Andrew C. Isenberg is the Hall professor of American history at the University of Kansas. His books included “Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough is a master of triumphal tales that celebrate Americans’ personal fortitude and achievements. His most recent book, “The Pioneers,” a history of the settlement of the Northwest Territory in the years after the American Revolution, is very much in that upbeat tradition. McCullough tips his hand in the book’s subtitle: “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.” His main actors are two founders of the Ohio Company of Associates, a group that, beginning in 1787, settled just north of the Ohio River. The Rev. Manasseh Cutler was a Massachusetts polymath who lobbied the federal government to grant land to the Ohio Company. As McCullough paints Cutler, he is much like McCullough himself: a curious, entrepreneurial, Yale-educated, affable country gentleman. Cutler declined to give up his pulpit in New England and settle in Ohio himself; instead, he sent his eldest son. The leader of the settlement was thus the Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam. Putnam was a self-educated war hero who possessed, according to McCullough, “few human flaws.” With these stalwarts leading the settlement of southeastern Ohio, there’s not much suspense to the story. The orderly and industrious town that Putnam founded, Marietta, merely reflected the virtues of its founder. There were a few setbacks along the way (blizzards, failed crops and what McCullough calls the “Indian menace”), but the outcome is so undoubted that McCullough is left to narrate a litany of mundane Northwest Territory “firsts”: the first bridge, first tannery, first cattle drive, first public building made of stone and so forth.
The heroes are so upstanding that, somewhat unexpectedly for a McCullough book, the villains are more compelling. These include Captain Pipe, a Delaware Indian leader who first welcomed Putnam and his followers to Ohio, only to turn against them in the early 1790s and join with Shawnees, Miami and other Native Americans to resist settlement. McCullough devotes a chapter to Aaron Burr, the disgraced former vice president who, less than a year after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, passed through Marietta in 1805 on his way to the Mississippi, where he embarked on a misbegotten scheme to separate some of the western territories from the United States and create an independent republic. In McCullough’s tale, things are simple: Cutler and Putnam’s endeavor to extend U.S. settlement beyond the Ohio River succeeded precisely because they were forthright men of high character; by contrast, the nation-building efforts of treacherous Native Americans such as Pipe or confidence men such as Burr failed because of the men’s base nature.
In short, McCullough narrates the settlement of the trans-Appalachian West as a story of the principled vs. the unprincipled, in which the triumph of virtue is assured. Yet casting the Ohio Company as a vehicle of higher ideals is a feat too difficult even for a writer as skilled as McCullough. The enterprise was riddled with corruption from the outset. Initially, the Ohio Company (whose stockholders, McCullough notes, included Hamilton and the secretary of war, Henry Knox) offered to buy 1.8 million acres of government land for $1 million — well below the minimum government price, set in 1785, of $1 per acre. In the end, the Ohio Company paid even less than that: It cobbled together the purchase price with devalued government securities and by swapping land warrants that had been issued to veterans. Altogether, it paid about 8 cents per acre. To ensure passage in Congress, Cutler, the company’s chief lobbyist, made common cause with another group of investors who bribed lawmakers by making them partners in the land speculation.
McCullough glides over these unpleasantries and focuses instead on Cutler’s role in lobbying to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory. Cutler made clear to Congress, which was tweaking the final draft of the Northwest Ordinance at the same time it was considering the Ohio Company’s proposal, that he and his partners wanted the Northwest Territory closed to slavery. Yet the prohibition of slavery included in the Northwest Ordinance had an incomplete effect on the ground. Slavery persisted in the Northwest Territory for decades; eventually the states formed out of the territory crafted gradual abolition laws. Though McCullough does not mention it, the section of the Northwest Ordinance banning slavery is immediately followed by a fugitive-slave clause stipulating that runaways from slave states would be returned to bondage.
What white Ohio settlers really wanted was to prohibit not only slavery but also free black residents. Beginning with statehood in 1803, Ohio imposed onerous legal disabilities on free blacks: They could not vote, hold office or testify against a white person in court. An 1807 Ohio law required black residents to post $500 bonds guaranteeing their good behavior. The purpose of these laws was apparent to all: to deter free blacks from moving to Ohio and to compel those already there to leave.
McCullough’s treatment of the Native Americans whom settlers encountered in Ohio is equally blinkered. To McCullough, the natives were little more than impediments to progress. He cannot bring himself to say that those whom the settlers dislodged had rights to their lands in Ohio, because to do so would put the morality of the Ohio Company settlement project into question. Instead, he concedes only that Native Americans “considered the Ohio country their rightful, God-granted domain.” But dispossessing them was an inherent part of the Ohio Company enterprise. Ohioans fought a series of wars against Native Americans in the early 1790s, and those who fought received grants of 100 acres in return for their service.
The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.
Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.
Simon & Schuster. 330 pp. $30