September 18, 2020

From Pilgrims to Pioneers

Rehoboth Ramblings


“The Pioneers” is a very enjoyable new book by noted historian David McCullough. Subtitled “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West”, this book looks at the time, about 1800, when the West was the Ohio frontier. The Northwest Territory would later become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of present-day Minnesota. It was every bit the Wild West then. With no roads into the wilderness, the Ohio River became the main route for reaching Ohio territory. The book’s cover artwork shows hardy pioneers going down the river on a flatboat.

Why would New England readers be interested in Ohio history, you might ask? Well, it’s an interesting story, and most of the families who pioneered the Ohio River frontier were from New England, many from Massachusetts. Many New Englanders who can trace their roots back to early America undoubtedly had some family members in the 19th century who “lit out for the territories”, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain.

The story starts with Gen. Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran who led the first expedition to the “Ohio Country”. Britain had ceded the land that became the Northwest Territory as part of the Treaty of Paris following the Revolutionary War. A minister from Ipswich, Manasseh Cutler, was instrumental in opening this vast tract of land to veterans of the Revolutionary War.

These pioneers established a new town they called Marietta on the banks of the Ohio. As the descendants of Puritans, they wanted their settlement to be a model city, like John Winthrop’s “city on a hill”. Visitors remarked how like New England Marietta seemed. Manasseh’s son Ephraim, who became a judge and an early Ohio statesman, played a pivotal role in keeping the new state of Ohio a free, not slave, state.

Just like their ancestors in the 1600’s, those going west from Massachusetts around 1800 faced the terrors of an unknown land – dangerous wild animals, thick forests to clear, and sometimes violent opposition from native people. McCullough has come in for some criticism for glossing over the Indian wars in Ohio and Indiana, except to note that there were bloody conflicts with atrocities on both sides. By the mid-1800’s, almost all the remaining natives were banished from Ohio and relocated west, a sad story that was to be repeated with western expansion.

Regarding the landscape that so impressed these pioneers with its beauty, we can only imagine how the old-growth primeval forests must have looked before that time. The line often repeated is that a squirrel could travel from the East Coast to the Mississippi without having to touch the ground. The settlers in this book are always admiring the gigantic beech, oak, maple, and other trees (including Ohio’s famous buckeye) before setting to work chopping them down to create towns and farms.

At any rate, these early settlers were heroic in their stamina and fortitude, with a resilience that very few of us possess today. McCullough’s book is full of vivid incidents. One story he tells is that of John Gardner, a young man from Marblehead, who was captured by the Shawnee. They tied him to a tree overnight, but apparently not too securely, because he was able to break free under cover of darkness and make his long way back to his farm.

Hmmm. This Indian captive story sounds remarkably like one associated with my family’s early Ohio ancestor Moses Hewitt, according to the fascinating genealogical research my sister has turned up. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran from Ashby, Moses was quite the adventurer, but not important enough historically to be included in this book, alas. I wonder if the “escape from the Shawnee” might be the sort of tale that was told about any bold frontiersman.

A few years ago, we visited Blennerhasset Island (an island near Marietta in the river between Ohio and West Virginia). McCullough tells its intriguing history here. The owners of the island were a wealthy, eccentric Anglo-Irish couple. People said they had every sort of sense but common sense. They got embroiled in a nefarious plot against the government by a visiting Aaron Burr (in the years after the notorious Hamilton duel). It did not end well for any of them.

In writing this book, McCullough says he set out to “write about a cast of real-life characters … who were entirely unknown to most Americans – to bring them to life ... and tell their amazing and I felt, important story.” And so he has. You don’t have to be from Ohio to find “The Pioneers” an American story well worth reading.


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