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  • "From Such Beginnings, Much May Be Expected"
  • Brandon C. Downing (bio)

In The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, David McCullough provides his version of how the West was won. He starts with a group of Revolutionary War veterans from New England led by Rufus Putnam, Manasseh Cutler, and Benjamin Tupper who founded the Ohio Company of Associates to secure land purchases in the Northwest Territory. Like all pioneer stories, their story was not an easy one. This was late eighteenth-century America where the advancing line of Euro-American settlement barely crossed the Appalachian Mountains. Compared to the thriving and well-developed eastern seaboard, the backcountry had "no roads. … no bridges, no towns, churches, schools, stores, or way-side taverns. … not one permanent legal settlement" (7). If the travelers survived the journey to the Ohio Country, then an uncountable number of trees of enormous size had to be cleared, houses had to be built, sustenance had to be obtained, and fields had to be sown and crops harvested. On top of the hard labor, settlers had to be vigilant against possible Indian attack; bears, wolves, and panthers lurking in the woods; and the harshness of the climate. Their success in overcoming these numerous obstacles enabled them to establish the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory—Marietta, Ohio—in 1788.

McCullough is a good storyteller, and he succeeds in presenting the different personalities of the various settlers and the trials they had to endure to travel, build, and live in "their infant city." He illustrates the hardships endured by so many suffering from "Ohio fever" in their efforts to get from Massachusetts to the frontier. One couple, Ephraim and Leah Cutler, lost two children to illness: their one-year-old son, Hezekiah, and just a few days later their seven-year-old daughter, Mary. Even if one did survive the [End Page 173] journey, the realities of frontier life did not provide much certainty. Many residents suffered tremendously during the winter of the "Starving Year" (1789): measles took the lives of several children and smallpox took even more lives later that season. Not all was bad. McCullough also weaves in individual highlights such as the first wedding of the Northwest Territory between Rowena Tupper and Winthrop Sargent; the great escape of John Mathews from an Indian attack (sans trousers); and the building of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett's opulent mansion by the notable and selftrained architect, Joseph Barker. Even during bleak times, when the settlers were confined to Campus Martius during the Northwest Indian War, they "enliven[ed] the off-hours within the stockade [with] a variety of games and sporting events—foot races, boxing matches" (117). These personal accounts provide a good description of what frontier life was like in the Ohio valley, and McCullough's ability to portray a vivid scene of so many individuals and families in one narrative is a testament to good, regional history.

Despite the title, McCullough's book is not about the American West as one might imagine it. Instead, he primarily focuses on the individuals who founded, developed, and progressed the city of Marietta. This, however, is a good place to start because Marietta represented what the federal government envisioned the West to be—organized. Much of this organization was laid out in the Land Ordinance of 1785. In order to avoid lawsuits over property boundaries, collect taxes to pay for the Revolutionary War, and to satisfy land bounties to veterans, the land purchased by the Ohio Company of Associates would be divided into square townships six miles in length with thirty-six square miles in total. These organized township grids were similar to those found in New England. If the Land Ordinance was the form, then the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the function as it established a territorial government and a method for admitting territories into states. The more recognizable provisions of this ordinance included the outlawing of slavery, reserving land for schools, ensuring trial by jury, and guaranteeing religious freedom. It was these articles that McCullough claims to be the "American ideals" the first pioneers of Ohio brought with them to...

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