Books History

New England Goes West: David McCullough’s “The Pioneers”

David McCullough is among America’s most respected and readable popular historians of the American story. The Pioneers is another contribution to the drama of America and its ideals, its goodness and darkness, its hopes and shortcomings. Nominally a history of the settling of Ohio, the account focuses largely on the Cutler family from New England and their efforts to open settlement in the Northwest territories and how their efforts and ideals entrenched the American spirit in a land that would become essential to the American victory in the Civil War and the struggles against totalitarianism in the twentieth century.

Manasseh Cutler was a New England Yankee, Puritan, through and through. A Yale man, he was minister, scientist, and politician. More than any other man, Cutler was responsible for opening settlement to the American Midwest. He was also an ardent anti-slavery idealist, ensuring that his lobbying for the opening of the Northwest Territories for American settlement would be free of the sin of slavery and the moral decadence it wrought. Lucky for the nation, he won his fight and Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion in the Northwest Ordinances the provision of prohibiting the expansion of slavery ensured the future states, Ohio especially, would remain free and become a bastion of abolitionist sentiment and politics inherited from the Puritan legacy.

Ephraim Cutler, Manasseh’s son, was more willing than his father to settle the “Ohio country” and “la Belle Rivière” (the beautiful river) that was the Ohio. Initially an Edenic-like paradise, the opening of the Northwest Territories demanded the construction of forts and settlements. Marietta, where Ephraim made his life-story, was the earliest and most important of the Ohio settlements that paved the way for westward settlement and a destination for pioneers seeking a new home and life—whether they settled in Marietta or used it as a staging point for further westward travels.

Initially, settler and Indigenous relations were good, as McCullough notes. Eventually, however, the modus vivendi broke down. Native tribes sought to starve the Americans into extermination by hunting all the game and other animals pioneer settlers depended upon in their early settling years. Outright hostilities erupted as American settlers persisted despite the troubles. Despite brutality on both sides, including the embarrassment of St. Claire’s defeat, American forces eventually curtailed the Native American threat with Mad Anthony Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timber. A final showdown between Americans and Native American warriors and the British overlords was decided in the War of 1812 when Ohio became a major, though often forgotten, theater of the war.

What the Cutler family and other New Englanders who settled west brought with them was the spirit of liberty, education, and moral sentiment (especially regarding slavery) that would prove instrumental in the expansion of the so-called “better angels of our nature.” Their commitment to liberty made Ohio hospitable for refugees and conned Europeans (especially French immigrants) who sought liberty and a new life free of Old-World tyranny and prejudice. Even the ardent Protestant New Englanders gave room to their Catholic brothers and sisters to practice their faith without the same kind of prejudice they were often treated with in Protestant countries back in Europe.

Education, too, was a major concern for the Cutlers and their companions. Most of the prominent Ohio settlers were Yale and Harvard graduates. It isn’t surprising then that these men wanted to bring the spirit of learning, art, and science with them as they settled in the Ohio country. Fighting for public education, higher education, and the freedom of the mind was their foremost concern after settlement was secured and Ohio became a state. McCullough gives a great, albeit concise, treatment how the politics of education played out: initially unreceptive to becoming the crowning achievement that many of the early settlers, now in old age, took pride in. Marietta College became the first independent university in Ohio modeled “after New England” and Cincinnati became a city esteemed for its public education system.

But the moral sentiment of the New Englanders who erected the culture of Ohio was their most important contribution. Ephraim not only “intensely cared about education and equal opportunity.” He was “unequivocally against slavery.” The anti-slavery turned abolitionist mentality of the Ohio settlers proved important in the great maelstrom that would divide the country with Southern secession and the roaring guns of the Civil War.

That Ohio would prove important for the preservation of the Union is not without its murky intrigue and conspiracy in its early history. The disgraced former Vice President Aaron Burr, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, ventured west into Ohio after becoming persona non grata back east. He attempted to rally the Northwest territories to independence and form a confederacy of its own for his own grandiose ambitions. Thankfully, Burr’s ambitions as the Cataline of America failed.

In a very readable work, McCullough gives due consideration to an overlooked region and part of American history. We forget that Ohio was once the “beautiful country” and the primary destination for westward settlement. But as America expanded westward the Pacific called. Even some of the sons of the Cutler family sought the American dream in California. Yet we owe them much. The spirit of liberty, education, and abolition they planted in Ohio and the broader Midwest would have a lasting legacy in the growth of the United States. As McCullough, “They accomplished what they had set out to do not for money, not for possessions or fame, but to advance the quality and opportunities of life—to propel as best they could the American ideals.”

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
By David McCullough
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019; 331pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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