An Unknown Country

Review: 'The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West' by David McCullough

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The American founding occurred in stages, at first violently in the Revolution of 1776 and then energetically—though not always peacefully—in the great push westward.

David McCullough's latest historical survey, The Pioneers, chronicles this American expansion during the settling of the Northwest Territory. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Massachusetts minister Manasseh Cutler brokered the Northwest Ordinance, allowing New Englanders to settle new territory ceded to the United States by Great Britain. In an expedition led by Gen. Rufus Putnam, New Englanders took a foothold on the west at Marietta, Ohio. Over the next 60 years, they populated this territory, which would become the Great Lakes states: Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in the southwest, and Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in the north.

McCullough tracks Putnam's original expedition to Marietta in 1788 and its settlement up until 1863, when the national crisis that would lead to the Civil War temporarily interrupted the settlers' efforts. Although The Pioneers covers one of the great migrations of American history, McCullough limits his story's scope to just a few figures central to Ohio's first town: Cutler and his son, Ephraim, Gen. Putnam, the architect Joseph Barker, and the physician Samuel Hildreth.

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Like all McCullough books, The Pioneers unfolds in a cinematic panorama, gliding through each character's viewpoint in a way that suggests a coherent flow to history. McCullough has done his research here and makes ample use of diaries and official documents to show the desires of the men and women marching off into the unknown wilderness. They yearned for a land free from slavery and with special provisions for the establishment of colleges. At the same time, he gives the occasional nod to the modern reader’s interests, such as when he places emphasis on the fact that the first tree felled in Ohio was, fittingly, a Buckeye.

In a recent interview with Boston Magazine, McCullough said one reason he wrote the book is that he believes many Americans have lost the virtues he believes made the first Ohioans great. "To a large degree, a lot of what the pioneers that I've written about espouse or preach to their children is what I grew up with: Make yourself useful; do something of value; make the world, make your town, make your school, make wherever it is a little better," he said. "And you're not in it to make money or become famous. You're in this for the good of the work, and for the happiness that doing work that you love brings with it every day."

The book's subtitle, The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, reflects this sentiment. McCullough was on a search for virtue, and he finds them, especially in the case of Cutler. Although a Puritan minister was not the least bit stern, McCullough assures us. Cutler enjoyed a good joke and loved botany and the art of rhetoric, as well. The combination of these interests (along with his good humor) convinced the Continental Congress to draft the Northwest Ordinance and grant Cutler and his fellow travelers permission to claim Ohio.

After Putnam led Cutler's crew from Massachusetts, warding off the threat of Indian attack and the harshness of the elements the whole way, Cutler himself traveled to survey the work which he had made possible. Speaking in the Campus Martius of the first town in the state, he delivers a sermon that sets out a noble vision of Ohio as the new Eden.

"We have just ground to hope that religion and learning, the useful and ornamental branches of science, will meet with encouragement, and that they will be extended to the remotest parts of the American empire," Cutler said. "Here we behold a country vast in extent, mild in its climate, exuberant in its soil, and favorable to the enjoyment of life. Here may the Gospel be preached to the latest period of time; the arts and sciences be planted; the seeds of virtue, happiness, and glory be firmly rooted and grow up to full maturity."

States like Ohio are the lifeblood of America, the nation in a glance. Cutler's words carry across time because they express a perennial American desire to reclaim an unfallen past. McCullough is not the only writer to notice that tendency—Joan Didion defined the peculiarly American yearning for the past in a 1961 essay for National Review.

"Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it," she wrote. "The banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of popular songs."

McCullough's The Pioneers is as much an American story as the works of Hawthorne, Faulkner, or Cooper. The growth of towns like Marietta in the Northwest Territories coincided and intertwined with a nation lumbering slowly—and inevitably—toward civil war. And yet,  these pioneer Americans still hoped to reclaim Eden.