Book Review: The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough

The Pioneers tells a compelling story. After the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded the vast Northwest Territory to the fledgling country of the United States. This included the area that would comprise the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This book focuses on the settling of a portion of southeastern Ohio, in particular the town of Marietta.

McCullough keeps the epic tale personal by zooming in on the lives of several of the major players. For instance, Manasseh Cutler, although he didn’t spend much time in the Northwest Territory, was instrumental in approaching the new U.S. government for permission for pioneers to appropriate land, build houses, plant crops, and raise families. His son Ephraim settled in the territory, though, as did Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam, an architect and carpenter named Joseph Barker, and a physician named Samuel Hildreth. Through these men’s lives and the lives of their families, McCullough takes the reader through early settlement and near starvation, devastating floods, wars with Native Americans, early shipbuilding and river commerce, the conspiracy of Aaron Burr, and the politics of statehood.

It’s an intensely readable book. McCullough has a talent for immersing you into the experience so that you feel that you were part of the action – or that you long to be part of the action. Despite the cold winters, scarce nutrition, natural disasters, and ever-present threat of violent attack, it’s easy to long to partake of those days amidst the forests of immense trees and the lovely river highway. The scenery was spectacular, and for the most part neighbors helped one another.

When Manasseh Cutler lobbied for the Northwest Ordinance, which opened the land to settlers, he insisted that three area-wide conditions be embedded in the document: free education for all, freedom of religion, and an absolute prohibition of slavery. Later, as Ohio became a state, his son Ephraim fought for those same principles and saw that they continued to be a part of state legislation.

I wouldn’t say that The Pioneers reads like a novel, because it limits itself to facts gleaned from McCullough’s meticulous research and is interspersed with entries from letters, diaries, and other historical documents. However, I can say that it is more exciting and interesting than most novels. Once I started it, it was hard to put down, and when I had to, I looked forward to getting back to it with great anticipation. Some history books are excruciatingly boring; it takes an extremely talented writer to take the rough boulders of information contained in old records and chip away and shape and smooth until a wonderfully sculpted adventure remains. That’s what McCullough has done here. He has taken bare facts and created a work of art that stands apart from its source material as a unique creation. This is a wonderful book and I recommend it highly to anyone who is interesting in seeing history come to life in the screening rooms of their mind.

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