“The Pioneers” By David McCullough

“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West”
By David McCullough
352 pp., Simon and Schuster

Reviewed by Quentin Levin

With “The Pioneers,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough presents a different angle on Western expansion. Gone are the German immigrants in covered wagons, the Texas Cowboys dueling the natives, and the California 49ers driven by dreams of gold. Instead, McCullough returns to the founding of the Republic—a time when Out West meant Ohio and the “future;” the Constitution was still being secretly debated; and the inhabitants of the cramped former New England colonies longed to expand (McCullough, p. 9).

McCullough’s concentrates on the establishment of settlements along Ohio’s Muskingum River at the close of the 18th century. Using primary sources, he delineates the development of this frontier microcosm, and profiles the lives of its key pioneers. His central claim is that those settlements represented not just the geographical growth of a fledgling nation, but the expansion of the “American ideal” to new lands (McCullough, p. 13).

But, this pioneer story begins far from the frontier. In a Boston bar called the “Bunch of Grapes,” leading Revolutionary War figures planned to provide Ohio lands to veterans battered by the recent “unprecedented financial panic” (McCullough, p. 8). These new lands, would be settled in a distinctly Northern way—unlike the territories in Virginia lands which were opened to everybody, from squatters to slave owners.

Ohio would be purchased through a legal process, led by General Rufus Putnam.

He and his coterie envisioned a “‘new New England’ in the wilderness” rooted in their regional values: religious freedom, educational opportunity, and a ban on slavery (McCullough, pp. 29; 44). By detailing these plans, McCullough subtly illustrates how the fault lines of a civil war–yet to come–were already being drawn on soil yet to be settled.

To realize their expansionist dream, these burly patriots turned to an unlikely political operative: Reverend Manasseh Cutler. The living incarnation of “those strong-minded English Puritans” who colonized New England, Cutler was also a man of the Enlightenment—a committed botanist who viewed expansion as an opportunity to enhance scientific knowledge (McCullough, p. 4). He proved an effective advocate. McCullough shows how his credibility and manners helped him play “the most important role” in uniting the Northern and Southern factions in the Congress of the Confederation (the one-chambered legislature that governed the nation under the Articles of Confederation) behind the passage of the Northwest Ordinance (McCullough, p. 30).¹

To McCullough, this Ordinance, which established the government structure of the new territory, stands “alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual” (McCullough, p. 30).

Even with the political structure of the territory secured, McCullough assiduously details the daunting odds for pioneers in this “unsettled wilderness” (McCullough, p. 6). There were mountains and rivers to cross, but few roads and no bridges; fertile soil, but thick forests; and only rudimentary surveys of the territory (McCullough, p. 39). Any settlers would have to confront a stark fact: this land was already occupied by several Native American tribes.

Nonetheless, in December 1787, the first pioneers left New England under the charge of General Putnam, who was famed for his victories at Dorchester Heights and would become the first Surveyor General (McCullough, p. 37). McCullough catalogues how the pioneers founded the future Marietta on the banks of the Muskingum. He provides extraordinary descriptions of how the “‘new city’” would be built in the image of a “compact New England town” once the thick forests were cleared (McCullough, p. 44).

Measles outbreaks, food shortages, and the uncertainty caused by “wilderness on all sides” are just a few of the astounding adversities that menaced the settlers (McCullough, pp. 75; 81). Yet, in McCullough’s view, what “opened the way in eastern and southern Ohio for a renewed flood of settlers” was the ultimate defeat of the perceived threat posed by Native Americans (McCullough, p. 118). McCullough describes how relations between the settlers rapidly deteriorated from a partnership to a purge:

At the Choate cabin the riders found those inside at supper. A few of the Indians stepped through the door in a friendly manner and were offered something to eat. They at once pounced on and bound the settlers and told them they were prisoners . . . the slaughter took but minutes (McCullough, p. 89).

Isolated, brutal killings of natives and settlers escalated into a protracted American military campaign. This volley of violence terminated with the vanquished Native Americans’ expulsion from the territory.

The first part of the book illustrates the settlement process, and the latter two sections are equally incisive for their personal portraits of settlers who helped the Marietta region develop. Cutler’s son—Ephraim—became a prominent politician in the new Ohio state legislature, pushing to proscribe slavery and provide public education (McCullough, p. 217). A young physician, Samuel Hildreth, journeyed by horse from Massachusetts to spread the healing of medicine to scattered settlements blighted by numerous diseases. He was “one of the pioneer American scientists of the time,” and the books he wrote corroborate McCullough’s account (McCullough, p. 172). And the ascent of a young carpenter named Joseph Barker to owner of a shipyard symbolized the growing role of Marietta in facilitating regional trade (McCullough, p. 170).

The most eclectic profile is of the Blennerhassetts—two self-exiled Anglo-Irish aristocrats whose elaborate mansion became the site of a long-forgotten conspiracy to detach the Western territories and crown Aaron Burr emperor of the new country (McCullough, p. 161). Here, McCullough skillfully weaves Marietta’s history together with the broader political situation in the young United States. At each point–from the ratification of the Constitution–to the War of 1812–and the brewing debate over fugitive slave laws–McCullough harnesses the pioneer settlements at Marietta as a window into the up’s and down’s of America’s development.

McCullough’s book benefits tremendously from his acquisition of primary sources, and he uses everything from journal articles to building plans for the original settlement. Finding such detailed records is a considerable feat considering how isolated Marietta was; it is unlikely there was little time for frontier recordkeeping.

Sir Winston Churchill once remarked that “[h]istory is written by the victors,” and it seems likely that a disproportionate amount of the primary source material surviving from this time period belongs to the white settlers—not to the Native American tribes whose civilizations were nearly obliterated.²

Telling the story from the settlers’ points of view results in an unbalanced history. Approximately 45% of the indexed references to Indians (the term McCullough uses) indicate episodes of violence or the perceived threat posed by Native Americans, while there are only isolated accounts of violence committed by the settlers (McCullough, pp. 321-322).

To McCullough’s credit, he acknowledges that the settlers existed in a wider violent colonial system. In the opening chapter, he notes the Revolution-era Gnadenhutten massacre of Christian Delaware natives and the Native Americans’ “rightful” claim to their land (McCullough, p. 8). Yet, he attempts to distinguish the “illegal settlers” (squatters) who favored an “‘extermination policy’” toward the Native Americans from the supposedly more virtuous pioneers who settled Marietta with American authorization—even though each was taking native held land (McCullough, p. 45). A stronger analysis would have been more critical of the accounts of the Marietta settlers themselves considering the racialized context in which they were written. For example, McCullough concludes that Putnam “wanted always to be fair in his dealings with the native tribes” (McCullough, p. 206). Yet, Putnam’s own journal entry states that despite a peaceful welcome, he remained “‘fully persuaded that the Indians would not be peaceable very long.’” (McCullough, p. 46).

Throughout the book, McCullough argues that the pioneers brought the “American ideal” West “not for money . . . but to advance the quality and opportunities of life” (McCullough, p. 258). It is (understandably) not always clear what the American ideal is. Is it the prohibition on slavery, accessibility of education, and freedom of religion (which he identifies with New England)? At the same time, many clearly moved West because of the economic catastrophe after the Revolution, so it is unclear why McCullough exorcises economic opportunity from his vision of the pioneers’ motives.

The book flows clearly, chronologically, and the inclusion of 30 pages of images livens it up. Unfortunately, the pioneer legend is losing its luster, and this story is one of many that America needs to remember.

Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Government who is passionate about history.

[1] Sellers, Christine. “The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United States.” Library of  Congress, 16 Sept. 2011.


[2] Greenblatt, Alan. Rewriting History, in “CQ Global Researcher,” vol. 3, no. 12, Dec. 20019, pp. 313.