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The Pioneers: Book Review

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019), David McCullough. The tells the early story of the Northwest Territory, focusing on the founding of the first settlement, Marietta, Ohio and the major people involved. This is actually a great story of American exceptionalism told as the local level: dedicated men trying to make frontier life great. "The New Englanders who first settled there had come with habits of industry, respect for order, and strict subordination to law, and clearly that outlook still prevailed" (p. 125). One legendary character of this era was John Chapman, later known as "Johnny Appleseed," wondering almost entirely in Ohio (p. 150).

Like most of the early colonies, it started as a joint stock company to make money mainly from land speculation. Manasseh Cutler did much of the work to get legislation passed to create the Northwest Territory (he was an agent, because this was before lobbyists) and the joint stock company (Ohio Company of Associates) to settle what became Ohio. The Northwest Ordinance could be considered a document to explain the "American way of life" (p. 13). As a New Englander, Cutler insisted there would be no slavery and was a stickler for legal formalities. General Rufus Putnam led the first group of pioneers to what became the town of Marietta. (Cutler and Putnam each received four shares, amounting to about 4,700 acres of land.) Cutler later was elected to Congress as a Federalist. [Martha Washington viewed: "the election of Jefferson, whom she considered one of the most detestable of mankind and the greatest misfortune our country had ever experienced" (p. 141). The book focuses on the first 50 or so years of Marietta, but also considers broad issues that affected both the five states that were part of the Northwest Territory and the US in general.

[Cutler had dealings with Willian Duer, a wealthy speculator and member of the Continental Congress. Duer would be bankrupt in a bank speculation gone wrong based on insider information (p. 17).] Many member of Congress including Duer were stockholders in the Ohio Company, of questionable ethics but not illegal at the time. Duer originated the Scioto Company and became secretary of the Board of Treasury. French settlers bought Scioto land, but were defrauded. The Ohio Company bought 1.5 million acres and the Scioto Company 3.5 million, for a combined $3.5 million. But the Scioto deal was not completed; it owned no land and both Scioto and Duer failed--he went to debtor's prison. The defrauded French later acquired land from the Ohio Company in what became Scioto County.

Aaron Burr was the founding villain that made his way to Marietta after he killed Hamilton. Burr was attempting to raise money and an army to cause a revolt, perhaps of western states breaking off from the US, perhaps invading Mexico to make Burr emperor. The wealthy Blennerhassets family lived nearby and apparently agreed to fund Burr's scheme (Chapter 6, p. 151). In 1806 Burr had 15 flatboats built to sail down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. James Wilkinson, commanding general, governor of Louisiana Territory and spy for Spain (he notified Spain of the Lewis and Clarke expedition) also was in contact with Burr. Burr and Blennerhassets both were arrested and charged with treason, but since they had carried out no plot were released.

In 1787 48 people migrated to the Ohio Territory, settling in what became Marietta (not "Putnam's Paradise). General Arthur St. Clair became the first governor of the Northwest Territory, moving his office to what became Cincinnati. A general store was soon built with gallons of whiskey in inventory. Things went relatively well, but over the years, deaths, floods, disease, and Indian wars took their toll. Partly because the people adapted as necessary: "The blacksmith was gunsmith, farrier, coppersmith, millwright, machinist, and surgeon general " (p. 70). St. Clair suffered the worst defeat to Indians up to that time, called the St Clair Defeat, losing over 1,000. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne was sent to replace St. Clair and won a decisive victory at the battle of Fallen Timbers.

Ephraim Cutler, one of Manasseh's sons, migrated to Marietta and became a leading citizen and politician (serving in the state legislature and a judge without pay for much of his life. He would take the lead to charter a local state university, Ohio University. Ohio became the 17th state in 1803. Jefferson's 1807 Embargo Act put Marietta and the rest of America, especially New England ports, in depression, with no ability to export goods. Physician Samuel Hildreth moved to Marietta and became a prominent citizen as an outstanding doctor, scientist and explorer, and became the youngest member of Ohio's House of Representatives (Chapter 7). He wrote a Pioneer History on early settlement.

Robert Fulton's steamship sailed in 1807, soon steamboats went up the Ohio. Flood, an earthquake and the War of 1812 followed. After the war, optimism and western migration followed; Indiana and Illinois soon became states. Columbus became the new capital of Ohio. Schools were local creations, often requiring fees to send students; people did not like taxes. A state school tax was passed in 1825. Cincinnati became a center for meatpacking, breweries, distilleries, boat works, etc. The Removal Bill of 1830 eliminated Indians from Ohio.

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