September 19, 2020

“The Pioneers” by David McCullough

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

I have read almost all of historian David McCullough’s books (“1776,” “The Greater Journey,” “The Wright Brothers,” to name a few) so I was excited about his new work, “The Pioneers.” Two chapters in, I decided I was not sufficiently engaged enough to continue. The writing seemed to be merely a recitation of people who moved to the post-Revolutionary Northwest Territory, namely Ohio and environs.

Months later, “The Pioneers” became available on my audiobooks app and I decided to take another crack at the saga of men and women who pushed American civilization west. The book was able to keep my attention as an audio experience.

While McCullough writes about Manasseh Cutler and Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putman, Puritans from New England and principals in the development of Ohio, of much more interest are mentions of personalities who have a connection to the Ohio Territory: “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, George Washington (an early investor), Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, Lewis and Clark, John Quincy Adams and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Ohio Company was forward thinking in many respects incorporating freedom of religion and education in new settlements. The founders were also abolitionists who wanted Ohio to be a non-slave state and kept it such, even as Thomas Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to insert some slave ownership exceptions in the by-laws of the Northwest Ordinance.

Native Americans are the adversaries in this narrative; I was definitely reading history through the eyes of an older white man, however brilliant he may be.

If you are interested in early American history however, “The Pioneers” may suit you, but it does not have the strong narrative that many of McCullough’s previous books possess. Reach for “The Great Bridge,” “The Johnstown Flood” or “John Adams” instead.

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