“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 331 pages, $30.
David McCullough, now 85 years old, has received virtually every accolade available to an American historian. His biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman were awarded Pulitzer prizes and he was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2006.
His latest book, “The Pioneers,” will be a bestseller and deserves a wide audience but is not destined to be considered among the highest echelon of his oeuvre. The book, despite its title, is not about the covered wagons traversing endless prairies most Nebraskans associate with pioneers.
Rather, the author has chosen to feature a stalwart group of New England émigrés who cleared the dense forests north of the Ohio River and became the first settlers to populate the Northwest Territory ceded to the United States by England after the War of Independence.
The hardships of pioneer life are described by documenting the establishment of Marietta, one of the first communities in what would later become the state of Ohio. As he follows prominent residents of the village from its inception in 1788 until the Civil War, McCullough succeeds in imitating in real life what Thornton Wilder, one of his undergraduate mentors at Yale, accomplished by using the citizens of Grover’s Corners, the fictional hamlet in his classic play, “Our Town”.
This book is replete with memorable and previously unknown men and women who carved a thriving community from a wilderness. As decent, industrious, and eternally optimistic purveyors of the American dream, Manasseh Cutler, Rufus Putnam and their ilk deserve recognition for realizing the value of education and the need to abolish the evil of slavery in the new territory.
A certain lack of focus is the primary shortcoming of McCullough’s latest effort. A digression into an abortive plot against the United States by Aaron Burr, while interesting, seems misplaced since former Vice President Burr was hardly a pioneer.
Also, the indigenous Native American tribes who were displaced by the influx of Europeans are only mentioned in passing. They are allotted a single page which almost seems an afterthought, although an argument can be made that they had also been pioneers from Asia, albeit several thousand years earlier.
One final, previously unknown tidbit for this Nebraskan is that Ohio University in nearby Athens, founded by Manasseh Cutler, became the first university chartered by Congress and the eighth oldest university in the United States. Ohio University, of course, sent Nebraska a basketball coach, Danny Nee, and now serves as home to football coach Frank Solich.