Review: ‘The Pioneers,’ by David McCullough

"The Pioneers" by David McCullough; Simon & Schuster (331 pages, $30)

In his previous books, David McCullough wrote about legendary men, monumental projects, historic achievements or calamitous events. With "The Pioneers," the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner turns his attention to lesser-known figures as he chronicles the gradual settlement of what was then the western boundary of the United States – the Northwest Territory – starting in 1788.

Manasseh Cutler, a Massachusetts clergyman, successfully lobbied Congress to include in the Northwest Ordinance three provisions: religious freedom, free universal education and a ban on slavery. It was the first time that this "American ideal" was enshrined in a document, McCullough asserts. Five states would be created out of this territory – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin – plus northeastern Minnesota. When the slavery ban was challenged in the Ohio legislature, it was Cutler's son, Ephraim, a legislator himself, who cast a key vote shoring up the ban for which his father had laid the foundation.

McCullough's graceful, understated writing style is perfect for "The Pioneers," a slowly unfolding narrative populated with frontiersmen and women going about the laborious job of clearing the land and building a new community – what is now Marietta, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River. McCullough tells this story through the diaries and letters of the settlers – meaning that it's told from the white man's point of view. At times, McCullough himself adopts 18th-century prejudices, referring in one passage, for example, to Native American "savages" chasing a group of "brave men."