The Pioneers, David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Summary: An account of the first European-Americans to settle the Northwest Territory, focused on their settlement at Marietta, the challenges they faced, key figures in the town’s early history, and three important conditions they established in the new territory.
I’ve long been a fan of the work of David McCullough. So it was only natural to pick up this latest work of his. Little did I realize that the focus of this work was on the settlement of the first town in my home state, indeed, all of the Northwest Territory. I suspect that many Ohioans are unaware that the scenic little town on the Ohio River in southeast Ohio, Marietta, was the first settlement of European-Americans in Ohio and the Northwest Territory.
The story begins with a minister, Manasseh Cutler and some of his friends, including General Rufus Putnam, who helped in forming the Ohio Company. When the Revolutionary War ended, the British ceded the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota) to the United States. McCullough tells the story of the critical influence of Cutler on the drafting of the ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory in establishing three conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery.
While Cutler remained in Massachusetts except for a brief visit to the settlement, General Putnam led the initial expedition that established the settlement. One of Cutler’s sons, Jervis, was reputedly the first to set foot on the land. Putnam was critical to the first years of the settlement and McCullough describes his leadership in laying out the town, creating the fortification known as Campus Martius, when the Native peoples arose against the influx of new settlers, while preserving pre-historic mounds within the fortification.
Between attacks of the Native peoples, their depredations on wild life on which the colonists depended for food, and illness, the settlement struggled in the early years of its existence. The eventual defeat the Native peoples, and removal combined with the solidarity of the settlers in their struggle for survival resulted in the endurance and growth of the town.
McCullough tells the story of the established settlement through focusing on the lives of four individuals: Putnam, Ephraim Cutler (another of Manasseh’s sons, Samuel Hildreth, and Joseph Barker. Putnam gave leadership to the settlement. Cutler served a critical role in representing Marietta in the new capitol of Ohio, Columbus, translating the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance into reality: maintaining religious freedom, making provision throughout the state for universal free education, and resisting efforts to establish slavery in Ohio. Cutler was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University, and also Marietta College.
Samuel Hildreth was a physician, and along with his son, saw to the medical needs of the people, particularly through epidemics of influenza, small pox, and yellow fever. Survival rates under his care were higher than elsewhere, attesting to his skills and devotion to his patients. He was an early leader of the Physicians Society of Ohio, and also kept journals and drawings of nature observations that qualify him as one of Ohio’s first naturalists. Joseph Barker was the builder and architect of Marietta, responsible for many public buildings and private residences, as well as the ill-fated Blennerhassett mansion on nearby Blennerhassett Island. The dream home of Harman Blennerhassett and his wife was caught up in the conspiracies of Aaron Burr against the United States, to the great loss of the Blennerhassetts.
McCullough’s account has been criticized for primarily looking at the challenges faced by the European-Americans who settled the Ohio country, and not those faced by the Native peoples who already occupied this land. McCullough shows cognizance of these issues in describing the motivating concerns of the aggression of Native peoples as they witness the large numbers of settlers with a very different idea of land ownership coming onto lands they occupied, the courageous and often skilled warfare they fought under leaders like Tecumseh, and the sadness of the eventual removals of these peoples. More than this would have resulted in a much longer and less focused narrative. What I think McCullough might have done is discuss the notable omission of the Northwest Ordinance to address the just treatment of the Native peoples and how their presence would be acknowledged and govern settlement patterns and practices. He addresses the positive distinctives, but not this critical omission. The assumption was that if you could survey it, you could occupy it, one reason why Native peoples especially targeted surveyors. Two very different ideas about land ownership clashed here and throughout the country, without a just resolution.
Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating study of the key figures in this book, and the early history of the settlement of my state. Ohio eventually played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement. The fight to prohibit slavery made the state a haven for fugitive slaves enroute to Canada (there is some evidence that the Cutler family even played a part in this). It was an early pioneer of public and higher education, the home of the McGuffey Reader and a network of public and private colleges throughout the state of which Ohio University and Marietta College were the earliest. McCullough gives us a narrative of the character, courage, and enterprise of these pioneers who not only survived but profoundly transformed the Ohio country during their lives.