No Man’s Land

Historians have largely discarded the lie that the “frontier” was an empty Eden waiting for American expansion—but not David McCullough.

Photo illustration for The Pioneers' book cover.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Simon & Schuster.

When the title of popular-history stalwart David McCullough’s latest book—The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West—was first announced, history Twitter heaved a collective sigh. American historians who take a critical approach to the past have been struggling to strip the glamour from the myth of the “frontier” for decades now. The words “heroic” and “American ideal,” when used unironically in connection with westward expansion, are, frankly, a little bit triggering: They reek of the 19th-century ideology of Manifest Destiny.

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

True to the book’s title, the motives of The Pioneers’ main characters—organizers of the Ohio Company of Associates, a group that bought about 1.5 million acres of land north of the Ohio River in 1787, and their sons and successors—are always represented as unquestionably sterling. With a wave of the authorial hand, McCullough dismisses the money at the heart of the matter: “That the Ohio Company was also, apart from its noble intentions, a venture in land speculation went without saying.” Although the broader context here—the feverish speculation elite Americans engaged in after the Revolutionary War; the way that matters of government and business constantly overlapped, as these elites pulled strings to make sure they came out of the frenzy of organization and expansion with the best advantage—is hardly tangential to the story, McCullough is only interested in finding the good in these men.

Native peoples hover around the edges of the first section of the book, a cartoonishly threatening presence to the good New England transplants who founded the town of Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River in 1788. They appear mysteriously and do irrational things; the settlers are never quite clear what they want (though the answer should be obvious). We get little flashes of evidence, from the settlers’ point of view, that are paranoid, entitled, and fearful. The Delaware camped across the river from the settlement have “hellish Pow-wows” that keep settlers awake: “I have no doubt in my mind that Psalmody had its origin in heaven,” settler John May wrote, “and my faith is as strong that the music of these savages was first taught in hell.” In a letter, leader Rufus Putnam calls the Mingo, Shawnee, and Cherokee “a set of thievish murdering rascals.” (Putnam admires the long-dead Hopewell builders of the mounds in Marietta, though; as McCullough ceaselessly reminds us, these founders were “intellectually curious.”)

In late 1788, delegations from the Iroquois Six Nations confederacy, the Delaware, Wyandot, Ottawa, and other tribes met with the settlers at Fort Harmar, near Marietta. “The American government hoped that by a modest payment for the cessions, settlement could continue north of the Ohio without violence,” McCullough writes. When the assembled Native group thought they wouldn’t get “what they wanted” (as McCullough describes it), the settlers accused them of killing all the game within a radius of 20 miles: “A settler later wrote that the natives said they meant to….‘starve out every white face north of the Ohio.’ ” “Sounds smart,” I wrote in the margin of my review copy, but McCullough isn’t interested in Native strategy except insofar as it threatens his pioneers. In taking a side, narratively speaking, McCullough makes sure their narrow perspective on the matter also becomes ours.

A passage describing the 1791 Wyandot and Delaware attack on settlers at a settlement called Big Bottom, 30 miles from Marietta, is full of details about Native atrocities. Then, in the summer of 1791, McCullough writes, the son of one settler who’s killed in another attack was “unable to resist the opportunity to gratify his revenge” and “not only shot and killed an Indian but cut off his head, fixed it to the end of a pole, and marched it back to the stockade.” This episode gets framed as an aberration, with another settler later recalling the event: “Some whites are more savage than the Indians.”

This spotty account of small-scale conflicts between the two groups all but ignores all the history of white-Native contact in the region.* The settlers in Marietta might have felt like they were isolated, but, contrary to the evidence in this book, they weren’t living outside of history.

The marketing material for The Pioneers stresses the idea that people won’t have “heard of” the main characters and episodes in this book, and that this “unknown” quality makes the book interesting. But the real “people we haven’t heard of” are the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, and other Native peoples who, at the beginning of The Pioneers’ narrative action, had already weathered decades of white incursion, come together in confederacies and alliances, moved from place to place, and fiercely debated among themselves what was to be done.

Jeffrey Ostler’s Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas—an excellent first installment of what will be a two-part history, also out this month—shows how in the decades before the establishment of the settlement at Marietta, the Native peoples of the northeast viewed the American Revolution with considerable trepidation, correctly foreseeing that Americans would be far more aggressive in their westward expansion than the British. In 1787, Samson Occom, a Mohegan Christian Ostler quotes on the matter, wrote that the American Revolution “has been the most d[e]structive to poor Indians of any wars that ever … happened in my day.” “Never before had Europeans destroyed so many Indian towns over such a wide area as Americans did during their war to obtain independence from Britain,” Ostler writes.

But little of this very recent history of violence makes it into McCullough’s narrative. By spring 1793, the settlers in his book feel somewhat better about the threat from Natives, with the news of the formation of an army under Gen. Anthony Wayne, “to settle the threat of Indian attacks once and for all” (McCullough writes). With another flourish of McCullough’s pen, after the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the Native peoples in the book fade west—except for the warrior Tecumseh, who’s defeated in 1813 and “his following dispersed.” The only traces left, in McCullough’s telling, are place names: Chillicothe, Cuyahoga, Ohio.

McCullough loves the fact that these settlers came from New England and credits that origin with laying the groundwork for many of the ideals he so admires. He extensively celebrates the fact that both the Northwest Ordinance and the Ohio Constitution prohibited slavery in the state. And yes, Ohio did boast the abolitionist hotbed of Oberlin and was the first free-state stop on the Underground Railroad. But the state was no friend to black people. (No state, before the Civil War, really was!) Ohio had Black Laws, passed in 1804 and 1807, which meant that entering black visitors had to find at least two people who would promise to pay $500 to guarantee against any bad behavior while the visitor was in the state—an astronomical amount at the time, even if this law was rarely enforced.* Although McCullough sings the praises of the Ordinance’s explicit promotion of education and schooling (“extraordinary,” he writes), throughout the 19th century the state insisted on segregating public schools. In the 1830s and 1840s, Ohio citizens in two towns even destroyed private schools set up for black children.

Traditionalists will be annoyed at my pointing out these matters of exclusion and elision; they will want histories of pioneers to focus on their work ethic and commitment, instead. But even the hard work the settlers do, which is amply documented by McCullough, deserves a critical look from the vantage point of a 21st-century reader living on a planet that is feeling the effects of a few centuries of endless and rapacious growth. When the pioneers’ galley first tied up at the site of the future settlement at Marietta, according to lore, young settler Jervis Cutler was the first to jump ashore; he “grabbed an axe and cut down the first tree, which … was a buckeye.” From that point on, these pioneers are constantly cutting down huge trees. They fish beasts out of the river; “passenger pigeons were in unimaginable abundance.” This is an Edenic view of a paradise that’s about to get wrecked. “Spit on your hands and take a fresh holt,” is the epigraph to a chapter called “Difficult Times.”

McCullough sees the pioneers’ fervent tree-cutting and forest-clearing as testament to their persistence, approvingly quoting an “old Ohio Valley poem”:

The axe, in stalwart hands, with steadfast stroke,

The savage echoes of the forest woke,

And, one by one, breaking the world-old spell,

The hardy trees, long crashing, with thunder fell.

This poem embodies another “pioneer attitude”—the idea that the land was prehistoric, suspended in stasis, before the arrival of white people, and needed to be properly brought into production by the kind of work only “stalwart” settlers could do. This idea, repeated over centuries, aided Manifest Destiny, even as Native settlements like the Miami town of Kekionga boasted cornfields, gardens, and cattle herds. McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes—and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.

We’re always told that the virtue of the popular history book is that it’s “a good story”—that it has narrative value academic history lacks. I disagree with the idea, having read many academic history books that were full of good stories, as well as popular histories that manage to combine critical analysis and storytelling—William Hogeland’s book about this same place and time period, which explores Native strategy in detail and explains how Gen. Anthony Wayne “cleared the way” for settlers by waging war on Native tribes in the 1790s, is a good example. (Check Hogeland’s Twitter for an entertaining ongoing review of the McCullough book. He doesn’t like it much, either.)

This book shows exactly why “popular” histories aren’t always narratively satisfying. When you commit yourself to celebrating a group of people—to repeating platitudes they wrote about each other and not looking at outlying evidence too carefully—things get boring quickly. McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.” In account after account, platitudes are reported as fact; one settler writes that another family is “highly respected, for their moral worth and standing,” and this—the kind of boilerplate thing any genteel 19th-century American might write about another—makes it into the book, somehow.

Even when McCullough does include interesting evidence, the kind that contradicts his hagiography a little, he seems utterly resistant to analyzing it. When Ephraim Cutler lands in Marietta in 1795, he observes that something is a little off. The years of “Indian troubles” and confinement had “broken up former fixed habits of industry, and led to a fondness for sports and special meetings where drinking was practiced”—but it’s OK, somehow, McCullough concludes, because “those New Englanders who had first settled there had come with habits of industry, respect for order, and strict subordination to law.”

No, please! Tell me about those years in the fort when the drunken settlers played games. Tell me about exactly how the settlement got “back on track.” Tell me more about the ones who left Marietta before a year was up, penniless. Anything but this straight story of admirable men.

Correction, May 17, 2019: This piece originally alleged that McCullough’s book did not mention a 1782 massacre of Christian Delaware at Gnadenhutten, Ohio. In fact, the book does. Additionally, Gnadenhutten is north of Marietta, not south, as the piece originally stated. This piece also originally misstated that Ephraim Cutler served in the Ohio Legislature when it passed its Black Laws.