How the Midwest was won

David McCullough finds out how, and tells us the true story.

David McCullough's book, "The Pioneers."

The second title line on this book’s cover is a concise summation: “The heroic story of the settlers who brought the American ideal West.” The summation is not an exaggeration, and it is a miracle that we have the story at all.

Author David McCullough sniffed out the story during a 2004 visit to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. This book is an example of what has made McCullough a master history writer: a reporter’s instincts, a willingness to grind for the details, and a gift for storytelling. That we have the story today, at this moment, is also a bit of a godsend to our country, perplexed in its efforts to define or redefine itself.

Making old news fresh ain’t easy, and making 230-year-old news fresh is another order of magnitude. The often-mind-numbing process is to find all the details so you “know” the characters. The gift is to present them so they are real to readers.

Now, you need a plot for a story. In history writing, the plot would be a series of actual factual events and actions. Boy, did McCullough find a corker.

What McCullough found was a confluence of events that occurred shortly after our War of Independence, which had left the country in a massive depression. Legions of unpaid Revolutionary War combatants had been promised land grants in lieu of cash. We had land. Cash was scarce and virtually worthless.

Called the Northwest Territory or simply the Ohio Country, the vast tract covered what is now Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, territory that had been wrested from the Brits at the end of the war through the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

A group of Massachusetts-based New Englanders determined to put things right, and to establish communities based on the ideals for which the war had been fought, but which were not yet codified. The U.S. Constitution would not be ratified until six years later in 1789, when we also elected our first president.

Essentially, McCullough also uncovered Manasseh Cutler, the prime mover who would channel the social and economic confluences into an unrelenting flood of settlement along the banks of the Ohio River. Cutler, a graduate of Yale College (1765), convened a like-minded group at the Bunch of Grapes tavern in Boston in 1783. What is amazing is that virtually no one, including McCullough, has ever heard of the man who brought the American ideal to life and unimpeded practice.

Delightfully, we also learn that Cutler had an Island connection. He ran a ship chandlery, a ship supply business, for three years in Edgartown after graduating from Yale. Two of his kids were born here, thereby becoming the first Islanders in Ohio.

Cutler was an accomplished negotiator, but would not bend on five principles: Slavery was forbidden in the new land, everyone was equal, all could practice religion of choice, every community would set aside land for the purpose of education, and Native inhabitants would be treated with respect and dignity. The document, called the Northwest Ordinance, was signed in 1787 and included those principles.

As we know, those issues would not fare as well in the first U.S. Constitution, and we still struggle with them.

How did Cutler’s plan work? Well, he and Revolutionary War hero General Rufus Putnam and 46 New England men, mainly from Massachusetts, set out for the Ohio River on Dec. 3, 1787. They had to cross the Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania in the dead of winter without roads or maps, with an evident strong belief in the limited experience of a few surveyors and the power of dead reckoning.

It took four months before they reached what is now Marietta, Ohio, on April 5, 1788. McCullough uses detail and anecdotes to show us the successes and travails of their effort. “The Pioneers” is a complete story, fast-paced certainly by history-book standards. He uses letters and documents, but avoids the long pages of tendentious 19th century prose that doom many well-researched works of history. “The Pioneers” feels a bit like James Michener or Edward Rutherford without the fiction.

Cutler et al. kept their promises. The first public college in the U.S., Ohio University, admitted its first class in 1809, religious practices of all persuasions were flourishing, and public education was offered in many places.

There were no slaves. All men were free, particularly to work their butts off using giant old-growth hardwood trees to build homes, public buildings, and businesses to support a farming economy soon buttressed by trades and boatbuilding. As McCullough writes it, we see a collective will in play, each helping others.

After a harmonious start, the Native American promise failed in the end, as expansion, cultural differences, and stupidity resulted in war and the decimation of the native population, just as it had in New England and would throughout our Western expansion.

And the Ohio Country did expand. The U.S. Census determined in 1830 that 937,000 people lived in Ohio, beginning with the first troupe of men just 43 years earlier.

So what do we learn from this remarkable endeavor by McCullough? Things big and small, more than we have space for here, but here are a few takeaways:

  • The people can get it done. The Ohio Company, formed by Cutler and his mates, was a private company hand-selecting the first 46 settlers from 115 petitioners, based on character and skills, not on wealth or social position. The government’s job was limited to approving the land-granting process.
  • How much of our belief in our history is based on lore and exaggeration. Confession: I lived in Central Ohio for six years, knew vaguely of its New England connections, but until “The Pioneers” had never heard of Manasseh Cutler or his story.
  • This book provides a much-needed perspective on how the American ideals can really work.
  • It motivated me to actually read the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
Join David McCullough in discussion with Tony Horwitz at Islanders Write on Sunday, August, 11. To order a signed copies of “The Pioneers,” call Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.

“The Pioneers” by David McCullough, paperback at $30 from Simon & Schuster, New York. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, at Edgartown Books in Edgartown, and at Island libraries and online.