David McCullough’s latest offering, The Pioneers, takes the reader into that little-known period of American history in which the intrepid veterans of the Revolutionary War set out to settle the territories on the banks of the Ohio River. It was the first thrust of Westward expansion that would characterize the United States during the rest of the 19th century. McCullough’s chronicle considers the period 1787-1863, using journals, letters, and the histories told by the original pioneers of the Ohio Territory.
The Pioneers is a good read; McCullough captures the spirit of the people and the Herculean efforts required to settle the wilderness. He is reminiscent of other popular historians like Shelby Foote or Hilaire Belloc, whose writings delve into the personalities of the actors and give credence to Chesterton’s observation that “history is simply humanity.”
McCullough begins his chronicle on the fateful day of March 1, 1786. On that day, 11 New England gentlemen, veterans of the recently concluded Revolutionary War, met at the Bunch of Grapes tavern in Boston to form a group of settlers who would purchase government lands in Ohio. The prime mover of the meeting and driving force of the settlement of “the back country” was General Rufus Putnam, a hero of the Revolution and friend of George Washington.
Alongside Putnam was the intellectual spirit of the endeavor, Rev. Manasseh Cutler. Both men would be the defining personalities in the creation of the Ohio Company, the organization that would promote settlement of the vast new expanse of territory—north and west of La Belle Rivière (the Ohio River)—which had been ceded to the newly formed United States in the Treaty of Paris, and opened for expansion through Congress’s Northwest Ordinance. The influence of Putnam and Cutler would resound in the halls of the pre-constitutional Congress and among the new settlers of the fledgling country.
As an early and enthusiastic advocate of the Ohio Company, Cutler is one of the lesser-known personages of the generation of the Founders, but one who embodies what McCullough might have had in mind when he referenced the “American ideal” in his subtitle. According to those who knew him, the key to Cutler’s character was in his favorite line from the Roman poet Virgil: “Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” (“Happy is he who understands the causes of things”). An ordained minister who was devoted to his congregation in the tiny community of Ipswich Hamlet, Massachusetts, the Yale- and Harvard-educated Cutler also had degrees in both medicine and law.
McCullough paints a portrait of Cutler as a man interested in everything, who embodied the notion of capax mundi, a capacity for understanding the world. Not only was he a spiritual leader, his interest in science and medicine gained him renown and he was indefatigable in pursuing his intellectual interests. Among his other accomplishments, he measured the highest peak in New Hampshire, was famous for his botanical studies, and was well regarded for his remedies for snakebites.
While Cutler did not head West with Putnam and the others, his lobbying before Congress on behalf of the Ohio Company and for the inclusion of provisions within the Northwest Ordinance would have a lasting effect on the new territory. These provisions prohibited slavery, ensured freedom of religion, and emphasized education and the formation of a university within the territory.
On Monday, Dec. 3, 1787, the first settlers departed from Ipswich Hamlet on their voyage to the new territory. The initial settlement would be at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers, an ideal location based upon accounts from previous explorers. To say the group suffered hardships is an understatement. It is bad enough driving through a snowstorm across Pennsylvania in 21st-century America. Trudging through the snow by foot in the same spot during the 18th century is unimaginable. The Ohio River voyage from Pittsburgh was also no easy task, as it was Indian country and peaceful coexistence with the native peoples wasn’t certain. Finally, on April 7, 1788, after traveling more than 700 miles, the band finally landed at their destination. “We arrived…most heartily congratulating each other on the sight of our new country,” one of these first pioneers wrote.
Whatever their previous occupations, all the settlers became lumberjacks upon arrival. The main task was clearing land to lay out a new city, which they did under the watchful eyes of the natives nearby, whose presence aroused the healthy suspicion of expedition leader Putnam. The settlers dubbed their new city Marietta to honor Queen Marie Antoinette and the French people who had helped the American cause against the British. As the settlement grew, others began to come from New England, and General Arthur St. Clair was appointed the territory’s first governor.
Putnam’s suspicions were not unfounded. The first part of McCullough’s chronicle ends describing, in striking detail, one of the blackest hours in the history of the U.S. Army when General St. Clair’s forces were attacked by Indians near the Wabash River in 1791. Known as “St. Clair’s Disaster,” it was the worst defeat that the American army had known up to that point, worse than any single defeat during the Revolution or in prior skirmishes with natives. An estimated 1,094 out of 1,400 Americans were left dead or wounded, compared with Indian casualties of just 21 dead and 40 wounded.
Difficulties in the development of the Ohio Territory generally, and Marietta in particular, continued to abound. However, the same spirit of industry, hard work, and intellectual curiosity won the day in the end, and was given further impetus by the arrival of more settlers. Principal among these were Joseph Barker, Ephraim Cutler (a son of Manasseh who would carry on and even eclipse his father’s influence in Ohio) and, in 1806, Dr. Samuel Prescott Hildreth.
Ephraim Cutler arrived in Marietta in 1795, having lost two children to sickness along the way. The tragedy and fragility of human existence was known to these people in ways that we soft people of 21st century can’t fathom. Ephraim, no doubt due to the reverence the citizens of Marietta owed his father, was made a circuit riding judge of the territory and served in the Ohio Legislature. In 1802, as the Ohio state constitutional convention was underway, Ephraim held to the position that slavery remain outlawed in the new state constitution of Ohio. This was by no means a settled fact, as a new political reality had come into play. Thomas Jefferson was the new President and pressure from the Virginia side of the Ohio River made slavery a pressing issue. In a dramatic fashion, the free-state vision of Manasseh Cutler for the Ohio territory was realized through his son.
Joseph Barker and his family also suffered the death of several children in their migration to the Ohio country, but amidst this tragedy and the burning down of their first home, the Barkers went on to become one of the founding families of Marietta. Barker was known for his love of books. He and his wife encouraged their children to gain all the knowledge they could so that they might “everywhere be useful.” Most memorably, Joseph achieved renown as a builder and self-taught architect. Many of the buildings in the area were of his design, including the European-style mansion of the city’s eccentric Irish immigrants, Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett.
The Blennerhassets were the proverbial “fish out of water” on the Ohio frontier. Extremely wealthy, they dressed in finery amidst their more practical neighbors, spent money lavishly, and were known for being unfailingly gullible when engaged by unscrupulous neighbors wishing to part them from their wealth. In the trial of Harman Blennerhasset for his alleged conspiracy with Aaron Burr, Dudley Woodbridge, Jr., testified that it was the opinion of the people of Marietta and its environs that Blennerhasset “had every kind of sense but common sense.”
Coming almost 20 years after Putnam and the first pioneers, Samuel Hildreth brought his medical knowledge and an enthusiasm for learning and the frontier. It is a testament to the particular education of this generation that Hildreth not only had an exceptional knowledge of medical science, but was also a fair artist fascinated by nature, whose watercolors show the vividness and complexity of the creatures he drew. As his family expanded, his home became Marietta’s intellectual and social center. It was Hildreth who convinced Joseph Barker to put pen to paper and to record his story and the story of his family. Rather than settling for the rough woodland surroundings ubiquitous on the frontier, Hildreth employed Barker in 1824 to design and build his family a beautiful federal style home and grounds. The Hildreth home, which also served as the town’s medical office, received the day’s prominent visitors and was a veritable center of culture on the frontier, providing hospitality and a place for intellectual pursuits and discussion. By the time of Hildreth’s death at the age of 80, Ohio’s residents had swelled to 2 million, and the War Between the States had commenced.
Within the 60 years after the settlers began chopping the first trees in Ohio country, there had come eccentrics, academics, doctors, frontiersmen, an Indian war, shipbuilders, a dueling former Vice President, an influenza outbreak, and families looking for a home. There had come statehood for Ohio, the establishment of a university and public schools, and a stop on the Underground Railroad. Visitors included a former President John Quincy Adams and Charles Dickens, and there developed a unique vocabulary and cadence of speech that can still be heard among Midwesterners. In all, the pioneers who set out for the Ohio country were marked by intellectual curiosity, industry, hard work, tenacity, courage, common sense, and faith. These were the attributes of the veterans, the former regulars of the Continental Army. If the “American ideal” can be defined, these attributes would be its sine qua non. The citizens who built and civilized the Ohio country and the rest of the Midwest were regular yet remarkable men and women, the same yesterday as today.
As in his earlier works, such as The Johnstown Flood (1968) and The Great Bridge (1972), McCullough is moved and motivated by the more obscure and regional moments in American history. As such, The Pioneers will appeal most to those interested in Ohio history, but may be of only marginal interest to others. It does not have the general appeal of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, John Adams (2001), and certainly will not satisfy those who, as doctrinaire evangelists of identity politics, cannot see a single virtue in the dead white people of the past who clashed over territory with the natives.
Likewise, one strains to find any measured criticism of the principals in McCullough’s narrative. For him, the Cutlers, Putnam, Barker, et al., are heroes and their virtues far outweigh any vices, aside from those of obvious losers of battles (like General St. Clair) or eccentrics (like the Blennerhassets). One wonders if there is a lack of evidence in the existing historical record of any serious flaws in the major characters, or whether McCullough has a tendency to undeservedly lionize his subjects. On the other hand, it may be my presumption in a cynical age to assume deficiencies in a historiography when the sins of those under consideration are not completely laid bare. Such questions aside, The Pioneers is a worthy contribution that fills a lacuna in American history, and may perhaps spur curiosity about other local and regional flavors of our intensely interesting country.
[The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster) 352 pp., $30.00]