Book Review – The Pioneers By David McCullough

David McCullough is a brilliant historian whose books have earned many awards including two Pulitzer Prizes (Truman and John Adams) and two National Book Awards (The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback). So it was with much anticipation when I got my hands on his latest book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.

The Pioneers is a faster read than many of McCullough’s books but is by no means lacking in research and insight. The Pioneers covers the settling of the Northwest Territory, specifically around the community of Marietta, situated on the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers.

Marietta, Ohio has remained a small yet historical community with many interesting places to visit including: The Castle, Ohio River Museum, Campus Martius Museum, and Mound Cemetery.

The story follows the lives of many brave pioneers, with heavy focus on the Cutler family, Manasseh and his son Ephraim. These settlers entered what was then the frontier; an area of dense hardwood forests with unknown numbers of Native Americans, wild animals, and uncertainty.

The Pioneers is loaded with interesting stories including Aaron Burr’s bizarre attempt to create his own country with the help of the wealthy, eccentric Harman Blennerhassett. Blennerhassett settled on an island in the Ohio and built a mansion there. Burr, only a year after shooting to death Alexander Hamilton, convinced Harman to join him in his treasonous plans only to be thwarted and eventually chased out by armed forces.

Blennerhassett Island is now a West Virginian historical state park where you can visit the mansion and museum.

The Northwest Ordinance, enacted on July 13, 1787 created the large Northwest Territory, which included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This organic act by the U.S. Congress was largely influenced by Manasseh and had several key components that the settlers would fight for politically as Ohio became a state.

The Ordinance required that this territory would provide freedom of religion, free universal education, and prohibit slavery. The Pioneers would prove to not only settle this new frontier but would uphold all three of this principles.

The Pioneers is a fascinating snapshot of history. It covers the years 1787 to 1863 in a relatively small part of the growing country. This is a time period where change was happening rapidly as the United States grew both in size and strength, and new technology transformed travel and communication like never seen up to that time.

McCullough brings to life these brave settlers along with their difficulties and triumphs in a most readable book.


Recommended additional books by David McCullough: John Adams and Mornings on Horseback. The former covering our 2nd U.S. President and the later our 26th, Theodore Roosevelt.

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