There are authors whose fan bases are strong enough to where his or her newest works will be purchased immediately by ardent admirers. Of course, the same concept applies to new albums by musicians and followers of particular actors will be in the earliest lines for admittance to new movies starring such popular cinema icons.
Praises for award-winning historian David McCullough have been sung in this space before. Years ago I’d noted history books, including McCullough-penned tomes, were replacing works of fiction by authors like Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler in my office library.
His acclaimed biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams won Pulitzer Prizes, and an HBO miniseries based on the Adams biography won four Golden Globe awards and 13 Emmys — more than any other miniseries in history.
McCullough’s recent efforts have included an excellent biography of the Wright brothers, as well as an anthology of pragmatic-yet-upbeat speeches titled “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.”
Now comes “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West”(Simon & Schuster).
The basic storyline of McCullough’s latest book concerns how the newly-established United States of America began to spread west, particularly in the region known as the Northwest Territory, which was what remained of British-held territory after the Revolutionary War. The treaty, forged in Paris, resulted in England ceding over 260,000 square miles of what would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. Part of the future state of Minnesota was also included.
America’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787, as promoted by a Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler, opened up this huge section of North America for veterans of the War of Independence. The lush forests and abundant game were irresistible to thousands of citizens of the new nation.
However, instead of a presentation depicting a sprawling panoramic adventure encompassing the entire territory, “The Pioneers” concentrates on the establishment and growth of Marietta, Ohio, located on the Ohio River in the southeast portion of that state.
Granted, a detailed chronicle of the settlement of the Northwest Territory would have been a massive undertaking. Perhaps McCullough was seeking to cite Marietta as a microcosm of what happened across the entire region, but Marietta is less than 150 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The cover illustration shows a flatboat on the Ohio River. That early mode of transportation was critical to the settlements that developed. Flatboats were, according to the text, “a mixture of log cabin, floating barnyard and country grocery.”
The story also transitions to steam-powered watercraft, some of which were built in communities along the Ohio.
The primary personalities from which McCullough garnered his extensive information included the aforementioned Rev. Cutler, his son Ephraim, General Rufus Putnam, an architect named Jospeh Barker and physician Samuel Hildreth. There are plenty of antique illustrations, including portraits, landscape paintings and drawings of buildings.
Among the famous individuals that appear briefly in the narrative are Meriweather Lewis, John Quincy Adams, Tecumseh and Charles Dickens.
The founding families of Marietta had to endure expected hardships, including harsh weather, poor crop seasons and attacks by hostile natives. While the narrative is a commendable chronicle of America’s pioneering spirit in such times, it doesn’t seem to be all that unique.
Perhaps one reason, for me, the McCullough book seems be a bit less interesting than his previous works is because Tallassee has a disproportionate amount of history itself — legendary stories and anecdotes about native history, development of a mill on the falls of the Tallapoosa River and skirmishes during the Civil War.
The determination of the settlers who founded and developed Marietta, Ohio could indeed be exemplary of what happened in the Northwest Territory and elsewhere.
“The Pioneers”is a well-researched, well-written chronicle of a town on the Ohio River. Since it pretty much limits itself to that locale, McCullough’s effort is somewhat “optional” — i.e., whether or not it should be read and whether or not it’s a “keeper” is up to each individual reader.
And thank goodness for that.