David McCullough on Early Midwestern Pioneers

David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Smithsonian contributor, 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 upcoming 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McCullough pored over a collection of primary documents stored at Marietta College, including letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs.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.

The repercussions of that in so many ways are hard to estimate, and yet the people who did this have not really been adequately remembered or celebrated or even presented as the remarkable human beings they were. Most of the characters in this book I've written are totally unknown to most all Americans, as they were to me, before I began working on the book. And I think that their memories deserve to be everlasting. It's such an American story and brings to the foreground so many virtues and senses of American progress of the best kind that we need to remember, now maybe more than ever.

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