Tracking as a Frontier Scout

PLEASE NOTE:  The following story is a historical narrative.  It includes a large amount of historically accurate information with ample amount of creativity woven in to make it more readable to the everyday reader.  I have links at the end which will take you to the historical documents in which you can read more.  I took liberties to add in information about the natural surroundings, information based upon my intimate knowledge of the area, and the time of year it occurred.  I also included ample amounts of tracking information that, as a tracker, I am confident is worthy of suggestion in this event.  Enjoy! – Craig Caudill, Nature Reliance School


Capture of the Daughters of D. Boone and Callaway by the Indians. Lithograph after Karl Bodmer and Jean-François Millet. Used with permission, in public domain due to age.


The meandering current of the Kentucky River making its way down stream made the perfect pace for Jemima Boone and the Callaway sisters, Betsy and Fanny, to get away from Fort Boonesborough on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in July of 1776.  Frontier life was hard on everyone, including young ladies, and getting away for a short while to watch the blue herons snag a fish, chickadees singing and tending to nests on the river bank, and the cool river air was a wonderful respite from the daily chores.  Life is simply beautiful when one can simply daydream, laugh, and tell stories with good friends. 

Unbeknownst to the girls, since leaving the fort, they had been surveyed from the north bank of the river by three Shawnee, two Cherokee and their leader, Hanging Maw who was also a Cherokee.  This was not uncommon since the peace of the Revolutionary War had been broken that summer.  The British had begun encouraging and awarding their native allies to attack settlements all along the frontier. 

When the dugout canoe drifted its uncharted course towards the north bank, the Indians surrounded it and took the girls captive.  Certainly, not without the girls doing their best to defend themselves with the boat oars and attempting to raise an alarm with their screams.  The girls quickly realized that action was going to get them beaten, or even worse.  The girls were the daughters of frontiersman and knew the land well.  They knew their captors would most likely cross the Licking River at the Lower Blue Licks.   It was at this location that it was rather easy to make it across on foot, and was therefore a common location for such travel. The girls knew if they left enough sign along the way that a search party would be able to find them before it was too late. 

They were right.

While napping at the fort, Daniel Boone was woken to the news that his daughter and the Callaway girls had been taken.  He quickly organized a party of experienced woodsmen to track and attempt to overtake the party before it was too late.  Richard Callaway, father to Betsy and Fanny, organized another small group on horseback to head to the Lower Blue Licks in an effort to lay in wait and cut them off before they crossed the Licking River. 

Boone and his men tracked until dark, slept and then got on the track again at first light of Monday morning.  They followed the sign all day on Monday but were forced to stop due to darkness.  At first light on Tuesday they started tracking again.  It was not long in the morning before they came upon the camp.  They found Hanging Maw at Flat Creek getting water and the Shawnee tending to a breakfast fire and mending their moccasins.  The girls were tied to trees where they had been all through the night. 

Shots rang out from the frontiersman, quickly killing two of the Shawnee.  Jemima yelled, “That is Daddy’s rifle.”  The other captors realized they were of no match to the excellent woodsman so they fled and the girls were rescued. 

This is a true and wonderful story about the use of tracking and woods skills to save lives.  It is even more remarkable considering that Flat Creek cramp (just east of current day Sharpsburg, KY) where the girls were rescued, is some 40-50 miles from  Fort Boonesborough.  This means the frontiersman, led by Daniel Boone himself, followed the tracks and other sign that far in the 20 hours of sunlight they had available to them from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning.  A remarkable feat and one that deservedly gives good exposure to the abilities of a good assemblage of frontier scout/trackers.

The question arises for us in the modern time. How did this and other extraordinary tracking feats occur? Were frontiersman able to go about reading the ground like a book?  Modern times’ focus on tracking as some magical, unattainable skill are simply not true.  Like all things accomplished by the frontiersman, proper tracking is something most of us can do if we dedicate time, energy and patience into the practice of it.  I want to consider some of those with you here in this article.

There are several attributes that made up the personality of a frontier scout/tracker.  They are:  good awareness, self and nature reliance, reconnaissance and combative skills, ability to work well solo and with others.

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Tracking is nothing more than having good observation and awareness of your surroundings.  Developing that awareness is a practice that once intently engaged, you will not be able to turn it off.  Sign is anything that will give us an indication of passage of time and location of anything; people, animals, weather, etc.  At its root, tracking is knowing what a particular environment should look like at any given time (baseline) and noticing anything that looks out of place (disturbance).  We can further break down disturbance in a number of ways.  See the sidebar for three broad classifications for disturbance.

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  • Ground Sign – this is any sign that can be recognized from the ankle down. Some common ground sign are tracks, bruised or broken vegetation, transference from one medium (such as water) to another medium (bank of the river), constriction in small stones and sand.

  • Aerial Sign – this is any sign that is recognized from the ankle up. This includes broken branches, nature disturbance (cobwebs), dew or rain knocked off of leaves, overturned leaves on trees, bark removed on trees.

  • Intangible and/or Other Sign – this is a huge consideration but includes items such as animal sounds (squirrels barking, deer snorting), bird alarm calls, presence of disturbed nature (bees nest disrupted), spit, urine, feces, discarded waste such as animal feet or organs.

There are certain details we know from the historical record of our story and others that we can detail from knowledge of how to track.  The first of which, is the girls stated they broke branches and scuffed the ground as they walked.  At one point their captors noticed this and made them stop.  This would have left both aerial and ground sign for the trackers.  This would have included leaves that were broken, overturned, and creased.   In July broken branches in a forested area would show as bright white against the brown, green and grey of that landscape.


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Flintlock rifle by H. House, Hammer Pole By Beaver Bill, Long knife and leather pouches by the author.

One would have to be able to have the knowledge and appropriate accoutrements to pick up immediately and get on track.  This would include appropriate clothing for the climate, rifle, knife, and tomahawk or bag ax and a compass.  You would need a rifleman’s pouch to carry the various needs for the rifle, as well as a possibles pouch to carry other appropriate gear such as flint and steel, sewing kit, and food such as pemmican or similar.   In July no bed roll would have been needed, a proper woodsman would have made the leaves and earth his bed for the night.   For everything else, including situations where

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Author in period correct dress harvesting cedar bark for fire building.

you did not have these items, one would need to rely upon nature to provide it for you and the skills to recognize it.  This includes memory and understanding of terrain, water, shelter and fire materials.


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Author displaying fighting tactics with tomahawk and long knife. The tomahawk was often gripped near the head and used as a bladed striking instrument.

The frontier scout/tracker would need the ability to move through an area without leaving any more sign than he had to.  Every step, every branch would need to be moved in such a way (when time allowed) to not bring unwanted attention from those who may counter track them.  This would include the ability to come upon a party that would bring the scout/tracker harm.  A solo scout is no match for several armed enemy, they would gather as much information as possible without being seen or heard.  This requires patience and stealth as well as a good understanding of who you were gathering information about.  If contact with an aggressor was made they would also need to have good combative skills.  This would obviously include shooting the rifle and reloading quickly.  Frontiersman such as Boone, Simon Kenton, Simon Girty, Lewis Wetzel and others were renowned for their ability to load quickly and sometimes on the run.  If that proved to be inadequate, the frontier scout would need to use the butt of his rifle as a blunt force trauma instrument (it worked well for this), and know the use of tomahawk and knife for fighting.  Throwing tomahawks was a good bragging rights competition but rarely were they thrown in self-defense.  You would be unnecessarily throwing one of your defensive tools away.   From the historical record we know frontiersman used his hawk low on the handle for distance as well as high on the handle to punch the edge towards the aggressor.  (Interesting item of note in our story is that this is one of the few times in a historical record that a tomahawk was thrown in defense.  In this case it was thrown by one of the natives as he was running away, in an effort to wound one of the frontiersman.)

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A buttstroke to the face was an an unwelcome sight to an agressor.


Frontier scout/trackers would often be tasked to go solo into an untamed wilderness to gather information about the terrain, natural resources, and passageways.  They would then deliver this message to others for their use.  Sometimes these scouts were utilized to guide others such as surveyors or trappers into a wilderness.  This would often include providing food and safe passage.  Therefore they would need the ability to track animals, a knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, and much more to assist in providing those they were working with.   This also included the ability of the scout/tracker to communicate with the indigenous people of that area.  Those scouts in the northeast would need to know the etiquette and ways of natives such as those in the Iroquois confederacy.  For those that came through the Cumberland Gap, they would have need to understand the Shawnee, sometimes Cherokee.

With all those characteristics, what fascinates many in modern times is the ability of these trackers to look at sign on the ground and read it.  See the sidebar for the five characteristic of why we see a track.

Why we see a track

  • Outline – notice the edges, inside portions and partials.

  • Shapes – recognizable objects, toes, claw marks, heel box, pads of animals

  • Color – Shadows, color change of different substrate

  • Shine – do the particles, substrate, or other material such as leaves reflect, or absorb light?

  • Rhythm – does regular spacing between tracks re-occur?

  • Texture – does that track appear to be rough or smooth

  • Value – contrast based upon substrate, position, exposure to sun that make tracks appear darker or lighter.

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Changing one’s perspective will often allow a tracker to see more detail.

These are all characteristics of a individual track.  You can add to those characteristics what you can discern from a set/group of tracks or sign when you are fortunate enough to see several together.  Information such as acceleration, weight, and age of tracks would have been invaluable to these men.

Acceleration can be seen by kicked up leaves or other ground material.  It will most often go in the direction of travel of the quarry you tracking.   Also you will notice that distance between tracks will increase as a quarry accelerates.  Scout/trackers would know if the deer they were tracking had heard them and proceeded to flee for safety.  In the case of the story, the scout/trackers would have known they were closing the time and distance gap with the captors if they could recognize the age of the tracks.

Weight distribution can be seen if you have a good knowledge of the strata only.   The amount of disturbance placed on the earth is based upon both the strata itself, and the weight of the quarry making it.  Therefore, you can tell if others are carrying an injured person, an animal is large, or they were carrying a trump line full of pelts based upon the depth of the track.  To be clear you would need to know how that quarry effected the baseline and compare it to others to discern this.

Aging a track is in and of itself difficult to do with much certainty.  Frontier scout/trackers would have noted the amount of moisture that overturned leaves had on them, the breakdown of the edges of a track itself, and other small details.  This knowledge would have come from looking at countless tracks in their endeavors so they could then utilize that knowledge when it was needed.  For example, in our story, the trackers would have noted water splashes on the side of the river and the water carried into the leaf litter from the moccasins.  An hour or two later on a hot Kentucky summer day, there would have been little to no residue of water activity in the leaves due to evaporation.

It is with these skills that the frontier scout was better able to serve the greater good.  Whether it was guiding a new passageway opening up the frontier to settlement or the rescue of loved family member, tracking was important.  It, along with the necessary skills of the frontiersman, was an incredibly valuable resource on the frontier.

FOR FURTHER READING: If this historical narrative and added education account interests you, then I highly recommend you read and research one or more of the following.  I also recommend you join us for our annual Scout/Tracking class.

  • Draper, Lyman. The Life of Daniel Boone, edited by Ted Franklin Belue. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.
  • Blackmon, Richard D. Dark and Bloody Ground. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012.
  •, please note the “Draper Papers” are extensive so while some of this story is covered there you will also find much, much history.  I highly recommend you check into them if you are interested in history.
c1Craig Caudill is the Founder and Chief Instructor of Nature Reliance School. He specializes in teaching outdoor related topics to include, survival, tracking go-bags, nature awareness and gun safety for private and public groups, and government agencies.  Craig’s first book, Extreme Wilderness Survival from Page Street Publishing, distributed by Macmillan Publishing will be available in March 2017.  

Craig is a also frequent  contributor to TV outlets, blog sites, magazines and is a popular online outdoor educator on his YouTube channel.  Pick up the book, subscribe to him on youtube, or join Craig in a class so he can help you be more safe and aware in the outdoors.


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