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  • The Public's Historian
  • Michael Allen (bio)

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West is the latest book by the distinguished American historian David McCullough. The book's title belies its midwestern focus and spotlights what Simon and Schuster probably deemed more marketable, mythic western frontier themes.

McCullough is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author. He is also a PBS icon, known for his resonant narrations of The American Experience and Ken Burns's acclaimed documentary The Civil War (1990). McCullough grew up in Pittsburgh and has long been drawn to the midwestern stories, as seen in his books The Johnstown Flood (1968), Truman (1992), and The Wright Brothers (2015). In The Pioneers, he takes on a pivotal event in the settling of the trans-Appalachian West—the Euro-American founding and early development of Marietta, Ohio.

The fascinating story of how New England Revolutionary War veterans settled the upper Ohio valley was long overdue for a retelling. During the waning days of the American Revolution, the cash-strapped Confederation Congress (formerly Continental Congress) faced the task of rewarding the victorious Continental Army soldiers, many of whom had not been paid for months. Disgruntled army offi cers were willing to strike a bargain. They implored Congress to pay them with the only resource the infant government possessed—western lands. Congress proved willing to grant tens of thousands of acres of Indian lands the defeated British had ceded to the new United States. These lands lay in the "Old Northwest"—that territory that would one day become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Congress complemented the land grants with crucial legislation creating the first American territorial system. Congress' laws delineating Indian affairs, [End Page 149] land surveys and sales, and territorial government created an American "colonialism" like no other—one in which trans-Appalachian settlers would ultimately become citizens of new states fully equal to the original thirteen. The lynchpin of these laws was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Major elements of this territorial system are in force to this day.

In 1786, a cadre of New England officers met at Boston's Bunch of Grapes Tavern and formed the Ohio Company to sell and settle their lands in the southeast corner of the Old Northwest. In 1788, they founded Marietta, Ohio, at the juncture of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. In the ensuing decades, Marietta grew into a successful and stable western community.

McCullough tells the Marietta story through the lens of five men's biographies. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler, a Continental Army chaplain, lobbied Congress on behalf of the Ohio Company and secured passage of the Northwest Ordinance, creating the most liberal colonial system in history. General Rufus Putnam, an engineer and Revolutionary War veteran, led the first party of settlers into the Ohio wilderness and established the Campus Martius fort (Marietta) at the juncture of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. Ephraim Cutler, Manasseh's son, became a judge, state legislator, and public education advocate; allied with Putnam, he helped establish Ohio University in Athens in 1795. Joseph Barker, a 1795 emigrant, was a boatbuilder and architect who designed the courthouse and built homes for Marietta's most important citizens (and an island mansion for Harman Blennerhassett, an accomplice of the infamous Aaron Burr). Dr. Samuel Hildreth, who arrived in 1806, was a gift ed physician, scientist, and public servant who became Marietta's first historian.

While a preponderance of recent works in American frontier history focus exclusively on race, class, or gender, McCullough weaves these themes into a broader, more inclusive portrait of the Old Northwest. He discusses the role of women as hardy frontier emigrants who, according to one settler, "put up with all … inconveniences with spirit and fortitude not oft en excelled by the men" and contributed to Marietta's success and growth (71). He carefully describes the many Euro-American interactions with the Shawnee, Miami, and other Indian tribes and ensuing warfare; he shows how lawless squatters and Indian removal doomed the Northwest Ordinance's pledge that "utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians" (29). The Northwest Ordinance's...