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  • Were They Really Pioneers?
  • Susan Sleeper Smith (bio)

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Fig 1.

David McCullough at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC. Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.

In a publicity photo for his latest book, The Pioneers, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, David McCullough, sits surrounded by George Catlin's well-known Indian portraits. It seems ironic that in McCullough's latest book about the Ohio Country, Indigenous people appear as little more than a rapidly disappearing "Indian menace." His focus is on those sturdy pioneers terrorized by "wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, [End Page 137] rattlesnakes" who brought civilization to a land where there were "no roads, no towns, no stores, and no wayside taverns."1 For David McCullough and his avid readers, the settling of the Ohio Country reinforces the prevailing nationalist narrative that a New England elite moved west and shaped the early foundation of our country.

According to McCullough, America was the work of hardy pioneers led by the Congregational minister Manasseh Cutler and a cadre of Washington's former Revolutionary War officers. However, the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were settled by a far more diverse group of Native people who had settled along the Ohio's tributary rivers decades before the founding of Marietta, Ohio. Contradicting the notion that Marietta was the foundational "pioneer" village are three long-established trading villages on nearby tributary rivers of the Ohio: Ouiatenon and Kethtippecanuck on the Wabash and Miamitown, at the confluence of the Saint Joseph, Saint Mary, and Maumee Rivers. These Indian trading centers housed thousands of people who lived in log cabins, timber frame buildings, and boarding houses.2 George Imlay, who later surveyed these Indian lands, described Kethtippecanuck with a sense of awe: it was a picturesque town with shingle-roof houses, taverns, extensive gardens, and massive cornfields. Another well-known observer, George Rogers Clark, described sweeping corn fields along the river bottoms, vegetable gardens surrounding the houses, and recorded a large "quantity of bear oil, carts, ploughs, dal, cattle, hogs …"3 These were fur-trading villages, surrounded by extensive wetlands and adjacent to the 120-mile-long Great Black Swamp, which sheltered an incredible array of fur-bearing animals. The fur trade coupled with this fertile agricultural landscape had transformed the Ohio River valley into the most highly populated in the western Great Lakes. The valley was initially settled by the Miami, but throughout the eighteenth century diverse Indigenous people—including the Delaware, Shawnee, Wea, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and Piankeshaw—joined them, as well as Frenchmen, escaped slaves, black freemen, Scots-Irish and British traders, and generations of mixed ancestry people. By the mideighteenth century, Miamitown emerged as the most important trading center in the Ohio River valley, where Indians and Europeans gathered to exchange peltry for trade goods and Indians and traders were social intimates, sharing meals and exchanging news and gossip. Miamitown was the communications center for the entire region and linked to the Detroit [End Page 138] fur trade and the Atlantic economy of Europe's nation states. McCullough's vision of the Trans-Appalachian West as a vacant landscape where eastern elites brought civilization to an untamed wilderness reinforces the myths of our contested nationalist narrative, which are easily refuted by recently published histories of this region.

As historians we face the challenge of narrating a more complicated story about the Ohio River valley as a densely populated Indigenous region, which had evolved hundreds of years before contact wiTheuropeans and was, by the mid-eighteenth century, a sedentary landscape of agrarian villages and trading entrepots.4 McCullough's vision of Marietta as a late eighteenthcentury "pioneer" village rests on the extraordinary leadership skills of Marietta's founders. To do so, McCullough resurrects the testimony of long deceased historians, like Albert Bushnell Hart, who taught at Harvard from 1900 to 1926, and who proclaimed Manasseh Cutler a political genius. "Never was there a more ingenious systematic and successful bit of lobbying than that of the Reverend Manasseh Cutler." Documents, like the Northwest Ordinance, are viewed as sacred, not only central to the founding of the new nation but equal in importance to "the...

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