Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Pioneers - David McCoullough

Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough could always be relied upon to tell a terrific story while presenting the reader with a good read. With eleven major titles to his credit, he managed to pick up a couple of Pultizer Prizes, a National Book Award, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also narrated some of Ken Burns' PBS historical series, and kept busy with freelance writing. McCullough was a great writer who kept his readers' attention with lively prose that keeps the reader with him to the end. The Pioneers, published in 2019, two years before his death at age 89, showed he had lost none of his narrative skill. 

The Pioneers opens in Massachusetts around the end of the Revolutionary War, in June of 1787. The book focuses on the lives of Manasseh Cutler pastor of the First Congregational Church in Ipswich and Rufus Putnam, who fought with Washington during the Revolution, who began to look westward.  They helped lead the move westward from New England at a time when, having won The Revolution, the United States suddenly found itself as a country hugging its Atlantic coastline and having won control of millions of acres west of the original states, most of which was unexplored wilderness as far as they were concerned. He managed to commit Congress and President Washington to support a trip West with Revolutionary War General Rufus Putnam. The land they were headed for was the vast Ohio valley, west of Pennsylvania and across the Muskingum River, hundreds of thousands of acres of vast, mature woodlands inhabited only by a variety of Indian tribes. Forty-eight men set off for the Ohio River in the Winter of 1788.

Along the way, the first company encountered rough or nonexistent roads, cold winter hardships, and dense wilderness that none of them had ever encountered before. They had to break a trail across western Pennsylvania, cutting their way through deep forests and building rafts to cross rivers or to use them for transportation. Overcoming great hardships, the men reached the Marietta River separating western Pennsylvania from the Ohio Territory, built rafts to travel down-river, and chose to settle near what became Marietta, OH. They found the land filled with huge trees that had never heard the sound of an axe, as well as plenty of game for food. These men were determined to maintain Ohio as a non-slave territory, as the issues leading to the Civil War were already lively concerns. On their next trip West, they were joined by family members and more people seeking land and riches. 

Soon they were able to establish a ship-building center based on the availability of large timber. Women came to join their spouses, and both shipping and trade on the rivers flourished. The rest of the book contains lively descriptions of the development of communities, the building of churches, and, possibly the most important,  the establishment of schools and colleges in an area previously devoid of any formal education. As the Ohio territory grew in population and wealth, many of the heroes of the American Revolution came there to visit, and newer political figures came to marvel at the areas progress and promise. 

David McCullough

The Pioneers by David McCollough is top of the shelf history reading for anyone interested in American History, the opening of the West, the resistance to the spread of slavery, or simply a good story-teller bringing American History to life. I bought the book as a used book from, which is one of my go-to sources for good reading at a reasonable price. 

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