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  • A Gentle RememberingDavid McCullough's The Pioneers
  • Mary Stockwell (bio)

Years ago, I visited the historic district of Vincennes, Indiana. I had come to Vincennes to see the governor's mansion where Tecumseh had confronted William Henry Harrison on the lawn in front of the house. Before returning home to Ohio, I wanted to visit Saint Francis Xavier Church, built by French Jesuits in 1734, and then go to the George Rogers Clark Memorial, a circular monument surrounded by columns, which sits along the Wabash near the bridge to Illinois. Although I had seen pictures of the monument, it never crossed my mind that there was a beautiful space inside it. Upon entering the monument, I saw the statue of Clark, larger than life and right in the middle of the place with his head held high, his cape flowing behind him, and his hands clasped on the hilt of a sword, which pointed into the ground in front of him. But then looking past the statue, I was even more amazed, having come inside on an overcast day in March, to see brightly colored paintings, as tall as the monument itself, circling the room. I remember turning to take in all seven panels, each one twenty-five feet high, which told the story of Clark's fight against the British in the Ohio Country during the American Revolution.

But the panel I most remember was the first one: "Entering the Great Valley." This painting showed a man on a white horse and a woman riding on a roan one near him. They were surrounded by still more people on foot, all moving from left to right through a clearing deep in a forest with white wildflowers everywhere. "Who are these people?" I asked while looking up at the many faces passing from the green sea of trees toward the dark blue hills in the distance. For just one moment, I forgot all the fighting that would take place over those hills between settlers, warriors, and redcoats; I even forgot Tecumseh, the reason I had come to Vincennes in the first [End Page 159] place. As if watching a magical movie opening before my eyes, I answered my question, "Oh, how wonderful, this is America, my nation, going westward, to Kentucky and beyond to the beautiful Ohio Country, the farms and the towns, and my ancestors, the Irish, coming right behind them to build the canals and railroads and all the churches."

I had the same sensation when I read David McCullough's The Pioneers. In every chapter, I encountered portraits of the many people who had founded Marietta, Ohio, the first permanent American town in the Ohio Country, or the Midwest as we call the region today. There was a beauty in these portraits similar to the lush paintings of America's past done in the early twentieth century, not just in the Clark Monument in Vincennes, but in libraries, museums, and state houses across the nation. To understand and appreciate this book, the reader must pass from one portrait to the next as McCullough lays them out in his narrative, so beautifully and so gently.

In Part I, which covers the period from 1787 to 1794, we first meet Manasseh Cutler, a preacher from Massachusetts, who decides the time is right for founding a New England town in the Ohio Country. He negotiates with government leaders in New York and Philadelphia to win thousands of acres for the Ohio Company and then builds his town, later known as Marietta, at the juncture of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. McCullough praises Cutler for winning passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery across the Ohio River and mandated education for citizens living there. Next, we meet Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War general, also from Massachusetts, who built Campus Martius, the huge fort that protected Marietta from Ohio's native tribes. Friendly at first, the Indians soon threatened the very survival of Marietta, striking at Big Bottom north of the town in 1791 and continuing until their final defeat by General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

The second section of The Pioneers covers the...