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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.
Popular historian McCullough (1776) uses his well-crafted writing style and thorough research to highlight the evolution of the "Ohio territory" (now Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin) from late-18th-century settlement to well-regarded American cities by the 1860s. He follows members of a few optimistic, well-connected families whose impact on the region spanned generations, admiringly portraying their efforts to create a new England on the frontier. Settler leaders Rufus Putnam and Manasseh Cutler veered between Eastern political maneuvering for approval (including that of George Washington) for private purchase of the land they wanted and surviving the pioneer trials of wildlife, starvation, and violence between settlers and native Americans (which is treated as a minor subplot). The swiftly moving narrative also shines light on the territory's consistent antislavery position beginning with the 1787 Northwest Territory Ordinance and leading to the first black vote in 1802. While some readers may be put off by the near-omission of the native people's perspective, those seeking a pro-colonial history will find this is a fascinating and well-written look at the Cutler families and the Americanizing of Ohio. Illus.