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

Image of The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
Release Date: 
May 7, 2019
Simon & Schuster
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“McCullough tells the story of these pioneer heroes in his characteristic narrative manner, which, as in his other books, combines eloquence, erudition, vividness, and remarkable insight. He is a national treasure.”

The celebrated historian David McCullough in 2004 was invited to be the commencement speaker at Ohio University, which was commemorating its 200th anniversary. Although McCullough is a native of neighboring western Pennsylvania, he knew little about the history of Ohio University or the early settlement of Ohio. That soon changed, and the result is this fascinating and informative book about the first pioneer settlers of the Buckeye state.

The author of The Johnstown Flood, John Adams, 1776, The Wright Brothers, Truman, and other great works of history, McCullough tells the story of the Ohio pioneers through the lives of five major characters: General Rufus Putnam, Manasseh Cutler and his son Ephraim, Joseph Barker, and Samuel Hildreth—all New England men.

At nearby Marietta College, McCullough found primary source material for the book: General Putnam’s papers; the Ephraim Cutler Family Collections; the Samuel Hildreth Collections (journals, letters, notes, articles, speeches); Manasseh Cutler’s diaries, sermons, and correspondence; and related books, newspaper articles, paintings, portraits, maps, and drawings.

Under the terms of the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded to the United States the wilderness known as the Northwest Territory. McCullough describes it as “an unsettled empire north and west of the Ohio River; bigger than all of France.” It eventually would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

McCullough calls General Putnam the driving force behind the planned settlement, and he received the support of George Washington. Massachusetts minister Manasseh Cutler, a partner of General Putnam in forming the Ohio Company of Associates to purchase land in the Northwest Territory, lobbied Congress and consulted with Benjamin Franklin, Elbridge Gerry, Benjamin Rush, members of the Board of Treasury, and Thomas Hutchins, the geographer of the United States.

In 1787, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance to establish a government for the Northwest Territory. It guaranteed religious freedom, promoted education, and prohibited slavery. It was designed, McCullough writes, “to guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life,” and it stands “alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual.”

The Ohio Company was granted 1.5 million acres of land, while the private Scioto Company received 3.5 million acres. It was, McCullough writes, “the largest, most far-reaching contract in the history of Congress.”

On December 3, 1787, the first group of 48 pioneers set out on their journey from Ipswich Hamlet and Hartford. They traveled on foot some 700 miles through cold and snow, across the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio. After building boats, the expedition navigated the Ohio River until they reached their destination at the mouth of the Muskingum River on April 7, 1788.

McCullough vividly describes the wildlife, trees, fish, and Indians encountered by the settlers. Their first task was to clear the forests so that cabins and a stockade could be built. They were constructing the town of Marietta, a tribute to French Queen Marie Antoinette for her support for American independence. They named the county after George Washington. Nearby on the opposite shore of the river was Fort Harmer, constructed in 1785, and a 2000-year-old Hopewell Indian ruin called the Great Mound.

The pioneers built a school, opened a general store, hunted, and planted crops. After struggling through the first winter at Marietta, more settlers came, and the town grew in population and territory. More land was cleared and settled downstream, and other towns were built, including the future city of Cincinnati and the future capital Columbus.

McCullough describes daily life in Marietta for men, women, and children.

“Everyone worked, including children,” he writes. “It had to be so for survival.” “There were no days off, no vacations.” Frontier life was hard and dangerous. “Measureless wilderness on all sides,” McCullough notes, “and the continuing fears and uncertainties over the native peoples so close at hand remained a constant presence.”

Pioneer women (Mary Owen, a nurse, was the first to join the settlement) were full-time wives and mothers who cooked, cleaned, baked, churned butter, planted and tended gardens, made soap and candles, and made, washed, and mended clothes. One of the settlers wrote that the women acted with “spirit and fortitude not often excelled by men.”

Sometimes, especially in winter, food was scarce. The settlers also had to deal with diseases and Indian raids and ambushes. The men formed militias. Atrocities were committed by both Indians and settlers. “Ohio, with its promise of the Garden of Eden,” McCullough writes, “had suddenly become Hell on Earth.”

When word of this reached the nation’s capital, President Washington ordered General Anthony Wayne and his army to deal with the Indian threat. On August 20, 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne’s troops routed the Indians. Wayne’s victory “ended more than four years of frontier fighting,” McCullough notes, and lifted the “cloud of fear” at Marietta.

The Ohio River became a gateway to the western United States, as it flowed into the Mississippi, which extended south to Louisiana and north to what would become the mid-western United States. More settlers came, and not just to Ohio but farther west. The steamboat era made travel quicker and easier.

The Ohio settlement also played a role Aaron Burr’s plan to sever the western territories from the United States. McCullough details Burr’s scheme which involved, among others, Harman Blennerhassett, who owned a great mansion on an island near Marietta. Burr was arrested and tried for treason but acquitted by a jury in a trial presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall.

The pioneer heroes of McCullough’s book are Ephraim Cutler, a lawyer, state legislator, and judge who championed education and became a trustee of Ohio University; Joseph Barker, an architect and carpenter who designed and built Marietta’s finest buildings; and Samuel Hildreth, a physician who cared for the town’s citizens (often without receiving payment), explored the region’s natural history, and was the first chronicler of the Marietta settlement.

McCullough tells the story of these pioneer heroes in his characteristic narrative manner, which, as in his other books, combines eloquence, erudition, vividness, and remarkable insight. He is a national treasure.

The story these New England men (and women) who risked all to come to Ohio is a microcosm of the best aspects of the pioneer spirit of America, which settled the continent “from sea to shining sea.” “They accomplished what they had set out to do,” concludes McCullough, “not for money, not for possessions or fame, but to advance the quality and opportunities of life—to propel as best they could the American ideals.”