The West and the Pioneers Who Conquered Ohio
THURSDAY, MARCH 25, 2021 -- The latest work from Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough, 2019's The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, had been on my to-read list for quite a while.

But I was initially disappointed and almost didn't continue reading. After a somewhat lackluster opening chapter, however, I liked Pioneers better than I thought I would. I discovered plenty of new anecdotal and historical information. An unexpected highlight: A chapter about the Burr Conspiracy, which detailed Vice President Aaron Burr's plot to sever the Louisiana Purchase and the Western territory from the United States and set himself up as monarch.

The ten chapters of The Pioneers are split into three sections and cover the chronological evolution of the first Ohio settlement from the late 1700s to the mid-19th century. Each section focuses on a time period (1787-1794; 1795-1814; and 1815-1863) or a particular subject related to the development of the wilderness of the Northwest Territory. The chapter titles ("The Ohio Country," "Difficult Times," and "Journey's End," for example) help identify a theme.

The Pioneers spotlights the courageous and adventurous men who left their homes in 1787 to develop the fertile land around the Ohio River and create a tight-knit community based on shared values. The story is important because Ohio has traditionally been a pivotal state and the founding of Marietta was the initial settlement that spurred the creation of colonies elsewhere in the West.

Those first 48 pioneers--divided into two parties--included laborers, boat builders, a blacksmith, carpenters and surveyors. McCullough offers a deep look into the motivation and ideals of a "cast of real-life characters of historic accomplishment who were entirely unknown to most Americans." Looking from our modern world of comfort and convenience, it is difficult to imagine the many hardships they faced--and overcame--to ensure universal free education, religious freedom and the end of slavery. Their dream was what would come to be described as the American ideal.

McCullough portrays settlers as a brave, idealistic and hardworking group with a shared sense of duty. They differed from conservative folks who remained at home in New England and did not understand the westward movement. Per McCullough, those moving West were looking forward. Those staying in the East were stuck in the American past.

The author profiles several key individuals involved in initiating and undertaking the settlement.

        Mannaseh Cutler  A lawyer, doctor and pastor, Mannaseh Cutler became the primary lobbyist--what was then called a "spokesman"--of Congress in 1787 for the passage of the Northwest Ordinance. This would permit the purchase of land in the new Ohio territory and serve as a constitution for the creation of a state west of the Ohio River. Slavery wouldn't be allowed and land would be put aside for public schools.

A middle-aged Puritan, the elder Cutler was well-respected in his Massachusetts hometown. He would see his son, Ephraim, become one of the most influential figures in the Ohio settlement. As chairman of the Ohio Company of Associates, which he cofounded with General Rufus Putnam, he was tasked with securing money and assigning shares to the territory. Mennaseh Cutler firmly believed in the abolition of slavery and ending it was a key factor driving all his efforts.

        Judge Ephraim Cutler  Mannaseh Cutler's eldest son, Ephraim Cutler left Ipswich Hamlet in Massachusetts to implement his father's goals in Ohio. Known for his strong work ethic and ability to seize opportunities, he became a successful farmer and a respected judge in the Ohio legislature.

The Marietta Intelligencer newspaper credited him as "the first man in the state to propose anything like a system of common school instruction." He was a major force in the passage of a bill that helped establish Marietta College and Ohio University. In 1802, he cast what became the deciding vote to keep Ohio from becoming a slave state, an act considered "one of the most consequential votes in American history." The Pioneers ends with his death in 1853. Beloved by his community, it was written that "We can hardly predict what the consequences would have been, had there not been a few men such as Judge Cutler to resist the insidious aggressions of the monstrous evil of slavery."

        General Rufus Putnam  A Revolutionary war hero--and a strong advocate for the westward move--Putnam was the primary leader of the expedition into the wilderness of the Ohio Country. The self-educated Putnam was a determined, patient and intelligent man who possessed commonsense and good judgment. When not at war, he was a farmer and surveyor. He wrote to George Washington (already an Ohio land speculator) about the area's opportunities and what was being called the "Ohio Fever" of New Englanders wanting to go west.

Putnam led the boots on the ground that did the physical work required to create a livable settlement. Ephraim Cutler wrote that "no man in the territory more entirely deserved and enjoyed the respect and confidence of the people." He and Ephraim Cutler were celebrated, and mourned, as the key figures in Ohio's development.

The Pioneers has garnered generally good reviews and multiple appearances on top best-seller lists. But some reviewers, as well as historians, scholars and activists, have called McCullough out in what constitutes rare criticism of his works. Some consider his portrayal of Native Americans stereotypical and fault his prejudicial language. He was also criticized for writing primarily from a white perspective that gave short-shrift to the Native Americans who occupied the land generations before the settlers arrived. And some say McCullough downplayed the hardship and violence inflicted on the indigenous people by settlers.

I'm hoping McCullough writes a subsequent volume to provide a more comprehensive and contextual exploration of the evolving relationships between the newcomers and the Native Americans as the so-called Northwest Territory changed over the decades.

A history buff, I have reviewed several of David McCullough's previous works, including his biography of Harry Truman, his deep dive on The Wright Brothers and his biography of John Adams.

Research assistance by Marlene R. Fedin