THE PIONEERS: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.
By David McCullough. Simon & Schuster. 330 pages. $30.
Ohio was the first state created from the Northwest Territory, this country’s new frontier following the American War for Independence. European Americans began formally settling the territory soon after the Confederation Congress passed its only significant legislation, a law defining the terms of settling the newly acquired country west and north of the Ohio River.
Most of the first settlers to establish a community under the ordinance were people from Massachusetts, including many who had bought shares in the Ohio Company. They made the arduous journey from Massachusetts through Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Muskingum River. There they began to clear the land and build a village under the direction of Gen. Israel Putnam, a veteran of the war for independence.
Many obstacles faced these New England pioneers, including the Native Americans whose land the Congress had gained as spoils of war. The land was heavily forested, so trees had to be felled, producing material with which to build houses, barns and fortifications. Along with the challenges came benefits.
The confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers proved to be providential to these settlers as they began to build their new town, Marietta (named in honor of French Queen Marie Antoinette), and David McCullough’s new book, “The Pioneers,” offers detailed descriptions of the early struggles, the growth of Marietta, and how the entrepreneurial character and the Yankee heritage of these founders of Ohio brought a new American ideal to the westward expansion of the country.
As Marietta grew and other communities developed, we are introduced to folks who did not share the common goals of Ohio’s founders, yet they were significant players on a national stage: Harman Blennerhassett, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall.
Burr and Blennerhassett became friends during Burr’s sojourn down the Ohio River following the death of Alexander Hamilton when the two dueled while Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. He and Blennerhassett were accused of treason, but Burr was acquitted by Marshall.
President Jefferson appears again when he uses his office to replace federal officials in Ohio with members of his political party in an attempt to circumvent the ban on slavery specified in the Northwest Ordinance.
These and other incidents provide opportunities for McCullough to explore the nature of Ohio’s founders as they fought to keep the state free of slavery and worked to build a public education system and founded colleges, including the University of Ohio, Marietta College and Oberlin College, which was the first American college to admit women and African Americans.
The systematic population of Ohio enjoyed the guidance of several people, and McCullough provides vivid portraits of many of them, especially Ephraim Cutler and Samuel Hildreth, each of whom had strong family ties to the founders of the Ohio Company and their expectations for development of this new land.
“The Pioneers” is a landmark piece of historical writing. Virginia and Massachusetts were the first permanent English settlements in North America and carried European culture to this country, each with a different set of rules. The investors who founded the Ohio Company were from Massachusetts, and it is their culture that founded Ohio, which set the standards for the development of the rest of the Northwest Territory.
McCullough’s thorough research and his talent as a teller of stories have provided us with a history of the founding of the western United States — a founding based on the Constitution of the United States, not the culture of a kingdom separated from North America by a vast ocean. The founding of Ohio brought the ideals of the new nation of America to a vast land, which would become the foundation of the nation’s economy during the 19th and 20th centuries.
This chronicle shows McCullough’s ability to put his reader in another place and another time in the presence of people who made this country a viable political empire and established values that defined our civilization. If you enjoyed building and steering powered flight with the Wright brothers, or marching from Boston to New York to Trenton in 1776 with the Continental Army and George Washington, or building the Brooklyn Bridge, or experiencing the seminal times presided over by Harry Truman, you will devour this book.