Recounting the Untold History of the Early Midwestern Pioneers

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McCullough pored over a collection of primary documents stored at Marietta College, including letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs.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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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

23 thoughts on “Recounting the Untold History of the Early Midwestern Pioneers”

  1. untold history, LOL

    You should go listen to historians on Twitter having at this guy. The best would have to be the history professor in Marrietta who pointed out that not only was this history well-known in Ohio, the book was closer to the local antiquarianism spouted at museums than it was to actual history.

      • This book focuses on local myths about Marietta being the first settlement in the region when in fact the French had established any number of settlements decades before.

        For example:,_Indiana


        But more importantly it is merely a rehashing of well-covered bit of history. It is described as the “untold history” even though the author chose to focus on white men, essentially repeating a version of history that had already been well documented.

        • White men have a long history. In relating the story of the European migration to North America, and their movement across the continent, white men figure prominently.

          Perhaps someone will come along and rehash it by focusing on some other pigmentation.

          History tends to get rehashed because we really don’t have single, definitive versions of all the things that happened. We are blessed with lots of histories of the same periods.

          We can look at Amazon and see all the rehashing of the biography of George Washington, even though Washington Irving wrote before most of them.

        • ‘First settlement founded under the flag of the United States’ will do. So will ‘first actual town, as opposed to fur-trading post’. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article that you yourself cite, M. de Vincennes had little success luring actual settlers to his trading post on the Wabash. (The Piankeshaw village on the site is neither here nor there with respect to the question of European settlement.)

        • It is four hundred miles from Vincennes to Marietta. In those days, a two week journey at minimum.

          Meanwhile, while I am sure that the locals are very familiar with the history of Marietta, nobody else is. Also, if you want fewer white men in your history books, I would recommend reading about some history outside of North America. Perhaps something involving pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa would be more to your taste?

          At any rate, the other complaints are little more than provincialism of the temporal and spatial varieties, and should be treated as such.

    • It is not David McCullough’s fault that an idiot wrote the headline of the article. Nor is it McCullough’s fault that a bunch of minor-league academics have their knickers in a twist because someone without a Ph.D. dares to be better at their job than they are.

      • The lack of Ph.D. and tenure is probably a major complaint. I know that was one of the laments about Shelby Foote’s work – he wasn’t a “real” historian. Neither were Stanley Vestal, or *gasp* Barbara Tuchman. Vestal was an English professor who wrote history.

        • I take impish delight in recalling that Theodor Mommsen himself, the arch great-granddaddy of all academic historians, did not have a Ph.D. in history. His doctorate was in law.

    • Nate – “historians on Twitter” seems, by itself, a strange description, if not a questionable source of reliable opinion (it was not “serious historians on Twitter”), at least one to be taken with a grain of salt.

      What local historians, professors or non-professors, “know” may or may not be reliable information.

      Academics have a long history (no double meaning intended) of scorning authors who are not members of the Guild for failing to write a book intended for the general public in the same manner as an academic would write a book for an audience of academics.

      An additional issue with today’s academic historians is that they find it necessary to take umbrage at any suggestion that white settlers were “pioneers” because Native Americans were already occupying much of North America.

      There is nothing unique about one demographic group invading territory occupied by another demographc group. In fact, it’s a common element in the history of humankind. And the winners almost always write the histories.

      – Reaching back to about 2500 BC, various dynasties of China were conquering and subjecting neighboring peoples. The borders of China expanded and contracted on an almost constant basis until the modern era.

      – Roman armies invaded Gaul and a lot of other places for the purpose of conquering and subjecting the native white populations and converting most of them into slaves or, at best, second-class Romans

      – A large group of Jews left Egypt after a long captivity and invaded Israel, killing and dispossesing the long-time inhabitants of that part of the world

      – Babylonians invaded almost every area of the Middle-East and, among other actions, took the tribe of Judah captive and carried its members back to servitude in Babylon.

      – The tribe of Judah was released from Babylonian captivity when Persia invaded and conquered Babylon.

      – The Austro-Hungarian Empire was created from a large number of Central European nations which had almost constantly been at war with their neighbors, moving national boundaries back and forth for centuries.

      In the United States, Native American tribes allied with France in an effort to conquer lands in present-day New England occupied by British colonists. Colonists who were not killed were made slaves by the tribes or held captive by the French.

      In the American West, tribal warfare was the rule rather than an occasional happening among the Plains tribes. In addition to controlling hunting grounds and killing the men, the winners often made slaves of the women and children of the losing tribe.

      • And we probably shouldn’t forget that long before the Crusades, Muslim armies crossed Gibralter, conquered Spain, and moved up into France to Tours where they were defeated by the Franks in a pretty important battle in 732AD.

        They were pushed back into Spain which they held for hundreds of years, but were not finally defeated until 1492.

        The Muslims made two more serious attempts to conquer Europe, and both times were turned back at Vienna. The first was in 1529, and the second in 1683.

        This history should probably be rehashed a few times since there appears to be widespread ignorance that today’s headlines are just a continuation of a struggle that’s over a thousand years old.

        If I had a Twitter account, I’d mention it there and then get the popcorn.

      • “There is nothing unique about one demographic group invading territory occupied by another demographic group”

        In fact it’s so common that it’s harder to think of examples where there wasn’t an occupying group to be oppressed. The first humans in the Americas and the colonists of the Pacific islands and New Zealand come to mind but the rest are mostly lost in the mists of pre-history. Of course, once settled in and divided up into tribes the newcomers happily indulged in reciprocal invasions (though maybe this does not count until they had managed to become separate demographic groups, whatever that really means).

        • Don’t be so sure about either example. Odds are high neither group was actually first.

          There is ample evidence that older homo species and sapiens subspecies spread all over. Erectus almost certainly. And Floricensis had to come out of somewhere. And the more data we find out about the Denisovans the clearer it becomes those folks got around.

          Either “out of africa” is wrong or hominids spread all over in waves and were repeatedly displaced. Colonization seems to be biologically inherent in all forms of homo, to say nothing of other animal species. “Be fruitful and multiply” invariably leads to “go everywhere”.

          • When it comes to this area of pre-history I’m not too sure of anything and Homo floresiensis did get quite close to Australia (one reason I did not include Australia as one of my examples).

            However, my impression is that these recent discoveries still pertain to Africa and Eurasia and that the Americas and New Zealand were probably pristine homo free locations, the latter indeed until historical rather than pre-historical times (though I am always open to the possibility that some bones will be dug up to confound me).

            As my point was really that PG’s “nothing unique” was a bit understated and would have been better expressed as “it is normally the case” I’d not be concerned if my two examples were refuted. And since we should always add a SF reference may I suggest the multiple species replacements in Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince as an interesting example of possible ethical questions.

            • There’s a lot of chatter floating around about pre-maori NZ. Some is myth, some presents as fact.

              Like this:


              Some of the myths go back to the beginning of the current interglacial and tie in to the other “great flood” stories from that time.

              As for the Americas, there are archaeological sites (circa 30-50k years) that predate Clovis and the Bering land bridge. Plus evidence of migrations from the other direction via Greenland and the arctic.

              Neither story is conclusively settled either way.

            • I won’t defend my “nothing unique” as applying to a prehistorical era. My limited knowledge of the earliest Chinese histories is that their dates are also a little hazy.

              However, my understanding is that the Babylonian Captivity is estimated as having started in about 600 BCE, so I’ll hang on to my “nothing unique” beginning about then.

              • PG, I wasn’t questioning your “nothing unique” or you historical views and apologise if you thought I was. As an Englishman I interpreted it as a piece of studied understatement pretty much meaning that groups taking over territory by force was “bloody common”. Of course, being American you are not required to do “studied understatement”.

                And as for my dispute with Felix – if you can call it that – it is about just how uncommon (“almost unique” one could say) it is for “humans” to penetrate genuinely virgin lands. As for Felix’s NZ link, I am highly sceptical given that the partisan political rather than scientific nature of the site (even though I have some sympathy with their objection to privileging members of the community based on ethnic decent, complicated as it is though by real questions of community owned property rights).

                • My position is that the only truly virgin lands settled since the current interglacial began is Antarctica. And even there… 😉

                  Once you accept that Neanderthals and Denisovans had culture you are faced with a human sub-species (maybe two) that lasted no less than 400,000 years. Time enough to blanket the world during the previous interglacial. For that matter, modern homo has been around for at least half that time. I am skeptical it took 200,000 years to invent canoes.

                  Our ancestors and precursors weren’t stupid.

        • There is the case of Iceland, which seems to have been entirely ignored by man until a parcel of Irish monks settled there. The Vikings, arriving in the late 9th century A.D., called them papar and oppressed them by means of the nano-pico-femto-atto-microaggression of watching them pack up and leave.

  2. While it does seem interesting to me, I will probably never buy it. They are selling the hardcover for, if memory serves, $17.99 and the ebook for $14.99. Like many, I only buy ebooks and won’t buy an ebook over ten dollars, rarely over seven dollars.

    If the ebook was priced at $5 or $6, many more people would read it and McCullough would make much more money – so probably would the publisher. This is just another case of the publisher serving neither the author nor the reader, but only their own perceived customers, the wholesalers.

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