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

For 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.



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.

Source: The Guardian

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