From The Smithsonian:
David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian . . . is known for writing about some of the most famous Americans, including presidents John Adams and Harry Truman. But his new book centers on five men many people have never heard of: the pioneers who settled what was known as the Northwest Territory in the late 18th century.
In the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, Great Britain handed the newly minted United States a huge package of land—a region that includes the current states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. With the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, Congress opened up this swath of wilderness for cheap to compensate underpaid Revolutionary War veterans. That ordinance, championed by Massachusetts minister Manasseh Cutler, also set three sweeping conditions for the territory: religious liberty, free universal education and the prohibition of slavery. Soon after, a group of pioneers, most of them Puritans from New England, set out to establish the first U.S. settlements in this vast expanse. The ordinance also pledged that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards Indians.” Although this initial group fostered more peaceful relations with neighboring tribes, the influx of settlers throughout the territory would lead to fierce conflicts until the Native Americans—including the Shawnee, Seneca and Delaware—were eventually forced out of the region.
McCullough’s . . . book, The Pioneers, focuses on five men, including Cutler, who helped build the first settlement in the region, in a town called Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. Over years of visits to that river town, McCullough pored over a collection of primary documents stored at Marietta College, including letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs. The resulting narrative follows these early Midwesterners as they come up against great odds to transform their little town into a thriving settlement. Even today, McCullough tells me, we have a lot to learn from the pioneers: “Their belief in honesty, and hard work, and worthy purpose in life, and kindness—all of this is at the core of who we are, and we must never forget it,” he says.
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What inspired you to write this book and focus on this period in American history?
A number of years ago, in 2004, I was invited to come speak at the commencement ceremony at Ohio University because it was to be their 200th anniversary. In the process of preparing my thoughts on what I might say, I came to know more than I had known about the history of the university and found it fascinating. Particularly when I found that the oldest building on campus, Cutler Hall, was named for one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever come upon: Manasseh Cutler, who came from Massachusetts, and who was the leading voice for the passage of what was called the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—one of the most important decisions Congress ever made.
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Manasseh Cutler was an 18th-century polymath. He was a man who was as brilliant as almost anybody I’ve ever read about. He had doctoral degrees in law, theology and medicine. He was three doctors in one, if you will. He was also almost certainly one of the leading botanists of the time; he spoke several languages; he was a great speaker, and so forth. And he never went and lived [in the Northwest Territory]. He just got it started. But one of his sons, Ephraim Cutler, became a leading figure, and is one of the leading figures of my book.
The other was a notable Revolutionary War general named Rufus Putnam, and another was this man, Joe Barker—a carpenter who eventually became a prominent architect. And then there came a young doctor who arrived later. He was only in his 20s, named Samuel Hildreth, who had a spectacular reach of mind, who was not only a physician and a scientist but became one of the leading scientists of his time.
I had always wanted, my whole writing career, to write a history of a town in which the main characters, all real characters from real life, would be people you’ve never heard of. I was inspired, I’m sure, by Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town. I think one of the lessons of history that is underestimated is gratitude. When I think of how much we owe people like that, to have no interest in them, or know nothing about them, is an inexcusable ingratitude. History is about human beings, it’s not just about facts and figures and quotations.
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River towns are story towns—I feel that strongly. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where the Ohio River begins, knowing that there were always stories about the river towns. And that’s what history is: stories. We need those stories, and we are better off having them. We can do what we do in life more knowledgeably if we have some sense of history.
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Could you talk a little bit about the ways that these pioneers changed our country and where you see the legacy of this settlement today?
They advanced the state educational system as no state ever had until then. They instituted the whole idea of state universities. They demonstrated that slavery was wrong, that slavery was something we could stop and get rid of, if we all joined forces. They enjoyed music and literature. When they came west, they didn’t just bring axes and saws and cooking kettles. They brought books; they brought a love of learning, and it never went away.
Much of that is in the Puritan tradition. This is really in many ways as much a New England story as it is a wilderness of the West story, because virtually all the characters were from New England; they were from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Education was deep in the whole philosophy or attitude of the Puritans. We have something of a misconception about the Puritans; they also liked to sing and dance and have a good time, just like everybody else. And their influence on the whole world of American education is incomparable. That’s why all the first universities were in New England, and still stand so prominently in what matters to our country.
Link to the rest at The Smithsonian