Reflecting on David McCullough’s “The Pioneers”

by Cassie Wefald

Reflecting on David McCullough’s “The Pioneers”

By Marcia Allen, Collections Manager

No book written by historian David McCullough has failed to fascinate readers.  “John Adams” and “Truman” not only merited bestseller status, but each also earned the Pulitzer Prize. “The Path between the Seas” and “Mornings on Horseback” were recipients of the National Book Award.  And McCullough has received some fifty-six honorary degrees for his extensive writing about American history.

McCullough’s latest book, “The Pioneers,” is no exception to that long list of excellent titles. The book traces the settlement of what was the Northwest Territory during the late 18th century.  In particular, it follows the exploration and the creation of communities along the Ohio River.  While reading of such endeavors could be very dry, McCullough magically brings the era to life, and we readers are a part of the long ago struggle.

The major personalities of the adventure were remarkable.  Manasseh Cutler, who became the spokesperson for the Ohio effort, was a pastor who never lost a passion for learning.  Fascinated with anything that had to do with science, he studied medicine, astronomy, botany and any other scientific pursuit that aroused his curiosity.  He work tirelessly with members of Congress to establish a territory that espoused education, freedom of religion and an end to slavery.  Because of his work, Congress agreed to form the Northwest Ordinance, thus laying the groundwork for government and land for the Ohio Company.

An equally talented leader, General Rufus Putnam, was chosen to lead the first pioneers to their new home.  Putnam, who suffered a grim childhood and a limited education, caught the attention of General George Washington when he masterfully designed American fortifications that helped defend Dorchester Heights during the Revolutionary War.  Recognizing great capabilities, Washington appointed Putnam chief engineer of the army.  Thus, his creativity and determination made him an ideal candidate for leadership.

And so the adventure began.  A small party of surveyors, carpenters and other tradesmen set off near the last day of the year in 1787.  Early on, they ran into horrendous storms that closed a road that was a mere trail cutting through the wilderness.  Along the way, they had to stop to build boats to carry supplies.  When they finally arrived at their destination, they began plotting streets for a city and felling trees to build both cabins and an immense fort for safety. Fertile land and plentiful game made life a little easier.

Of course, there were obstacles, some recognized and dealt with by careful planning.  Hard work, sturdy shelters, and dedicated planting of crops helped to avert some hardships.  There were other threats, however, that were carelessly overlooked.

Initially, encounters with tribal leaders were respectful and peaceful.  During the next couple of years, increasing encroachment on traditional hunting and sheltering lands angered the Shawnee and Cherokee tribes.  A couple of their raids on homes of settlers ended with casualties, and so plans were made by Congress and President Washington to raise an army for defense in the wilderness.

General Arthur St. Clair was chosen for leadership of that army.  Ranks were composed of unemployed men selected from larger towns.  They were poorly paid, poorly outfitted and poorly trained for their arduous assignment.  Desertions along the route were common.  St. Clair’s attitude as they advanced into the wilderness was nonchalant.  Despite sightings of tribal groups, he ignored warnings and continued his advance.  When an attack took place one early November morning in 1790, troops became easy targets.  Of the 1400 Americans making that trek, some 1000 plus were brutally killed and mutilated.  The massacre led to the very first congressional investigation into events of American history.

So, what makes this an exceptional book?  A combination of many well-planned features.  McCullough is a careful researcher, so much of his book is based on journals and letters rarely seen.  The combination of those eyewitness descriptions and McCullough’s talented writing brings a little-known American history to life.  And the courage and determination of those early explorers were incredible.  “The Pioneers” is yet another outstanding treasure of American experience, one you won’t regret reading.