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David McCullough, The Pioneers; The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019), 331pp.David McCullough, The Pioneers; The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019), 331pp.

At the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the American Revolutionary War, one of the concessions made by the British was to relinquish all control of the "Northwest Territory" to the newly formed United States. That "howling wilderness" north and west of the Ohio River doubled the size of the United States overnight. Bigger than France, it contained what would become the five states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. At the time, though, the "Ohio Country" did not contain a single road, town, church, school, or store. David McCullough's newest book describes how this Northwest Territory was settled.

The story begins four years after the Treaty of Paris. On June 24, 1787, a pastor and polymath named Manasseh Cutler left Massachusetts all alone in his horse and buggy. Traveling about 30 miles a day, he arrived in Philadelphia, where on July 13 he negotiated with the Continental Congress (there was no president yet) one of the most important legislative acts in American history, the "Northwest Ordinance." The new ordinance guaranteed the freedom of religion, promised free and universal education, and strictly prohibited slavery. Five months later, on December 3, forty-eight pioneers set out for the 700-mile journey to the headwaters of the Ohio River. They eventually arrived on the banks of the Ohio River at what would later be called Marietta, the epicenter of the settlement of the entire region.

McCullough tells this story primarily through the experiences of five major characters. The difficulties, dangers, and privations that those first pioneers endured were legendary, not the least of which was their relationship with the many Native American tribes. By the turn of the nineteenth century, in the single decade 1800 to 1810, the population of Ohio skyrocketed from 45,365 to 230,760. By 1815 Cincinnati was the fastest growing city in America. The advent of steam power meant that boats could travel an astonishing one hundred miles a day up and down the Ohio River. By that time, the likes of Charles Dickens made their own trips to the "Ohio Country" to see the miracle of the newly settled Midwest.

The master historian McCullough (born 1933) has won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his previous work. When I read The Pioneers, it enjoyed a long ride on the NYT best-seller list.

Dan Clendenin:

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