Book Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal WestThe Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McCullough covers a little known window of American history with THE PIONEERS. Set in the Northwest Territory, the area that would one day make up the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the book tells of the ordinance formed to allow settling in the lands ceded by the British at the end of the Revolution, and how it grew over the following decades.

With the ordnance ratified by the architects of the Constitution and the very country, we then are shown the difficulties of even reaching the site of the first settlement, Marietta, in 1788, as well as the arduous work of hacking a town out of the then dense forest. McCullough tells the story through the eyes of five principle characters, with Ephraim Cutler being the one that stood out most to me. Through their accounts we see what is today Marietta, Ohio, go from a simple shack settlement, to a town with its own local shipbuilding industry, the arrival of steam power, and its continued growth through the admittance of Ohio as a state.

I had a bit more trouble getting through this book than any of McCullough’s other works. I normally find his prose like that of a novelist, but some of that smoothness was missing here. I also had trouble latching onto any single of the characters as a good point of view for the story; at the end, Ephraim Cutler did come to be the most common through-line of the work, but it did take some time for that to become apparent.

Overall, I did enjoy THE PIONEERS. Had it been written by anyone other than McCullough, I wouldn’t have had even the small qualm about the author’s voice (his book on the Johnston Flood is one of my favorite pieces of writing, fact or fiction). I’ve come to love McCullough’s voice, and I unfairly hold him to a higher standard than other historians. That aside, the amount of detail and study given to such an obscure bit of American history is well worth the read and I recommend it.

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