"THE PIONEERS: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West," by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 352 pages (nf)
SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a certain romance to the pioneers, and a lingering and well-earned inspiration that comes from stories about conquering the wilds and pushing into the unknown, about taming the Wild West.
It certainly hasn’t been lost in Utah, where, if the monuments and residents’ stories of pioneer heritage aren’t enough of a reminder of the early days of the Beehive State, we have a whole holiday that might jog your memory.
David McCullough’s newest dive into American history, “The Pioneers,” honors that same frontier spirit and fortitude that we still recognize today. But when McCullough paints a picture of brave men and women traveling by horseback and covered wagon, his focus is somewhat farther east than many might expect — in “The Pioneers,” the western frontier to be tamed is Ohio.
Opening his narrative very shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War, McCullough traces the fledgling country's effort to push westward from the original 13 colonies, from the first grassroots movement to settle the Northwest Territory to a settlement flourishing under the hard work of its intrepid residents, and all the success and hardship between.
In the spotlight are five historical figures often left out of textbooks but, as McCullough illustrates, not for any lack of contribution: Manasseh Cutler, who was the driving force behind “the Ohio cause”; his son Ephraim, who was in one of the first groups of settlers to the lush, untamed land and was a pivotal leader in the Northwest Territory and, later, the state of Ohio for many years; Gen. Rufus Putnam, a hero of the Revolutionary War who turned his sights west; and Joseph Barker and Samuel Hildreth, a carpenter and doctor who were pillars of the fledgling settlement.
Collectively, the contributions of these men span almost 80 years. Within those eight decades, McCullough details many of the same trials pioneers of other areas and eras faced — unpredictable weather, unreliable crops and game, conflicts with American Indians, a lack of infrastructure — but also the resilience and strength that ultimately overcame them.
Like McCullough’s past work, “The Pioneers” sheds new light on history, and in this case into a corner often overlooked. In some ways, it reads almost like a television episode in which the main characters play a secondary role to figures who usually stay in the background.
Manasseh Cutler, for example, isn’t a well-known historical figure, but his journals record him on very friendly terms with multiple signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as people like Meriwether Lewis. A few decades after first breaking ground on Ohio’s first settlement, Marietta, the thriving town and the surrounding area becomes the unlikely backdrop for Aaron Burr — yes, that Aaron Burr — to attempt to raise forces of his own before being arrested for treason. And when the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the U.S. for a yearlong tour of the nation he helped to gain independence, he made an unexpected — but celebrated — stop in Marietta.
“The Pioneers” also reveals the kind of political conflict and intrigue we tend to think of as a product of the modern age. Many residents of Marietta, for example, staunchly opposed the election of Thomas Jefferson as president, and Ohio made a remarkable stand as an early state in which slavery was never legal. The latter was thanks in large part to the efforts of both Manasseh and Ephraim Cutler, who worked on the federal and state levels, respectively, to ensure all men truly were created equal in Ohio. That point also brings fresh tension as the shadow of the Civil War looms large over the state toward the end of the book, when Ohio became prime country for the Underground Railroad.
The real strength of “The Pioneers,” though, lies in McCullough’s stunningly lifelike portraits of its subjects, made possible by a treasure trove of journals, letters and other contemporary sources pulled from the Legacy Library at Marietta College. These primary sources have allowed the kind of nuanced characterization seldom seen outside of the most prominent historical figures.6 comments on this story
I’m always leery of nonfiction books that proclaim to read like novels. “The Pioneers” does not read like a novel — but it isn’t meant to. History is far too twisted and complex and long-ranged for the kind of narrative arc that “novel-like” would suggest. But “The Pioneers” is stirring, engaging and moves along as steadily as the Ohio River at its heart, revealing a chapter of American heritage that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Content advisory: "The Pioneers" contains descriptions of war violence.