily Boston Globe. There was an invocation by a Boston College priest followed by Rich’s rendition of “America,” sung in full Boone costume. In the remaining moments of the event, the wife of Flying Eagle sang while Chief Nebedah “entertained the children by imitating the cries of wild animals.”
As a spectator or reader of the article, it would have been difficult to discern what the ceremony was celebrating: there was no mention of road improvement, a vague praising of Boone’s life and his adventures as a pioneer, and an awkward celebration of general Native American Indian culture. In addition, there was mention that the marker, like all of the other Boone markers, was made in part from the salvaged scrap metal of the U.S.S. Maine and that this particular marker was also made of rocks from Mount Washington. Like most of the Boone marker ceremonies Rich presided over, the pageantry incorporated both regional patriotic symbols—New England Indian tribes and the Mount Washington rocks—and national ones—Boone, the flag, and the U.S.S. Maine. The ambiguous patriotism of the ceremonies, though confusing and somewhat meaningless, worked. Rich was able to spread the Boone brand of Americanism across the country, East coast to West coast and South to North, letting local townships interpret and employ the meaning of the marker and the ceremonies in whatever ways made sense to them.
In 1939, Rich reported in the New York Times—a step up from the Boone Trail Herald—that his mission was a success: “The interest in Daniel Boone . . . is increasing in many sections of the country.” Yet by 2003, only 60 of the original 358 markers had been located, according to Everett Marshall, Rich’s biographer. In an ironic twist, highway construction and urban sprawl destroyed most of the markers. The BC marker is the only one still standing in this part of the country, but judging from the interest of the people in its presence, Daniel Boone is no longer relevant to a 21st century New England community—especially not to college kids on their way to White Mountain Creamery.
Managing editor. Lover of history and all things 1960s. Lives by the lessons of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: "Don't dream it, be it."