The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was one of the most important acts of Congress in our history and crucial to an orderly settlement of the American West. It began taking shape on March 1, 1786, when Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam convened a meeting at the Bunch-of-Grapes tavern in Boston. The men there devised an ambitious plan to guarantee what would later be known as the American way of life. Veterans would be provided property in the Ohio country as payment for their military services. The conditions of this plan would allow freedom of religion and education but wouldn’t allow slavery. From this meeting, the Ohio Company was formed, coupling the group’s idealism with land speculation.
In his absorbing new book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, bestselling author and most readable of historians David McCullough brings to life the story of the courageous men and women who dealt with many hard realities to found the city that became Marietta, Ohio. Letters, diaries, journals and other primary sources give us an intimate portrait of the community. McCullough focuses on five men, quite different from each other, who were instrumental to the venture’s success. Women were responsible for many things, as well, but since they recorded little of their hardships, we have few of their first-person accounts.
Putnam did much of the planning for the first Ohio Company group to settle in the West, and he was their leader. Manasseh Cutler didn’t move to Marietta himself, but his son Ephraim did, and he and Putnam were personally responsible for prohibiting slavery in the new state of Ohio. Joseph Barker, a skilled carpenter, became a notable architect, and Dr. Samuel Hildreth was a pathbreaking physician and an important historian of Marietta.
There’s so much more, including visits from Marquis de Lafayette and John Quincy Adams. And what about Aaron Burr’s trips to the area, the first less than a year after he killed Alexander Hamilton? McCullough has again worked his narrative magic and helped us to better understand those who came before us.