The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough
I’m a big fan of David McCullough’s books; he always does such a great job of making his history topics interesting and relatable. This book is no different.
The book covers the period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, and the settlement of what was then the far west of the United States, and what is now Ohio.
Manasseh Cutler was a clergyman who was born in Connecticut, and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War. He became an agent of the Ohio Company, which he helped form in order to develop land in the Western territories. He was responsible for ensuring that Congress financially backed the venture, and was a part of the original group created to explore and establish the new colony in present day Ohio. Cutler also pushed for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created the Ohio territory and ensured that there would be no slavery in territories formed from that land mass. It was controversial at the time, and required him to assert his strong will and influence to ensure it passed.
It is a story that is told in generalities in middle and high schools across the nation, but without the specific names of men who played a part. It is often glossed over in favor of the stories of later westward expansion through the Plains States, so it is nice to see this story told in more detail.
The book is about Cutler and a small number of white men who played a role in establishing the territory; it tells the stories of their efforts and trials along the way. Some critics have pointed out that McCullough does not tell the stories of the Native Americans who were already living there, and were killed or pushed off the land by the white men who settled there. I understand their criticism, but also believe that the book would be overly long and broad if McCullough tried to tell the story of everyone who played a role. As it is, he worked from primary source documents and journals left by Cutler and the other men who founded the colony, and the view of the Native Americans clearly comes as a product of their time. That said, it would be nice if there were a companion book that told the other half of the story.
There is some repetitiveness in the story, and times when it felt like the action moved very slowly. But overall, it was well written and well researched, as all of David McCullough’s books are.