16 CITATIONS· JANUARY 2010
By Bill Grewe
It was a look that could kill from a man who had. The stare of the Honorable Daniel Boone, appointed to the bench by Meriwether Lewis, was locked upon the plaintiff, a debt collector.
The judge did little to hide his sentiment. Nor was he expected to. Appointed not for experience, education or training, what qualified Boone for the bench was that he arrived in the West ahead of the law, and before those appearing in his court. He could simply pull rank at any time.
Boone had served with Washington, walked the streets of Philadelphia and St. Augustine in self-made buckskin clothes, visited Detroit as a Shawnee prisoner, was rumored to have made it to Yellowstone and-though the significance was not known at the time-led the relatives of Abraham Lincoln west. He was legendary. Whether he could read and write is uncertain. What was unquestioned was that, on this day, at this place, the law was what he said it was. The court of appeal was but a nearby patch affording 10 unobstructed paces.
Boone was not above challenge. A criminal defendant once said in a low voice that if Boone were not so old he'd take his fists to him. Boone's hunter's ears caught the discontent and he barked, "Let not my grey hairs stand in the way." The young man backed off.
On this day, though, the man of action paused in the shade of the large elm tree under which his court sat. At the defendant's table was an elderly widow whose husband had left her only two things: A cow and a sizable debt. The plaintiff collector, holding the debt, wanted the cow. If he got it, the widow would no longer have means to barter and eat.
The audience was silent as it waited for the judge to rule. He was one of them. Certainly, he would make quick work of the debt collector.
The scales of justice might be blind at times to consequences but not Boone. He knew hunger and destitution. The crowd was quiet. Boone just stared. Why was he hesitating?
In 1769, Boone crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, traversed the Cumberland Gap, and rested in Kentucke. It would change North America. In that same year, Father Junipero Serra headed north to found his missions and Captain James Cook was circumnavigating the globe. Serra had the church and its resources. Cook had the Navy. Boone had but a handful of friends in tow. His travels and actions were not within a military or religious framework but he might have had a consciousness of the rule of law.
When the first community of permanent settlers gathered in Kentucky, they collectively set about to adopt laws. Boone, unexpectedly, suggested restrictions on hunting. It was such a statement against interest that one would assume he was asked to repeat it.
Boone was a poor businessman. Repeatedly sued, he accepted the rulings of the court and, by all accounts, paid the judgments.
So, maybe Boone had accepted the rule of law as a principle to live by. But, looking at the litigants before him, he must have thought of the words of his mother.
Sometimes truth must defer to myth. Such was the case with Boone. In actuality, this man of the wild was his mother's son. In his youthful years, Boone would annually accompany his mother to a plot of land some distance from the homestead. There, in spring and summer, Boone and his mother would farm the land so that the family could survive the winter. No doubt, his mother thought out loud about what needed to be done so that the family would make it through; what the needs of the various family members were; and what her greater concerns were about the future and the family. Her concerns would have become the boy's.
Indeed. throughout his life, Boone was supplying a small community; defending families; rescuing those in need; and, simply, preparing for winter. Unlike Serra and Cook, he had no one to order, or rely upon. Boone was as much salt of the earth as the people in his court. The answer he sought must have been clear: Help the widow and be done with it.
Boone, eyes unwavering, continued his pause. The plaintiff debtor remained silent. He would force Judge Boone to rule. Finally, the Honorable Daniel Boone spoke. Looking directly at the debt collector he said, "Take it and go, but never look an honest man in the face again." Judge Boone then turned to the widow and promised her an even better cow. True to his word, he made good.
Bill Grewe handles civil litigation, personal injury and wrongful death cases in Ventura