Accounts of the early settlers of America often tend to evoke fascination among history buffs. The Pioneers, a book written by popular historian and author David McCullough, explores the lives of people who became some of the first settlers in the region that is now Ohio.
McCullough presents the book as a story of inspiration, showing us what can happen when good people are allowed to run a place on their own. Among the several characters in the book, Rev. Manasseh Cutler is most prominent. A pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Cutler is described as someone with “boundless intellectual curiosity.”
Cutler and his supporters wanted the region to be free from slavery. In 1787, the historical “Northwest Ordinance” was passed that banned slavery in the territory. It also encouraged setting aside land to build schools. In 1802, Cutler’s son Ephraim cast the deciding vote that banned slavery in the state of Ohio. Freedom of religion was also enshrined into law. Ohio University was founded in 1804.
McCullough is all praise for the progressive views of the early settlers that led to the ban on slavery. He calls the Northwest Ordinance equal to the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta due to its assertion to uphold individual rights. Interestingly, most of the stories in The Pioneers are focused on male characters. The lives of female settlers are rarely covered. And McCullough has a good explanation for it.
“In contrast to the many surviving letters and journals by the men who came west, first-person accounts by the pioneer women are disappointingly scarce, and even they record little of the struggles and hardships faced. There was, it would seem, widespread reluctance on the part of women to subject those they loved back home to any of their troubles or fears or regrets,” he says in the book (NPR).
The book has come under heavy criticism for the way it portrays Native Americans. A few people were taken aback by McCullough’s description of an event when the settlers were surrounded by the natives. He writes that the only hope for the settlers was in the “savages” plundering the camp and leaving them unharmed.
“It’s just sickening. He hits every single stereotype. He hits the wilderness stereotype — that no one was there. He hits the drunkenness stereotype… He hits the vanishing race stereotype. That’s what the pioneers used to justify in stealing the land,” Brett Chapman, a descendant of White Eagle, a Ponca chief, said to AP News.
McCullough is also accused of downplaying the suffering of Native Americans. For instance, the passing of the “Northwest Ordinance” declared that good faith shall be observed with the Indians. However, most of the natives refused to recognize the land treaties as they nullified their rights. In 1795, the Treaty of Greenville was passed which stipulated the Indians were to move out from the north and west of Ohio. The author presents the treaty as having ended the conflict between natives and settlers. But this is far from true. Many more conflicts took place between both groups and the natives continued to lose their lands for several more years.