The Pioneers by David McCullough
The Northwest Ordinance passed Congress “without the least variation” on July 13, 1787. It created a territory that encompassed the eventual six states from Ohio and west around the Great Lakes to Wisconsin and Michigan. It is cited today because it prohibited slavery, effectively establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave states. Coming on the heels of the Revolutionary War, it doubled the size of the original colonies and opened “the howling wilderness” to settlement. How did we add nearly 267,000 square miles of “unbroken wilderness” with no roads, towns, churches, or even taverns? How were settlers even convinced to head west into the vast unknown? Many of the early descriptions were written by men who had never traveled there!
McCullough, who has made an exemplary career of celebrating the people who make history, begins in The Pioneers with Manesseh Cutler, “forty-five years old and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ipswich Hamlet.” An insatiably curious Yale graduate who sought to know everything, he held earned doctorates in law, medicine, and theology. Plus, he was knowledgeable in astronomy, meteorology, and botany. He loved his family dearly yet he undertook the task of “lobbying” (a term not yet in use) Congress to allow the group he represented to buy the land and establish a government.
That he succeeded is obvious. The way in which the Ohio Company sought a more perfect union before the Constitution of the soon-to-be United States was passed is remarkable. There was to be no slavery and no land was to be stolen from the Indians. The men who initially went west to begin clearing and taming the land in order to build towns were carefully selected. Unlike British attempts at Roanoke Island and Jamestown, for example, these pioneers included carpenters and farmers who knew how to build and plant, and were willing to work hard. The families that followed close on were able to contribute to success and form a solid basis for the later surges of settlers.
Settlers came with a plan to build a real society and government based on an enlightened sense of equity, a principle held in little regard elsewhere in the emerging, somewhat united colonies. They did this while coping with the usual vicissitudes of frontier life: fire, flood, illness, and a contentious relationship with the natives. Despite Article III of the Northwest Ordinance which stated that the “utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians…they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress,” this principle did not eventuate in practice. First, the very act of coming to the territory was an “invasion” and “disturbance” of the natives’ traditional way of life. By 1794 the Indians were defeated and the Treaty of Greenville had drawn lines confining them to certain areas, and the way was open for more settlers.
McCullough tells this account, warts and all, through the leading people because they are the ones who leave the records that survive. Many of the men were veterans of the Revolutionary War. Rufus Putnam was an engineer and general. Firm against slavery, he founded the first church and bank. Ephraim Cutler, the son of Manesseh, was a judge of the first Court of Common Pleas and cast the deciding vote to prohibit slavery. Architect Joseph Barker built homes and a courthouse, and physician Samuel Hildreth was a historian of the early days. McCullough bases his narrative history on the papers and letters these men left behind and weaves their everyday notes and thoughts into a captivating record.
If only “history” were always taught and brought to vivid life with the care and accuracy this erudite and unpretentious historian brings to the page. We might have more interest in history at an earlier age, and far more interest in reading such magnificent books.
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