In 2004, historian and author David McCullough gave the commencement address at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It was the school’s 200thanniversary, and to prepare for the speech, McCullough researched the school’s history. He discovered a building on campus was named Cutler Hall, after a New Englander, Manasseh Cutler. Cutler would eventually lead McCullough to Marietta, Ohio, and the Legacy Library at Marietta College.
It was a long and winding road from the commencement speech to The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. McCullough tells a great story, but then he has great material to work with.
It’s a story involving a multitude of people, but McCollough focuses on four families or individuals – the Cutlers, the family of Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran and hero who helped lead settlers to the new Northwest Territory; physician Samuel Hildreth; and a carpenter named Joseph Barker who became an architect. Manasseh Cutler and Putnam were directors of the Ohio Company, a stock company that aimed to settle the Northwest. Cutler did the lobbying work with the congress functioning under the Articles of Confederation, and eventually the Northwest Ordinance was born.
Cutler was instrumental in having the ordinance exclude slavery. His son Ephraim was instrumental in convincing the Ohio legislature, when it was drawing up a constitution for statehood, to exclude slavery. And Ephraim’s son William was an abolitionist congressman giving fiery speeches against slavery. The town they helped to found and develop, Marietta, known for its New England flavor, would become a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves.
What strikes McCullough about the Cutlers and the other early settlers is what strikes the reader as well. They traveled overland from Massachusetts, crossing the Allegheny Mountains (and sometimes in winter). They arrived in a land that was famous from its heavy, dense forests, and they had to clear the trees to plant crops and build houses. They had to contend with deadly epidemics of yellow fever and influenza. The native Americans seemed to shift constantly from friendly to hostile and back again. And they always kept their eye on the future, creating schools and planning and founding universities.
Marietta would never grow to the size of what Cincinnati and Cleveland became, but it was the spirit of Marietta that permeated Ohio and its sister states of the Old Northwest, and eventually what would become known as the American Midwest. That spirit was born in the American Revolution, and it was the ideals of the revolution that would become the ideals of the region.
McCullough is himself something of an American institution, He’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award twice. He’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His books include The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, The Wright Brothers, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, Truman, John Adams, 1776, and The Greater Journey. On television, he hosted Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and he narrated such documentaries as Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
The Pioneers is a stirring tale, the story of the vision of a small number of Revolutionary War veterans who brought their beliefs and ideals into what would become the expansion of the United States from 13 colonies hugging the Atlantic seacoast to 50 states straddling a continent.