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  • The Wrong History for Our TimeAn Analysis of David McCullough's The Pioneers
  • Stephen Warren (bio)

David McCullough's new book, The Pioneers, provides a sweeping narrative history of the Ohio Company and the men who settled what became Marietta, Ohio, at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. Manasseh Cutler, his son, Ephraim, and other colleagues from Massachusetts, including Rufus Putnam and Joseph Barker, formed a company to speculate in land that had not yet been ceded to the United States by the Native nations who called the region home. Though firmly opposed to slavery and strictly Congregationalist, these New England settlers held little sympathy for Native Americans when they established a beachhead on Native land. In 1787, the Ohio Company paid $3.5 million to the United States for five million acres of land in and around Marietta. This enormous purchase helped to relieve the national debt and initiated a surge in settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. In exchange, and, according to McCullough, thanks largely to Manasseh Cutler's lobbying, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, the plan of government by which the new, midwestern states would join the United States.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson, more than any other founder, helped to design the terms by which new territories would join the United States. The "Old Northwest," from which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were carved, was a flawed creation borne out of the specious logics of colonization. When the United Kingdom ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States, Americans cast away previous prohibitions on settlement such as the Proclamation Line of 1763. In the Treaty of Paris (1783), they used the doctrine of conquest to assert their sovereignty over Native American lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. American negotiators reasoned that Native nations now living within the Northwest [End Page 143] Territory had been conquered by the Haudenosaunee who, in turn, had been conquered by the British, and later, the Americans. Dozens of nations were robbed of their sovereignty through this highly dubious history, a legally binding interpretation of the past that the subject nations—Shawnees, Miamis, Delawares, Odawas, Potawatomis, Kickapoos, among many others—had rejected since 1768, and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. When the Ohio Company crossed onto Native land in the Ohio valley, confident that the doctrine of conquest supported their claim to the land, the region's Native peoples considered it both an invasion and an act of war. Investors in the Ohio Company, including Henry Knox, George Washington's secretary of war, then backtracked on the doctrine of conquest, acknowledged Native peoples' "right to the soil," and declared that future land acquisitions would be achieved through treaty.1 These nuances of American expansion into the Ohio valley are left out of The Pioneers, leading less well-informed readers to believe that Native resistance to American expansion was legally, if not morally, baseless.

McCullough may be right, though not for the reasons he espouses, when he credits the men of the Ohio Company wiThestablishing the "American way of life." He declares that the Northwest Ordinance made "a bold assertion of the rights of the individual," without further clarifying the narrow definition of "the people" in Cutler's time.2 Andrew Cayton, the foremost historian of Ohio, explains that "the founders of the state [Ohio] saw 'the people' as adult White males."3 Native Americans were not mentioned in the Ohio Constitution, a reality that made them legally dead before the eyes of Ohio's leaders. And, as historian Anna Lisa Cox explains in The Bone and Sinew of the Land, Ohioans used "the word 'white' in their first state constitution as a criterion for full citizenship when Ohio became a state in 1803."4 Ohio, like its midwestern neighbors, clearly defined citizenship as a benefit intended for White men alone. This unacknowledged subtext shapes "the American way of life" articulated by McCullough throughout The Pioneers.

What should readers make of these glaring omissions? Some readers will be tempted to look past McCullough's interpretations. As the recent controversy over the New York Times' 1619 Project indicates, many professional historians, like generations of Americans, believe in the...