The Judgment Tree

When I was a young teen devouring historical fiction, I developed a deep fascination for the 18th-century American frontier. One of my favorite authors was Janice Holt Giles. (I still cherish some of her books, acquired decades ago at used book sales.) I moved on from there to other authors who wrote about the harsh realities of life on the frontier. I visited reconstructed forts in Kentucky and West Virginia and had no trouble imagining life for those pioneers who lived or sheltered there.

One of my favorites.

Later, as I became more adept at considering all the people involved (not just those who looked like me), I became aware of how one-sided my perspective had been. Many of the books I’d found so compelling presented a very narrow view of the culture clash that defined this time and place. With youthful certainty I judged my own literary tastes and found them lacking. I moved on to new genres.

I’ve been living in the midwest for thirty years now, and don’t often revisit that geographic area. But last fall I had the chance to visit the Historic Daniel Boone Home, operated by Lindenwood University in Missouri. One of the site’s missions is “to interpret the early American frontier experience in Missouri as exemplified by the Boone family and their contemporaries.”

Daniel Boone was sixty-five years old when he and his wife, Rebecca, and several of their children moved to Missouri. The home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, actually belonged to Nathan Boone, the couple’s youngest son.  Daniel, however, chose to spend his time there.

The house is beautiful and well preserved. It also serves as a reminder that conflict with Native Americans was still present in the area when the Boones arrived. The limestone walls are two and a half feet thick, intended to provide protection in case of Indian attack.  Inside, one of the artifacts on display was a war club thrown at one of the Boone daughters who’d been kidnapped by Indians.  (Sorry, no interior photos were permitted.)

While touring the grounds, our guide pointed out the Judgement Tree. Decades ago, Dutch elm disease felled what was once an 80′ elm.  The remains stay, however, and I’m glad.  During his years in Missouri Boone was appointed Commandant of the region and Syndic, or judge. He used to hear local grievances beneath that elm tree. The guide told of a man who’d seized a cow from a widow to satisfy a debt.  The action was legal, but not—in Daniel’s mind—charitable.  He told the man to “never show his face” in the neighborhood again, and gave the widow a cow from his own herd.

One of the things that struck me during the tour was that the interpretation was geared to tell stories based on historical facts, without judgement.  Conflict is part of all stories—between neighbors, between races.

I may return to some of those novels I so loved for another visit, accepting that they were written during their own time and may over-simplify good and evil.  Historical fiction can only strive to present the period depicted through the eyes and experiences of the characters.   A good novel can grab my attention, and send me searching more information about a certain time and place.  Finding additional novels which add different perspectives is a great next step.

Any favorite titles to recommend?  I’m always glad to add a few more to the to-be-read list!

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2 Responses to “The Judgment Tree”

  1. Meg Says:

    A friend of mine recommended Hannah Fowler to me a couple of years ago. I read it and enjoyed it very much.

    Presenting a balanced viewpoint is why I think it would be very difficult to write history, which is why I stick to historical fiction. Well, one reason, anyway.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    I’m looking forward to revisiting Hannah Fowler–good to know you enjoyed it!

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