- - Monday, June 17, 2019


By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, $30, 352 pages

Early Americans had a true pioneering spirit. This was certainly the case with those brave individuals who travelled along the Ohio River and settled in the Northwest Territory several years after the American Revolution ended. In search of adventure, prosperity, social standing and a new way of life, they left their indelible mark on a young country — and a legacy for others to emulate.

David McCullough’s “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” sets out to examine “a cast of real-life characters of historic accomplishment who were entirely unknown to most Americans.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, who “already had good feelings about pioneer times in Ohio,” wanted his newest volume of work to bring these characters “to life, bring them center stage and tell their amazing and, I felt, important story.”

The book’s most important real-life character is Manessah Cutler. The pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ipswich Hamlet in Massachusetts, he would be an unlikely candidate for a rugged, adventurous pioneer at first blush. Yet, this descendent of “strong-minded English Puritans” graduated from Yale College, loved his wife and children, had “boundless intellectual curiosity” and enjoyed “good food, good wine, a good story and good cheer.” He was, therefore, a perfect candidate to set out on the Ohio River.

Cutler helped co-found the Ohio Company of Associates at the Bunch of Grapes meeting in 1784. This group would create the first settlement in Ohio, for which he (and other founders) would receive four shares, or 4,692 acres of land. He would also become the spokesman for the “Ohio cause” in front of the Congress in New York, and told Winthrop Sargent “The more I contemplate the prospect the more I feel myself inclined to take an active part in carrying on the settlement and to be one of the first emigrants.”

Nevertheless, Cutler didn’t want to leave his pulpit behind. It was left up to Gen. Rufus Putnam, a “widely known hero of the Revolution and, in normal times, a farmer and surveyor,” to lead this important expedition. Putnam, who, Mr. McCullough writes, had “few human flaws,” communicated often with George Washington. He knew that Washington was an early Ohio land speculator, and “as a young man had seen that wilderness firsthand on surveying expeditions.” By having strong ties with the man who would become the nation’s first president, it would help the Ohio Company immensely.

This would eventually lead to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in which a grant of 5 million acres of land would be purchased for $3.5 million. The Ohio Company received 1.5 million acres, and a private real estate venture, the Scioto Company, took the rest. This large transaction would help Congress “pay down some of the national debt incurred during the Revolutionary War,” and enable Cutler, Putnam and others to build houses, buildings, churches and a university.

“The Pioneers” also explores some contentious issues of the times.

The Native American communities living in the territory “did not believe land was something to be owned,” for example, and were troubled by the settlers. Putnam, in a 1790 letter to Washington, seemed concerned about a “general attack on the frontiers” and felt it’s “possible that the Shawnees etc. may be for peace but I consider it very doubtful.” Many treaties were signed between the Indians and settlers, but distrust still ruled the land in early America.

In contrast, Cutler successfully abolished slavery in the new territory. One of his sons, Ephraim, also “made the case for his position that there must be no slavery as strongly as he could.” He was also successful, and would be credited for “shutting and barring the doors against the introduction into Ohio of the monstrous system of African slavery.” It was a triumphant moment for this family, and according to Mr. McCullough, “[n]or was Ephraim’s opposition to slavery ever to fade.”

Readers will immediately recognize that storytelling is one of Mr. McCullough’s great literary strengths. He consistently produces engaging prose about a particular period of time, and makes history come alive. While this book focuses more extensively on an individual’s positive attributes than negative sentiments, it still creates a highly informative and educational look at what some of the settlers went through.

The early pioneers “accomplished what they had set out to do not for money, not for possessions or fame,” writes Mr. McCullough, “but to advance the quality and opportunity of life.” Their success is our success.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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