The Pioneers | David McCullough

Summary of: The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
By: David McCullough


Journey through history and experience the spirit of American pioneers in ‘The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West’, by David McCullough. This gripping narrative follows the lives of esteemed figures such as Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam, who played pivotal roles in creating policies and shaping the region now known as the Northwest Territory. Discover how the 1787 Northwest Ordinance forged a society characterized by principles of liberty, education, and opportunity, along with the consequential abolition of slavery in the region.

The Pioneer for a Slave-Free Ohio

In 1787, Manasseh Cutler, a pastor, lawyer, and doctor, shaped the future of the new Ohio territory by pushing for the Northwest Ordinance’s passage, which would ban slavery. Despite having no experience in frontier life, he brought his extensive knowledge of science and his passion to explore. Cutler corresponded with scientists in the US and Europe, wrote the first primer on New England’s flora, and even brought a collection cabinet to gather plant samples during his journey to New York. His determination to ban slavery impacted his own sons and ensured a free Ohio.

Settling the Northwest Territory

In 1786, Revolutionary War veterans met to explore and settle the Northwest Territory, a vast region north and west of the Ohio River that included no legal settlements but indigenous tribes. Although dangerous, the promise of land ownership drew settlers. However, the fact that the region was to have no slavery was almost unimaginable. The book details the risks and rewards of immigrating West, including the slaughter of Delaware Indians and the murder of Colonel William Crawford.

The Ohio Company’s Northwest Ordinance

In 1786, General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War hero, proposed granting veterans land in Ohio to establish a settlement. With Putnam, Manasseh Cutler created the Ohio Company to negotiate land purchase from Congress. The Northwest Ordinance forbade slavery, and in 1787, Congress passed the Ordinance and granted five million acres for $3.5 million. The agreement set up a government system and prioritized creating an educational system, including a university, before any settlement.

Forts and Treaties

As settlers arrived in Ohio, they built Fort Harmar for protection against chaotic squatters. Putnam designed a larger fort, Campus Martius, to accommodate the growing settlement and preserve the ancient nearby “Great Mound”. While some local tribes were friendly, others wanted to block settlement of lands north of the Ohio River. The Americans hoped modest payments could enable them to settle without conflict, but the natives massacred wild game during treaty discussions, and the treaty signed was hollow, providing the settlers with no greater security.

In the late 1700s, settlers arrived in Ohio, building a new life for themselves while also facing the inherent dangers of starting a new community in unfamiliar territory. To ensure their safety, the pioneers built Fort Harmar under the leadership of Josiah Harmar. However, rather than protection from indigenous tribes, the fort aimed to safeguard against chaotic illegal squatters who had little interest in organized government and revealed genocidal hatred towards Native Americans. While natives typically welcomed newcomers, their friendliness waned as the settlers grew in number.

As the settlement expanded, Fort Harmar proved too small to accommodate the community’s growing safety needs. Putnam recognized the need for a larger fort and designed Campus Martius. It could house up to 864 people and even had a wharf. In designing the new structure, Putnam preserved the ancient nearby “Great Mound,” an enigmatic earthwork that fascinated him. Archeologists discovered that it was constructed over 2,000 years ago by the Ohio Hopewell culture.

Putnam hoped to establish a treaty with the natives. Some tribes were friendly, but others sought to block the settlement of lands north of the Ohio River. During treaty discussions, the native representatives massacred as much wild game as they could, apparently with the intention of starving the settlers out. The treaty signed on January 9, 1789, was inadequate, providing no greater security. It was evident that the scale at which the settlers were arriving and constructing dwellings alarmed the indigenous people, who rejected the notion that anyone could own land. By highlighting the settlers’ haphazard arrival in Ohio and their eventual interactions with the natives, this book offers a fascinating glimpse of early American history.

The Tragic Massacre at Big Bottom

In the late 1790s, Rufus Putnam warned against building a settlement at Big Bottom and his fears came true when a group of natives brutally attacked and killed 14 settlers. Putnam had warned President George Washington that the natives had not suffered enough to seek peace, and he hoped the federal government would provide protection. A previous ambush had routed 1,500 soldiers. The settlers at Big Bottom were young and eager, failing to take proper precautions such as posting guards and creating a defense strategy. A group of Delawares and Wyandots noticed the settlement and massacred the settlers during dinner, piling the bodies in the blockhouse and setting it ablaze. Despite the tragedy, the noble objective of higher education championed by pioneers like Putnam and Manasseh Cutler remained significant.

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