“The Pioneers – The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the America Ideal West”

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, publisher, 2019

Having read other books by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, this, his latest, got my attention. To my surprise, the inside flap’s mention of the Northwest Territory is not our Pacific Northwest, but the 1700’s wilderness of the empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indian, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

McCullough writes of a Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler who was instrumental in opening that vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement.  Included in this Northwest ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. 

The author tells the story through five major characters who with their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as trees of a size never imagined, floods, fires, wolves, bears, even an earthquake, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometime hostile relationship with the native people. They let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

The book includes early maps of the territory, several pages of color and black and white photos/images with copious notes complementing each of the ten chapters divided into three parts stretching from the years 1787 to 1863.  Each chapter is subdivided by Roman numeral and then sectioned emphasizing major and minor themes, making it easy to pause, pick up and read again.

Drawn in great part from a rare and little-known collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, “The Pioneers”, as I agree with the publisher, is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition, courage, and sense of high purpose led them to remarkable accomplishments.

You don’t have to be a historian to enjoy this book.  My appreciation for those who came before us has grown far deeper by reading this truly American experience.

David Leestma