I’ve just finished David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers. If you’re a native Ohioan, like me, it strikes home. If you’re not an Ohioan, but you like history, you’ll find it an interesting exploration of the early American pioneer experience.
The Pioneers tells the story of the settlement of the Ohio territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a principal focus on the town of Marietta, on the Ohio River. The book sketches the history of the Northwest Territory and Marietta from the days when the Ohio lands were viewed as a tempting, but dangerous, far western wilderness and advocates of settlement were seeking congressional approval of the Northwest Ordinance and settlements, through early settlement days and the Burr conspiracy on Blennerhassett Island, to Ohio statehood and the development of the state school system and early state colleges, to the role of Ohio as a principal stop on the Underground Railroad. Along the way we meet many interesting characters, like Manasseh Cutler, a formidable preacher turned lobbyist who skillfully managed the interests of the advocates of settlement in Congress, his son Ephraim, a spelling-challenged champion of free public schools and opposition to slavery, Samuel Hildreth, a curious and inquisitive doctor, painter, scientist, and naturalist, and Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War veteran and common-sense general who held the Marietta settlement together during the early, difficult days.
If you’re an Ohioan of a certain age, like me, you’ll remember learning about some of this in your Ohio history classes in grade school. The Pioneers is a reminder of our state’s early history, when Ohio was an untamed wilderness with gigantic trees and forest prowled by panthers, bears, and wolves. And the story of Ohio is unsettling, as most pioneer stories are — unsettling because of the treatment of the native Americans who were forced from their ancestral lands by the flood of settlers and the massacres and battles that resulted from the inevitable clashes that occurred as the natives desperately tried to preserve their way of life. The book is also a useful reminder of how close Ohio came to being a state that allowed slavery, as opposed to a bulwark against the spread of slavery and, ultimately, one of the chief supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War.
The Pioneers is a good read.