America Didn’t Just Happen; These Are Some of the People Who Made It What It Is

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The Pioneers:  The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster
May 2019
352 pages

David McCullough has written another superb history, The Pioneers. Admittedly, it is not in the same class as his two magisterial biographies, Truman and John Adams, which would be difficult to match. But it is a wonderful recounting of a story largely unknown to most Americans – the settling of the Northwest Territory.

And the Northwest Territory does not mean that the book is about Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. In fact, the Northwest Territory was the immense tract of land that was ceded to the American colonies by Great Britain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Revolutionary War. The Northwest Territory was the land to the northwest of the Ohio River that contained what eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The area is greater than that of France, and it doubled the size of the United States.

In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was signed into law by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States. This was the Congress that met periodically between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1781 and the commencement of the federal government created by the United States Constitution in 1788. (As is often forgotten, the Constitution was only ratified after most of the Founding Fathers, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay – authors of the Federalist Papers – stumped for it and after much debate in the various former colonies.) The Northwest Ordinance was the law that established how this immense new territory was to be settled and governed. It was and is a brilliant piece of legislation.

It was no easy task to get the Northwest Ordinance passed into law. The man who was most responsible for its passage was a Puritan clergyman from Massachusetts, Manasseh Cutler. Cutler was a polymath. Graduating from Yale with honors in 1765, he was offered the pulpit of a church in Ipswich, a small town northeast of Boston, at the age of 29. He was not only a Congregational minister; he was also a qualified doctor of law and medicine and had, at one time or another, practiced both. He also established a small boarding school for boys in Ipswich to supplement his meager income as a pastor. His intellectual interests knew few bounds, as he loved studying science, and he wrote the first treatise on the classification of the flora of New England, studying some 350 species. It was Cutler, who, as an agent of the Ohio Company (made up largely of veteran officers in the Continental Army), went to New York to negotiate with Congress the purchase of one and half million acres near the Ohio River.

Though acting as an agent for the Ohio Company, Cutler and his associates wanted to ensure that the Northwest Ordinance included some foundational principles, without which they would not purchase the land nor travel west from New England to settle it. The Northwest Ordinance must stipulate, Cutler argued, that there would be absolute freedom of religion throughout the whole territory. Moreover, education must play a vital role in the Northwest Territory. The exact wording in the Ordinance is as follows:  “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was to be no slavery; it was to be excluded throughout the entire Northwest Territory. As McCullough writes, “The Northwest Ordinance was designed to guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life.”

Getting legislation embodying these cardinal principles through Congress was no easy matter. But Reverend Cutler, during a period of several months in the summer of 1787, always attired in his clerical black, made the rounds of many of the Founding Fathers including Henry Knox, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Mason, Charles Pinckney, and Benjamin Franklin. Outgoing, courteous, and convincing, Cutler was even prepared to depart New York without a satisfactory agreement, but in the end, he managed to persuade the Congress to enact the Northwest Ordinance, embodying the cardinal principles of freedom of religion, the importance of education, and the exclusion of slavery. He was a remarkable man.

Parenthetically, it is important to point out that at a time when the New York Times is running a series of essays proclaiming that slavery has been and continues to be the DNA of this country beginning in 1619, The Pioneers is a critical reminder to the America-hating left that there were large parts of this country, containing a majority of the population, untouched by slavery. These same people fought slavery tooth and nail during the Civil War —  and before, when the Underground Railroad ran right through states that emerged from the Northwest Territory.

Once the Northwest Ordinance was signed, the first pioneers – consisting of 48 New England men including surveyors, carpenters, boat builders, common laborers, and a blacksmith – departed for Ohio in December 1787. At the age of 49, General Rufus Putnam, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, departed for Ohio on the last day of the year. He came to be a leader of this first group of settlers who founded Marietta, Ohio at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. (Interestingly the settlers chose the name Marietta as a tribute to Marie Antoinette, who was instrumental in persuading her husband, King Louis XVI, to ally France with the colonies during the Revolutionary War.)

Much of the book describes the incredible hardships the settlers faced to establish a thriving town on the banks of the Ohio. When imagining how the pioneers settled the West, one generally thinks of the country west of the Mississippi. But the troubles and trials the Ohio settlers encountered were every bit as trying as what the farther-west pioneers found a half a century later.

Not the least of their troubles were the tribes of native Americans who fiercely resisted the encroachment of the white settlers. Prompted by numerous Indian attacks on the settlers, President George Washington sent an army led by General Arthur St. Clair to vanquish the eight or more Indian tribes led by Miami war chief Little Turtle and Shawnee war chief Blue Jacket. In all, the native force totaled at least 1,000 men. The army led by St. Clair was a shamble with inexperienced recruits, lack of discipline, and poor intelligence and knowledge of fighting on the frontier. In the Battle of the Wabash (otherwise known as St. Clair’s Defeat) in November 1791, more than three-quarters of the 1400 Americans were killed or wounded. The Indians lost no more than 21 killed and 40 wounded. It was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army in its history and took place just three years after the first settlers arrived in Ohio.

When President Washington learned of the defeat, he was furious at the incompetence of the officers in charge. The government then raised another army — this time led by a highly experienced and well-qualified general, “Mad Anthony” Wayne. General Anthony, who was anything but “mad,” inflicted a devastating defeat on the Indian tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the Indian Wars in Ohio, resulting in the Indian Tribes withdrawing to the west and north.

Much of McCullough’s history recounts the slow, hard but steady growth of towns and ultimately cities in Ohio. Within several decades, free public schools (supported by broad taxation of the citizens) were established, as were colleges and universities. Churches were everywhere. The steamboat arrived on the Ohio River in 1811 – only four years after it made its maiden run on the Hudson River. McCullough quotes Amasa Walker, a Boston businessman and future congressman from Massachusetts, writing in 1839 in the Mercantile Journal about the town of Marietta:

“Let no New England man ever visit the valley of Ohio, without spending at least one day in Marietta. It will do his heart good. He will find a charming town, so like the beautiful towns of his native land, that he will feel happy and at home. … He will see that already accomplished which in Europe would require centuries; society in a high state of perfection, institutions established on a firm basis, and everything moving on in harmony and prosperity.”

These pioneers were able to build a society and culture which celebrated the important elements of the American way of life:  liberty, education, and the ability to worship God freely. We, living in this toxic culture with its lack of civility and tawdriness at every remove, need to take a lesson from these great pioneers who built communities of people grateful for the foundation stones that built this land, which Abraham Lincoln called “this last best hope of earth.”


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $4.2 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.