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Heroism of the Pioneers – David McCullough

Heroism of the Pioneers – David McCullough

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The Pioneers : The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

The #1 New York Times bestseller by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important chapter in the American story that’s “as resonant today as ever” (The Wall Street Journal)—the settling of the Northwest Territory by courageous pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam Cutler’s son Ephraim and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. “With clarity and incisiveness, [McCullough] details the experience of a brave and broad-minded band of people who crossed raging rivers, chopped down forests, plowed miles of land, suffered incalculable hardships, and braved a lonely frontier to forge a new American ideal” (The Providence Journal).

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. “A tale of uplift” (The New York Times Book Review), this is a quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

The Pioneers : The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam Cutler’s son Ephraim and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

The Pioneers review: David McCullough on Ohio and a road less travelled

A map used by the British for the 1783 Treaty of Paris, at which the future president John Adams insisted on the cession of the lands north-west of the Ohio River, the ‘Northwest Territory’. Photograph: Provided by British Library

A map used by the British for the 1783 Treaty of Paris, at which the future president John Adams insisted on the cession of the lands north-west of the Ohio River, the ‘Northwest Territory’. Photograph: Provided by British Library

Last modified on Thu 4 Jul 2019 07.02 BST

F or many Europeans (and Americans as well), the term “pioneers” probably evokes images of covered wagons and homesteaders on the vast prairie, of emigrants settling the west, amber waves of grain, perhaps even an anachronistic bit of John Ford. That is not this book.

David McCullough puts the story much earlier, with the founding of what became the state of Ohio, and ends it during the civil war.

At the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American revolution, the Americans led by future president John Adams insisted on the cession of the lands north-west of the Ohio River to the Mississippi, the “Northwest Territory”. Settlement began in 1788.

Those first settlers were the “foremost pioneers” in both the literal and figurative sense, facing hard work clearing land for agriculture, the threats of disease and war with Native Americans, among other dangers.

It’s an important story. Ohio has always been a pivotal state and the founding of Marietta marks the beginning of organized settlement in the successive western frontiers. (Daniel Boone’s first emigrants to Kentucky left in 1773 but did so illegally, thanks to the Proclamation of 1763 limiting settlement to east of the Appalachian mountains.)

The characters involved, including the Rev Manasseh Cutler (among the first and most successful lobbyists as well as a noted divine) Revolutionary war general Rufus Putnam and the Irish-born Harman Blennerhasset, who schemed with former vice-president Aaron Burr to split the republic, hold the reader’s interest.

Equally, the settlement of the Northwest defined several important themes in American history. Notably, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 Congress banned slavery in the territory and set aside land for public schools. As McCullough notes, this began what he terms “the American ideal” – a future in which free, educated people would form towns and bring order to the frontier. In 1802, Ephraim Cutler, the Rev Cutler’s son, arose from his sickbed to cast the deciding vote in the Ohio state constitutional convention, preventing slavery there – surely one of the most consequential legislative votes in American history.

McCullough’s story of Campus Martius, the first settlement at what is now Marietta, offers a tantalizing glimpse of a road not taken, of a future more defined by communitarianism than individualism:

They were united in bonds of friendship like one great family, bound and held together in a common brotherhood by the perils which surrounded them. In after years, when each household lived separate in their own domicil, they looked back on these days with satisfaction and pleasure, as a period in their lives when the best affections of the heart were called forth and practiced towards each other.

If this harkens back to similar remembrances of Plymouth or 17th-century Boston, many of the first settlers of Ohio were the descendants of Puritans who wanted to build a town “on the New England type”.

Perhaps it was inevitable that an expansive frontier and a restless people would lead to individualism becoming the dominant American ideology. But it is among the frustrations of this book that McCullough does not tease out the contrast more, instead simply passing along to the next events.

David McCullough, pictured in his library in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

The book resulted from the delivery of an address at the bicentennial of Ohio University and McCullough’s own research at Marietta College, in the town founded by the settlers along the “beautiful river”. It’s a superb regional history, with well-painted glimpses of the hardships and joys of frontier life and portraits of important early settlers. But overall it misses the chance to expand on broader themes hinted at throughout the book.

There is a place for regional history – among other things, it would help Americans understand some of the roots of our enduring differences – but placing this narrative within a broader context, even of the settlement of the other states that became the midwest, would have made a stronger, more enduring work. The book should have been called Ohio! or something similar. One senses the title was dictated more by a publisher’s marketing department than the book’s contents.

McCullough is among the most thoughtful and thorough historians of the past two generations. Read 1776, John Adams or the magisterial (and highly relevant) Truman to get the true measure of this great American mind.

In 'The Pioneers,' historian McCullough finds heroes in Ohio history

If David McCullough had to pick a moment from the history he tells in his new book "The Pioneers," one moment he would have liked to witness, he said it would have been a morning in 1802 in Chillicothe.

It was the moment when Ephriam Cutler of Marietta, Ohio, member of the 1802 Ohio Legislature, rose from his sickbed to vote on a measure that would lift the ban on slavery in Ohio.

“He really was ill," McCullough said. "But he got up, he made a speech and voted. He was carrying the banner of his father Manasseh, who had written the ban into the Northwest Ordinance.”

The measure was defeated by one vote. Slavery continued to be banned in Ohio.

I have to say, I liked that moment, too.

Ephriam Cutler is my great-great-great-great grandfather, and Manasseh one more great, but I had never heard this story. I grew up being taught to be proud of my ancestors, but mostly because they were prominent or noteworthy. This was not just noteworthy, it was something I could truly admire.

Exactly why we should be proud of ancestors is something I'm still working out, but I do like to look in their stories for traits and values that may have been passed along over generations. So, though I can't participate in the credit, I did feel a glow of pride at this story.

McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and one of our most distinguished popular historians, feels proud, too. When he came across the stories of the people who were part of the Ohio Company, the group of New Englanders who founded the first non-Indian settlement in Ohio, he saw American ancestors we could admire as examples.

In a time when history may be more likely to revise something we’ve always thought we knew, or shine a light on previously marginalized figures, "The Pioneers" is more old-fashioned. McCullough looks at the Ohio Company’s episode in history and sees values and traits that have been passed down in our national character.

“I recognize this more and more,” McCullough told me. “The purpose and theme of my work is to bring attention to people who deserve credit, deserve our amazement and gratitude. Barbara Tuchman told me early on that there's no trick to teaching or writing history: tell stories. And what a story this was. Nobody had really told it. It was such a surprise to me.”

If you’re from Ohio, you probably learned the basics in school. After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government took control of the lands west of the original colonies. This vast area was called the Northwest Territory and was to eventually become states under a process outlined in The Northwest Ordinance.

Manasseh Cutler was part of writing the ordinance, and McCullough gives him credit for including its ban on slavery. He was then part of organizing The Ohio Company, which bought land in Ohio from the federal government. The company, led by Rufus Putnam, made the difficult journey to Ohio and founded Marietta at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers.

Author and Historian David McCullough (Photo: Provided/William McCullough)

McCullough began to realize the great possibilities of this story in 2004 after being asked to give the commencement speech at Ohio University, founded by Ephriam Cutler 200 years earlier.

“I knew next to nothing about its history, but I wanted to know who Cutler Hall was named for,” said McCullough. “That led me to Manasseh, and next thing I knew I was going to Marietta to do more research. I found a King’s Tut tomb of letters and diaries from Marietta’s founders. Thousands of written documents. It was unbelievable. It really was one of the greatest turns in my career as a historian.”

With so many documents, so many details, he was able to bring his story to life. He builds it around five principle men he regards as heroes. One is Manasseh Cutler. “His diary is one of the richest troves of details about the people and events of his time,” said McCullough. He was a lawyer who became a doctor to supplement his income and also became a Congregational minister and ran a school. He wrote the definitive work on the botany of New England.

Then there was Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary general who actually led the Ohio Company in its difficult journey to Pittsburgh and down the Ohio on flatboats. He and Ephriam Cutler became fierce advocates for education, even though neither had much formal education themselves. They made sure public elementary and high school education was funded in Ohio, and founded Ohio University. “That love of learning is one of most important American values,” said McCullough. "That's important to remember today."

Samuel Hildreth is another character. Marietta's first doctor, he also was representative to the Ohio legislature. One of McCullough's favorite moments in his research was when the librarian brought him an account book that Hildreth had filled with beautiful, accurate drawings and paintings of local plants.

“With all his responsibilities as a doctor and more, he was doing these exquisite watercolors, in the middle of the wilderness," said McCullough. "I thought I was lucky to find one 18th century polymath in this story. And then here are two.”

Joseph Barker was another man he came to admire. He brought prosperity to Marietta with his boat-building business and was the architect of many of the town's buildings.

"They had courage, they had respect for their fellow man and woman, self-reliance, devotion to truth, to honesty, perseverance," said McCullough." And to being able to say they had ended each day having made themselves useful."

These traits, particularly that last one, McCullough sees as coming from their Puritan Yankee background. “In many ways, this book is as much about New England as it is about Ohio,” said McCullough. “You can see it in the role of the church, the schools, the actual layout of the town." Marietta never became a city. It was quickly surpassed on the river by Cincinnati, which had a different origin story.

McCullough builds a good case for these men, and sees values we should go back to, like funding education. But he glosses over the fact that for Marietta to happen, the peoples who already lived there had to be eliminated or moved or “pacified.”

Though the Northwest Ordinance includes a clause “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards Indians their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent,” no one made a speech and fought to make sure that clause was held to. It's a bit strange to read a chapter from the history of the Indian Wars in the new United States with neutral language about the "Indian problem."

I don't think we can admire the attributes of our ancestors, family or national, without also acknowledging the harsher truths of our history.

Genealogy shouldn't be a search for finding better ancestors than other people's. History can acknowledge a basic sin of the American project and still find a story as fascinating and instructive as "The Pioneers."

Don't buy your dad the new David McCullough book for Father's Day

Illustrated | AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Library of Congress, iarti/iStock, jessicahyde/iStock, str33tcat/iStock

All across the country next weekend, thousands of men will open their Father's Day gifts to find David McCullough's new book, The Pioneers. McCullough, the author of more than a dozen books and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, may be America's most famous popular historian. Like most of his books, The Pioneers has staked its claim near the

McCullough appears to have written the perfect dad book. A sweeping narrative of decent, hardworking men who built this nation that also reminds us of our better selves — and the moral bearings to which the United States must rededicate itself. Given the state of the nation — and, especially, the health (or not) of the American ideal in 2019 — The Pioneers might seem the needed balm for our ravaged age. If ever there were a time for heroes, surely it is now.

But that romantic view is the book's very danger.

The problem of McCullough's story owes to how closely it reflects, even if unintentionally, the white nationalist myth that undergirds Trumpism. The Pioneers highlights the story of a handful of white settlers, men who McCullough describes in the book's acknowledgments as "entirely unknown to most Americans." His publisher, Simon and Schuster, has similarly hyped the book, and some reviews have joined in. NPR's book critic, for example, hailed the book as a "fascinating look at a chapter in American history that's been somewhat neglected in the country's popular imagination."

That's probably true. It also misses the point. The Pioneers does tell the story of white guys, like Rufus Putnam and Ephraim Cutler, most Americans have never heard of. McCullough writes that his purpose was to bring such characters "to life, bring them center stage and tell their amazing and, I feel, important story."

Uncovering the unknown, including unrecognized historical actors, remains a primary task for all historians. But bringing un-famous white men into the spotlight, doesn't provide a new understanding of history. Instead, it perpetuates and — particularly in this moment — reinvigorates persistent national myths that make white people the center of the American experience and the chosen beneficiaries of democracy's offerings.

More importantly, McCullough largely banishes Native Americans — tribes like the Wyandot and Delaware — to the outskirts of the area and the margins of his story. As Rebecca Onion at Slate has already expertly argued, in McCullough's telling, the Native peoples only exist as a curious challenge to the pioneers' ambitions, not as the original occupants of the region itself. (She also comments persuasively on the book's poor handling of African-American history and its avoidance of Ohio's legacy of anti-black racism.)

Many other historians, including Patricia Limerick, Richard Slotkin, and Richard White, to name just a few, have spent the last several decades uncovering the violence, conflict, expropriation, racial subjugation, and environmental devastation that marked white settlers' westward movement. Their work has centered the experiences of non-white people, and laudably complicated the popular "Manifest Destiny" narrative that has long been taught in American History textbooks.

Yet, as groundbreaking and influential as those historians have been, none have enjoyed McCullough's popularity or his fat royalty checks. Most Americans don't want to read those histories, in part because they disrupt the very stories we keep telling ourselves about who we are. This unwillingness to reckon with a past that was often as awful as it was awesome, though, allows someone like Trump to exploit the worst impulses of popular memory for his political gain.

Certainly, McCullough is no fan of Trump. As Trump campaigned for office in 2016, McCullough pronounced him "a monstrous clown with a monstrous ego." Of course, you don't have to be an award-winning biographer to judge Trump so correctly — many of McCullough's readers surely oppose the president's racist rhetoric and policies too — but it doesn't hurt. Since then, McCullough has maintained his criticisms of Trump as an existential threat to American democracy.

McCullough is right. Yet Trump is more symptom than cause of what is ailing the American project. And his rise to power depended, in part, on glorified, whitewashed notions of the past that McCullough is now helping to keep alive, even if in softer form. When Trump bellowed he would make America great again, he was tapping into the sort of hazy nostalgia that popular histories like The Pioneers have done nothing to dismantle.

If anything, the Trump presidency has made plain the double-edged sword of history: both how dangerously false notions of the past can be weaponized but also how powerfully deep historical knowledge can hold anti-democratic tendencies in check. What we need now is not the "right" version of history, as if such a thing could exist. Rather, we must continue to populate our national memory with the full richness and complexity of its many peoples. Doing so will get us closer to the truths of the past. For several decades, pioneering historians have done exactly that. McCullough, unfortunately, is not one of them.

The Pioneers

With “The Pioneers,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough presents a different angle on Western expansion. Gone are the German immigrants in covered wagons, the Texas Cowboys dueling the natives, and the California 49ers driven by dreams of gold. Instead, McCullough returns to the founding of the Republic—a time when Out West meant Ohio and the “future” the Constitution was still being secretly debated and the inhabitants of the cramped former New England colonies longed to expand (McCullough, p. 9).

McCullough’s concentrates on the establishment of settlements along Ohio’s Muskingum River at the close of the 18th century. Using primary sources, he delineates the development of this frontier microcosm, and profiles the lives of its key pioneers. His central claim is that those settlements represented not just the geographical growth of a fledgling nation, but the expansion of the “American ideal” to new lands (McCullough, p. 13).

But, this pioneer story begins far from the frontier. In a Boston bar called the “Bunch of Grapes,” leading Revolutionary War figures planned to provide Ohio lands to veterans battered by the recent “unprecedented financial panic” (McCullough, p. 8). These new lands, would be settled in a distinctly Northern way—unlike the territories in Virginia lands which were opened to everybody, from squatters to slave owners.

Ohio would be purchased through a legal process, led by General Rufus Putnam.

He and his coterie envisioned a “‘new New England’ in the wilderness” rooted in their regional values: religious freedom, educational opportunity, and a ban on slavery (McCullough, pp. 29 44). By detailing these plans, McCullough subtly illustrates how the fault lines of a civil war–yet to come–were already being drawn on soil yet to be settled.

To realize their expansionist dream, these burly patriots turned to an unlikely political operative: Reverend Manasseh Cutler. The living incarnation of “those strong-minded English Puritans” who colonized New England, Cutler was also a man of the Enlightenment—a committed botanist who viewed expansion as an opportunity to enhance scientific knowledge (McCullough, p. 4). He proved an effective advocate. McCullough shows how his credibility and manners helped him play “the most important role” in uniting the Northern and Southern factions in the Congress of the Confederation (the one-chambered legislature that governed the nation under the Articles of Confederation) behind the passage of the Northwest Ordinance (McCullough, p. 30).¹

To McCullough, this Ordinance, which established the government structure of the new territory, stands “alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual” (McCullough, p. 30).

Even with the political structure of the territory secured, McCullough assiduously details the daunting odds for pioneers in this “unsettled wilderness” (McCullough, p. 6). There were mountains and rivers to cross, but few roads and no bridges fertile soil, but thick forests and only rudimentary surveys of the territory (McCullough, p. 39). Any settlers would have to confront a stark fact: this land was already occupied by several Native American tribes.

Nonetheless, in December 1787, the first pioneers left New England under the charge of General Putnam, who was famed for his victories at Dorchester Heights and would become the first Surveyor General (McCullough, p. 37). McCullough catalogues how the pioneers founded the future Marietta on the banks of the Muskingum. He provides extraordinary descriptions of how the “‘new city’” would be built in the image of a “compact New England town” once the thick forests were cleared (McCullough, p. 44).

Measles outbreaks, food shortages, and the uncertainty caused by “wilderness on all sides” are just a few of the astounding adversities that menaced the settlers (McCullough, pp. 75 81). Yet, in McCullough’s view, what “opened the way in eastern and southern Ohio for a renewed flood of settlers” was the ultimate defeat of the perceived threat posed by Native Americans (McCullough, p. 118). McCullough describes how relations between the settlers rapidly deteriorated from a partnership to a purge:

At the Choate cabin the riders found those inside at supper. A few of the Indians stepped through the door in a friendly manner and were offered something to eat. They at once pounced on and bound the settlers and told them they were prisoners . . . the slaughter took but minutes (McCullough, p. 89).

Isolated, brutal killings of natives and settlers escalated into a protracted American military campaign. This volley of violence terminated with the vanquished Native Americans’ expulsion from the territory.

The first part of the book illustrates the settlement process, and the latter two sections are equally incisive for their personal portraits of settlers who helped the Marietta region develop. Cutler’s son—Ephraim—became a prominent politician in the new Ohio state legislature, pushing to proscribe slavery and provide public education (McCullough, p. 217). A young physician, Samuel Hildreth, journeyed by horse from Massachusetts to spread the healing of medicine to scattered settlements blighted by numerous diseases. He was “one of the pioneer American scientists of the time,” and the books he wrote corroborate McCullough’s account (McCullough, p. 172). And the ascent of a young carpenter named Joseph Barker to owner of a shipyard symbolized the growing role of Marietta in facilitating regional trade (McCullough, p. 170).

The most eclectic profile is of the Blennerhassetts—two self-exiled Anglo-Irish aristocrats whose elaborate mansion became the site of a long-forgotten conspiracy to detach the Western territories and crown Aaron Burr emperor of the new country (McCullough, p. 161). Here, McCullough skillfully weaves Marietta’s history together with the broader political situation in the young United States. At each point–from the ratification of the Constitution–to the War of 1812–and the brewing debate over fugitive slave laws–McCullough harnesses the pioneer settlements at Marietta as a window into the up’s and down’s of America’s development.

McCullough’s book benefits tremendously from his acquisition of primary sources, and he uses everything from journal articles to building plans for the original settlement. Finding such detailed records is a considerable feat considering how isolated Marietta was it is unlikely there was little time for frontier recordkeeping.

Sir Winston Churchill once remarked that “[h]istory is written by the victors,” and it seems likely that a disproportionate amount of the primary source material surviving from this time period belongs to the white settlers—not to the Native American tribes whose civilizations were nearly obliterated.²

Telling the story from the settlers’ points of view results in an unbalanced history. Approximately 45% of the indexed references to Indians (the term McCullough uses) indicate episodes of violence or the perceived threat posed by Native Americans, while there are only isolated accounts of violence committed by the settlers (McCullough, pp. 321-322).

To McCullough’s credit, he acknowledges that the settlers existed in a wider violent colonial system. In the opening chapter, he notes the Revolution-era Gnadenhutten massacre of Christian Delaware natives and the Native Americans’ “rightful” claim to their land (McCullough, p. 8). Yet, he attempts to distinguish the “illegal settlers” (squatters) who favored an “‘extermination policy’” toward the Native Americans from the supposedly more virtuous pioneers who settled Marietta with American authorization—even though each was taking native held land (McCullough, p. 45). A stronger analysis would have been more critical of the accounts of the Marietta settlers themselves considering the racialized context in which they were written. For example, McCullough concludes that Putnam “wanted always to be fair in his dealings with the native tribes” (McCullough, p. 206). Yet, Putnam’s own journal entry states that despite a peaceful welcome, he remained “‘fully persuaded that the Indians would not be peaceable very long.’” (McCullough, p. 46).

Throughout the book, McCullough argues that the pioneers brought the “American ideal” West “not for money . . . but to advance the quality and opportunities of life” (McCullough, p. 258). It is (understandably) not always clear what the American ideal is. Is it the prohibition on slavery, accessibility of education, and freedom of religion (which he identifies with New England)? At the same time, many clearly moved West because of the economic catastrophe after the Revolution, so it is unclear why McCullough exorcises economic opportunity from his vision of the pioneers’ motives.

The book flows clearly, chronologically, and the inclusion of 30 pages of images livens it up. Unfortunately, the pioneer legend is losing its luster, and this story is one of many that America needs to remember.

Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Government who is passionate about history.

[2] Greenblatt, Alan. Rewriting History, in “CQ Global Researcher,” vol. 3, no. 12, Dec. 20019, pp. 313.

The Pioneers Summary & Study Guide

The Pioneers Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Pioneers by David McCullough.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: McCullough, David. The Pioneers. Simon & Schuster, 2019.

The Pioneers by David McCullough traces the development of the first Ohio settlement beginning in the 1780s through to the mid-nineteenth century. He employs a vast array of primary sources in order to depict the changing lives and the personal intentions of several key figures whose actions gave rise to American prosperity and westward expansion. The book is divided into ten chapters, each of which addresses a period of time or a specific subject in relation to the settlement, moving in a general chronological order through the history of the state.

"The Ohio Country" introduces the Reverend Mannaseh Cutler and General Rufus Putnam, whose lobbying efforts and strategizing led to the establishment of the Northwest Ordinance which allowed for the creation of a state west of the Ohio River. "Forth to the Wilderness" describes the initial foray into the West and the establishment of the settlement of Marietta which lay near both the Ohio and the Muskingam Rivers. Very quickly, the male settlers put down roots.

"Difficult Times" describes some major problems at the frontier in Marietta, as food shortages abounded, political turmoil with natives indigenous to the land arose, and other obstacles prevented the settlement from expanding as quickly as expected. Soon, as a result of a fraudster's exploitation of the Northwest Ordinances stipulations, a large group of French immigrants arrived in Ohio, having been promised land and a fresh start away from the French Revolution taking place in their native country. These immigrants did not receive the things promised to them but reveled in the freedom they found in Ohio, making do for themselves alongside the American settlers. "Havoc" then recounts the war between the natives and the settlers which occupied the settlers' attention beginning in 1791. General Arthur St. Clair, charged with eliminating the native threat, suffered a humiliating defeat which became infamous, leading to General Anthony Wayne having to take over for St. Clair. He defeated the natives two years after St. Clair's defeat and limited native habitation to an area further north and west of the Ohio River.

In "A New Era Commences," McCullough describes how Ephraim Cutler, son of the Reverend Cutler, moved his family to the frontier, where he rose to prominence by virtue of his work ethic and natural skills. His influence was such that he was elected delegate to Ohio's territorial legislature, worked to prevent the introduction of slavery in the state, and established a state university in accordance with his belief that education was of primary concern to humanity. "The Burr Conspiracy" traces the course of a small national crisis which arose when Colonel Aaron Burr, an infamous and disgraced political figure, was charged with encouraging rebellion against Washington in Ohio.

"Adversities Aplenty" then proceeds to outline the myriad challenges facing Marietta's residents as the settlement grew into a large town. The diseases and food shortages its residents faced were tempered by the resilience and helpful attitudes of ordinary people. "The Cause of Learning" then explains how Ephraim Cutler put public education at the center of his life's mission, lobbying in Washington and elsewhere to bring Ohio enough resources to establish a public school system modelled after that of New England.

Finally, "The Travelers" and "Journey's End" describe the successes and lasting impact of the settlement of Marietta. The ideals borne out by the actions of several of its key figures helped to create the idea of the American 'dream' so often discussed, and several prominent international visitors were surprised at the unique culture of this western settlement of the United States. The complete rejection of slavery in Ohio was one of the main accomplishments which the Reverend Cutler and General Rufus Putnam had wanted to preserve and which their descendants, both literal and ideological, strove to uphold.

David McCullough’s Idealistic Settlers

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The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
By David McCullough

If every generation of Americans gets the visionary colonizer it deserves, we get Elon Musk, but people in the early Republic got the Rev. Manasseh Cutler. Musk wants to settle Mars. In the 1780s, Cutler set his sights on the Ohio Territory, the subject of David McCullough’s new book, “The Pioneers.” Plans for Martian colonies dwell on technical feasibility Ohio’s earlier colonization is a reminder that humans’ treatment of one another matters to such schemes, too.

Ohio has quite a history. The characters who passed through during its early phases as part of the United States could adorn a novel. Folks on the famous side include Lewis and Clark (headed west), Aaron Burr (post-duel and mid-conspiracy against the American government), John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, sower of fruit trees) and Charles Dickens (visitor to Cincinnati). The less famous characters include Harman and Margaret Blennerhasett, Anglo-Irish newlyweds who lit out for the territory because they were uncle and niece the Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam, whose frontier library tellingly featured Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Cajoe, an enslaved Virginia man who gained his freedom in Ohio, preached the Gospel and lived past his 100th birthday.

McCullough tells the history of the Ohio Territory as a story of uplift, of what can happen when the doers of good are let loose upon a place. This is American history as a vision of our better selves. Lord knows we need it. And there are several inarguably admirable elements of Manasseh Cutler’s plan.


Cutler and his supporters wanted the Ohio Territory, and eventual state, to be nonslaveholding, free within a nation where slavery was still legal. Their goal followed the tendency of the states in the North to repudiate slavery — at least within their own borders. Prohibiting slavery in new states extended that revolutionary logic outward. As the Northwest Ordinance (1787) declared, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” Nor could the eventual states formed out of the Northwest Territory be admitted to the Union as slave states.

And thus a moral border on the nation’s map, a firm resolve that the Ohio River separated two different ways of being American. McCullough notes that Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived for a time in Cincinnati, shaped testimony about slavery she heard from free blacks in Ohio into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He might have added that the semifrozen river the fugitive slave Eliza crosses to freedom in Stowe’s novel is the Ohio River, a geo-ethical line within an increasingly divided nation.

The Northwest Ordinance also stipulated that schools and education would be embedded into the new settlements. Ohio had a school system supported by public taxes and it had Ohio University, founded in 1804. Freedom of religion was also part of the Northwest plan and became law in Ohio two years before it would be enshrined in the Constitution, even as many of the old American states still had established churches, with financial penalties or civic exclusion of people of other faiths. It made a difference. The first Ohio Jewish congregation was formed in 1824 — there wouldn’t be a counterpart in Massachusetts for another decade.

McCullough admires the work of the Northwest Ordinance and of Ohio’s high-minded settlers. There is much to admire. Enough, in fact, that the story can withstand some criticism.

The idea that antislavery sentiments dominated New England and flowed inevitably from it is wishful thinking. New Englanders may have flooded into the free Northwest Territory, but they also streamed into slaveholding Georgia. Even as Harvard men were founding Ohio University, Yale men established the University of Georgia. The Connecticut native Eli Whitney developed his famous cotton gin on the Georgia plantation of a fellow New Englander, Nathaniel (also Nathanael) Greene, a Rhode Islander who had settled in the South and acquired slaves. Ohio and Georgia — antislavery and slaveholding, respectively — were both parts of the same nation. The two states were logical American outcomes, dueling creations of people from the same place.

And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

Despite the Northwest Ordinance’s declaration that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians,” several indigenous nations refused to recognize the treaties that, under United States law, nullified their land rights. A confederation of the Shawnee, Miami and Lenape (Delaware) — led by their leaders, Waweyapiersenwaw (Blue Jacket), Mishikinaakwa (Little Turtle) and Buckongahelas — resisted the settlers’ advance. After several attacks, American officials dispatched troops, who built a new fort. Their effort resulted in a battle at the Wabash River (Nov. 4, 1791), which came to be known as St. Clair’s Defeat, a rout worse than any suffered in the American Revolution: 623 men and officers lost, plus an estimated 200 civilians. (Indian fatalities were estimated at 21.) But the United States won a significant victory three years later at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated Blue Jacket’s forces on Aug. 20. The Treaty of Greenville (1795) drew yet another line, one that demanded Indians remove themselves north and west of the Ohio Territory.

McCullough presents this as the end of conflict between settlers and indigenous groups. It wasn’t, not even in Ohio. He simply omits the succeeding confrontations there, as well as in the Northwest Territory and in the greater Midwest, where settlers continued to challenge Indians.

In their desire to remove Indians, Ohio’s settlers uncomfortably resembled their white counterparts in the slaveholding South. Local xenophobia re-emerged when freed blacks made their way to the Midwest after the Civil War, joined by new streams of immigrants: Many white Ohioans became members and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. That probably would have surprised (if not saddened) Cutler. McCullough is quite right not to have written a glib lament for a falling-off from an originary moral peak. But his fondness for the sweetly evoked Midwest of the early to mid-20th century — he admires Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Conrad Richter’s “The Awakening Land” trilogy — betrays an ahistorical vision. Cutler’s plan had not prevented a violent preference for a white-dominated society.

Can we do better? Mars has no indigenous inhabitants. Maybe that will make it easier for Musk — for anyone — to craft a colony that satisfies basic definitions of justice, with a good answer to the basic question: Who gets to go? For that to happen, we need clear and critical views of previous flawed attempts to be pioneers. Otherwise, we boldly go — back to where many others have gone before.

Point/Counterpoint: David McCullough's The Pioneers

There are few things the literary community relishes more than the appearance of a polarizing high-profile book. Sure, any author about to release their baby into the wild will be hoping for unqualified praise from all corners, but what the lovers of literary criticism and book twitter aficionados amongst us are generally more interested in is seeing a title (intelligently) savaged and exalted in equal measure. It’s just more fun, dammit, and, ahem, furthermore, it tends to generate a more wide-ranging and interesting discussion around the title in question. With that in mind, welcome to a new series we’re calling Point/Counterpoint, in which we pit two wildly different reviews of the same book—one positive, one negative—against one another and let you decide which makes the stronger case.

Today we’re taking a look at Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David McCullough’s The Pioneers, which tells the story of five men who settled the Northwest Territory.

Some critics, like Associated Press‘ Jeff Ayers, have dubbed McCullough “a master of research.” Others, like Rebecca Onion of Slate, took issue with his narrative slant, arguing that “McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes—and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.”

Which one makes the more convincing case?

Until that point the United States government did not own a single acre of land. Now, all at once, almost unimaginably, it had acquired some 265,878 square miles of unbroken wilderness, thus doubling the size of the United States.

“McCullough is a master of research along with being a wonderful storyteller. He takes the history of the area, and turns what could be dry and somewhat dull into vibrant and compelling tales … The region and its occupants truly come alive in the hands of McCullough. It is a history that unfamiliar to most, and brushes with the famous and infamous add to the surprises. He also includes the viewpoint of Native Americans, and does not gloss over the uncomfortable reality that westward expansion had devastating consequences for existing populations … Lovers of history told well know that McCullough is one of the best writers of our past, and his latest will only add to his acclaim.”

“When it comes to representing ‘pioneers’ as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off ‘threats’ from residents of the land they are taking, this book is a true throwback. Its success shows how big the gap between critical history and the ‘popular history’ that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains … McCullough is only interested in finding the good in these men. Native peoples hover around the edges of the first section of the book, a cartoonishly threatening presence to the good New England transplants … In taking a side, narratively speaking, McCullough makes sure their narrow perspective on the matter also becomes ours … McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes—and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it … shows exactly why ‘popular’ histories aren’t always narratively satisfying. When you commit yourself to celebrating a group of people—to repeating platitudes they wrote about each other and not looking at outlying evidence too carefully—things get boring quickly … Even when McCullough does include interesting evidence, the kind that contradicts his hagiography a little, he seems utterly resistant to analyzing it.”

Watch the video: The Pioneers and The Lessons of History by David McCullough (July 2022).


  1. Mezijar

    It is remarkable, very good piece

  2. Kajijora

    I don’t drink. Not at all. So it doesn’t matter :)

  3. Ceolbeorht

    How curious .. :)

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