How the (North)west was won

Historian David McCullough’s ‘The Pioneers’ focuses on the individuals beyond the myths of settling the Northwest Territory.

‘The Pioneers’ by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 352 pp.

In “John Adams,” David McCullough’s acclaimed 2001 biography, he chronicled Adams’ achievements as a Founding Father and chief executive. But one of Adams’ accomplishments, which changed the country, has gotten relatively little attention.

During the negotiations that ended the Revolutionary War, the British pressed to make the Ohio River the westernmost boundary of the United States. But Adams held firm, according to McCullough, and the British relented, giving what would eventually become the United States of America ample room to grow. Land, as it turned out, was nearly all the fledgling nation had to offer (notwithstanding that some of it was already occupied by Native Americans). Without cash to reward its revolutionary soldiers, the young government provided veterans with dirt-cheap tracts in its newly acquired Northwest Territory instead. The settling of that frontier, which contained the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, is the subject of McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

McCullough’s most arresting books have focused on a single figure, such as Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. “The Pioneers,” like “The Greater Journey,” his story of American expatriates in France, involves a lesser-known cast of characters. The story’s main hero is Manasseh Cutler, a New England minister who not only played a pivotal role in the passing of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but also pushed for anti-slavery language to be included in it. 

He’s the kind of man McCullough typically admires – a bibliophile and polymath much like Adams, Roosevelt, and Truman. Cutler, McCullough writes, “had succeeded in becoming three doctors in one, having qualified for both a doctor of law and a doctor of medicine, in addition to doctor of divinity, and having, from time to time, practiced both law and medicine. At one point he looked after some forty smallpox patients and seems to have gained a local reputation for his particular skill at coping with rattlesnake poisoning.”

It’s hard not to think of such characters in mythic terms, and McCullough invariably evokes them with a ready superlative. Cutler, we learn, had a “boundless” curiosity. His scientific pursuits were “remarkable.” 

McCullough’s willingness to be impressed, although it can be overdone, is one of his most endearing qualities as a writer. His refusal to embrace cynicism as a form of sophistication, one gathers, is part of his popular appeal.

But not even the stalwartly affirming McCullough finds everything in the frontier ethic worthy of applause. He notes the darker aspects of western expansion, such as the displacement of Native Americans. McCullough describes a horrific massacre of nearly 100 Delaware Indians in central Ohio in 1782 – “systematically clubbed to death, all because they were mistakenly thought to have had a part in the murder of a family of settlers.”

He quotes the English novelist Frances Trollope’s reaction to the forced removal of Native American tribes to faraway reservations: “If the American character may be judged by their conduct in this matter, they are most lamentably deficient of every feeling of honor and integrity.”

Women are underrepresented in stories about the West because few of their journals and letters survive, according to McCullough. One exception was Lucy Backus Woodbridge, whose letters back to Connecticut spoke of loneliness and heartbreak. Still, she declared to one correspondent, “I will not afflict you with complaining.”

To read “The Pioneers” is to understand that the settlement of the Northwest Territory was, in some ways, a second phase of the American Revolution – a messy experiment, touched by high ideals and bitter conflicts, that still resonates in ways we’re only beginning to grasp.

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