#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story--the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country. As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler's son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough's subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them. Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough's signature narrative energy.
Living in a place so saturated with the history of America’s westward expansion, it’s easy to forget that this was actually America’s SECOND westward expansion. There was a time in American history when “the West” did not begin on the western edge of the mighty Mississippi but at the ragged edge of eastern Appalachia. It is the story of the settlement of this first “American West” that McCullough has elected to tell.
As with all great national stories, the major movements can be successfully summarized in the lives of key figures; in a sense, the sweep of history is best seen through the focused lens of biography, which might explain why McCullough excels as a historian…because he has an inimitable gift for writing about people. The major players in this narrative are two generations of the Cutler family, Manasseh Cutler and his son, Ephraim.
Manasseh Cutler, almost alone, persuaded Congress to pass the Northwest Ordinance which, as McCullough is quick to point out, is a document OLDER than the Constitution (1787) and serves as one of the earliest embodiments of America’s national ideals, expressed in two key provisions:
1) That slavery would be prohibited
2) That land would be set aside to fund public education
McCullough concludes: “The great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stands alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual.”
His son, Ephraim, almost 50 years later (1825), carried forward his father’s vision, successfully leading a crusade in the Ohio state legislature to pass a tax to fund statewide public education. In addition, he played a key role in the founding of Ohio University (where Cutler Hall is still the campus centerpiece) and Marietta College.
As many others would undoubtedly agree, McCullough may be the finest historian of this generation; he is most certainly one of the most popular and most widely-read and holds, I’ve discovered, the rare accolade of having all his published works still in print. Given that his first book on the Johnstown flood was published in 1968 (50+ years ago), that is no small accomplishment.
Perhaps if I were a professional historian, I would have more to offer by way of meaningful critique. However, history is, for me, hobby reading and I am, I must confess, more dilettante than connoisseur. Reading for pleasure brings with it a different set of expectations that McCullough is somehow able to perfectly fulfill. I am always surprised at how quickly I can read his books. His prose is effortless and spell-binding. It’s history that reads better than any novel. The more of McCullough’s work that I read, the more that I WANT to read his work. And, at the end of the day, that may be the highest praise that one could give to ANY author.
The style of his writing in this one felt akin to the Ken Burns film documentary, The War, which also got some criticism for taking this alternate style of approach for historical storytelling.
How you feel about the content is relative to you; I personally didn't know about the anti-slavery clause in the Northwest Ordinance, which, since it was written before the Constitution, throws a wrench into the debate about the framers intent on slavery (and what the omission of that word means).
If you've read a book about a certain battle or group or anything around this place you will feel that it is inadequately covered because that's your area of specialty, and how dare an author not dedicate a tome to the very thing you know so well. This unoriginal critique can be given to every history book (certainly a 260 page one), so if you're one of those guys, prepare yourself (or just read more books).
The book chronicles the formation and establishment of the Northwest Territory (the northwest at the time encompassing the Ohio and Michigan territories) in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War. I recently read a biography of Daniel Boone, so I was somewhat familiar with settlement of the region immediately to the south, across the Ohio River. The settlers faced many of the same threats and challenges, so it was not entirely new ground.
There were certainly some interesting passages, and it was not “bad” by any stretch, but I had come to expect excellence in the work of Mr. McCollugh, and sadly did not find it here.
“The Pioneers” also illuminates just how tough, resourceful and interconnected our early settlers were. It is also honest about the frequently harsh treatment of the Native Americans and their frequently barbaric treatment of innocent settlers, with notable exceptions on both sides. McCullough characteristically deals with these incidents as historical fact and leaves any bias to the reader. A breath of fresh air in these troubled times.
A pleasure to read and one that has inspired this Ohio native to motor down to Marietta, a river town settled and named by French ex-pats in honor of Marie Antoinette. Who knew? Four stars for this collection-worthy journey through a seminal period in our Nation’s founding and Ohio’s role in it.
As usual, McCullough creates a readable story by focusing on a few key persons and their families: Manasseh Cutler, his son Ephraim, General Cutler, an architect who helped to build the great cities of the territory, and a doctor who became a scientific ground breaker. Several better known figures in American history make appearances, including Washingon, Jefferson, Burr, and John Quincy Adams. McCullough bases his work on a recently discovered collection of diaries and letters, as well as legal and government documents. The tale gets somewhat repetitive at times, yet the reader never loses sight of the perseverance, ingenuity, faith, and sacrifices of these pioneers.
It's a fascinating topic and McCullough is a solid writer and historian. I felt this book lacked the focus I expected and was searching for a theme to hold the work together.
David McCullough provides a very readable history of the pioneer spirit as they built communities within the then Ohio wilderness. The story is told through the lives of five individuals: clergyman and politician Manasseh Cutler, who shepherded the Northwest Ordinance through Congress; General Rufus Putnam, Ohio Company organizer; Manasseh’s son, Ephraim, sales agent for the Ohio Company; Joseph Barker, carpenter, architect, and shipbuilder; and Samuel Hildreth, physician and scientist.
This book of American history covers a period between 1787-1863 from the perspective of the aforementioned individuals from their Ohio residences. Much of the material were taken from personal journals. (One must wonder what primary sources future historians will use to detail our time’s history since much of our correspondence is limited to 128 bits.) Sources are well documented but conveniently sequestered and organized at the end of the book, which promotes smooth reading. I have avoided reading this historian fearing that it would be dry and tedious reading. I was wrong and look forward to reading another of his histories.
I enjoyed it. The only disappointment that made this pedestrian may be too many excerpts from letters.
Never boring. I Learned quite a bit about about the movers and shakers who were the pioneers of Ohio. Gateway to the west.
The early chapters deal with the hardships the settlers faced not only in getting there, but after having settled. Native tribes at one time friendly turned violent. One of the memorable stories is of a very inept General who set out to fight the natives but was horribly defeated due to his own arrogance and gout. Weather played a huge part: sometimes floods, other times hot and drought.
The second part from 1979 to 1814 deals with Ephraim Cutler, and four other men who were early leaders: Joseph Barker was a carpenter turned architect; Samuel Hildreth was a physician who was also an early American scientist, and General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran.
The city of Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River is the main focus of the story as it was the first carefully laid out settlement.
Aaron Burr shows up after he has killed Hamilton with his own revolutionary idea of splitting the territory from the US. There are two colorful characters, Harman and his niece/wife Margaret Blennerhassett who arrive and build a huge mansion on an island in the Ohio River. They become involved with Burr and the story seems to strange to be true.
When Manasset Cutler wrote the Constitution for the territory, slavery was not allowed. His son, Ephram also worked to keep Ohio free of slavery and promoted free education. Ohio later became one of the main routes for the Underground Railroad.
A lot of history of one particular part of the country which was one of the first frontiers after the establishment of our country.
The five played varied roles in life: A pastor/educator, a military man, the farmer-son of the pastor/educator, an architect, and a physician/scientist. McCullough treats them as heroes in contrast with his critique of Vice-President-turned-rebel Aaron Burr’s role in Ohio state history. He captures interesting history about a state which comes to the fore every four years in electoral politics. He also demonstrates Ohio’s dedication to education epitomized in Manasseh Cutler’s Puritan ethic and its pride in a stand against slavery in its state constitution.
Those looking for a critical and analytical history will probably be disappointed as McCullough essentially tells “hero” stories about white males and as settlers’ xenophobia manifested in wars with the Native Americans. This book is told by an American who is proud of his country’s history even when it seems morally questionable. His sensitivity falls a bit short concerning the paranoia the pioneers showed towards Native American attacks. While the narrative about Ohio’s stand against slavery is admirable, the narrative about constant butchering from one side or the other between the settlers and the natives is simply tragic. In this work, McCullough could have shown more compassion towards those being invaded and moral honesty about white oppression.
Despite these shortcomings, this well-told tale should be treasured by many for years to come. The world rarely presents itself in morally clear categories. Such is the case here. The American move west required ingenuity, steadfast labor, and hardiness. This was shown by both the men and the women who for sharing these values. This work captures that ethic in relatively clairvoyant form. Such is our common national history, and those interested in understanding what it means to be an “American” (or even an “Ohioan”) should spend some time reading McCullough’s entertaining exposition.
McCullough writes that the idea for the book came to him when he was the commencement speaker at Ohio University, my own alma mater, in 2004 in tribute to the university's 200th anniversary. He took an interest in the founding of the school in 1804, just a year after Ohio became a state and when it was still mostly wilderness. He was referred to the Legacy Library at nearby Marietta College, which holds an extensive collection of original documents about early Ohio, and also about Ohio University's founder, Manasseh Cutler.
It was Manasseh Cutler, a minister, who was most responsible for settling the Northwest Territory in the first place. Those first settlers stopped in what is now Marietta. Yet it is Cutler's son, Ephraim, who takes most of the spotlight in this book. A significant early political leader in the new state, he left his sickbed long enough to cast the deciding vote that prohibited slavery in Ohio. (It was apparently Thomas Jefferson who was responsible for persuading many legislators to vote in favor of slavery.)
Such people as Aaron Burr, John Quincy Adams, Tecumseh and Harriet Beecher Stowe play roles in this early Ohio history, which spans the years from 1787 to the Civil War. We read of Indian battles, an earthquake, epidemics and floods. People kept coming, most of them following the Ohio River, and many kept going west from Ohio, becoming pioneers elsewhere.
This is hardly the most interesting of McCullough's many books, in part because of its broad focus. Yet it was subject matter ripe for revisiting by a historian, and McCullough is among the best.