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New Look At Ohio History By David McCullough

The American history author, David McCullough hunkered down in Marietta Ohio, on the Ohio River, to write about the lesser-known pioneers who first settled the Northwest Territory.

Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Pioneer Association of Washington County
Meeting of the Pioneer Association in Marietta in 1870. Augustus Stone, one of the sons of my pioneer family, would be here. Photo from Washington County Public Library

Anyone with ancestors in early Ohio will find this book helpful. In fact, it’s way of showing how national events affect individual families could be useful to anyone who wants to understand their ancestors’ lives between 1788 and the early 1800s.

McCullough has chosen to focus on one town–Marietta–and a handful of the leaders who made the settlement possible. General Rufus Putnam, who led fellow veterans of the Revolution westward and meticulously planned the “New England on the Ohio” town takes main stage, of course.

But McCullough also gives mini-biographies of lesser known figures who were essential to the founding of Marietta. Manasseh Cutler, a New England preacher who tirelessly campaigned for federal support of the Northwest settlement and against slavery; his son, Ephraim Cutler who settled in Ohio and held important positions; General Tupper, another Revolutionary War veteran; Joseph Barker, builder responsible for many of the homes on land and boats on the river; and Samuel Hildreth, Physician.

These men are very interesting, however, rather than spend a chapter on the shenanigans of Aaron Burr, and another on a visit by John Quincy Adams, I wish that he had spent more time on the “ordinary” people rather than only on the leaders. Of course it is hard to see ANY of the pioneers who took the chances they took to settle this new land as “ordinary.” As intriguing as Aaron Burr is and as much as I admire John Quincy Adams, their connection to the Northwest Territory was tenuous.

The Challenges

A catalogue of problems faced by the pioneers, makes me wonder if I would have left civilized New England for that unknown territory. We are reminded, however, that after the Revolution, the new country’s economy took a dive and since few of the soldiers ever received pay, the heroes of the Revolution were in serious financial trouble after the war. They believed, with typical American optimism, that the wilderness of Ohio Country promised a rich new life. All they had to do was work hard and the land would reward them.

Although that was the case, first they had to get across the mountains of Pennsylvania on foot or in oxcart, and down the Ohio in flatboats that they built themselves. Then they had to clear forests of trees larger than they had ever seen before, build forts, houses, and stores and churches.

Picketts Point monument to recall the Indian Wars along the Ohio River.
Picketed Point, reminder of the Indian Wars along the Ohio River 1791-1796 Photo by Photo by Richie Diesterheft, Flickr.

Meanwhile, they would be fighting off clouds of gnats. Listening to the wolves and panthers every night in the “howling wilderness,” and waiting for an Indian attack. For the first couple of years, The Ohio Company were ignored by their government in Washington, until a particularly onerous massacre woke up the law makers and George Washington himself stepped in to assure adequate funding and troops to establish a peace with the Indians.

My Family Arrives

1789 brought a harsh winter that killed crops prematurely and a measles outbreak adding to starvation. Next small pox hit the settlement. But in the summer the famine ended and General Putnam went back to Ohio to collect his wife and children and bring them West, along with fifteen other settlers. My 8th cousin, once removed, Israel Stone and his family added a considerable portion of that fifteen.

Benjamin Franklin Stone
Benjamin Franklin Stone

Of course I was disappointed that “my” family didn’t make it into McCullough’s book, particularly since one of the sons, Benjamin Franklin Stone wrote a journal detailing their journey and settlement in Rainbow, up the river from Marietta. McCullough also does not mention Rainbow. Among many interesting tidbits, Benjamin tells with how the family made it through the starvation times–PUMPKINS. Since another son, Sardine Stone held elected office for many years,I thought the family might have warranted mention.

Note: You can read New England Magazine, Vol. 16 1897(starting on page 210) with most of Benjamin Franklin Stone’s Journal in a digital copy on Google Books (FREE).

At the least, it would have been helpful to have a list of the settlers that came in the original caravan and in the later caravans led by Putnam. I doubt anyone could complete a totally accurate list, since McCullough reports that there were new people arriving every day. Naturally some of those people moved farther west after a brief stay, and some gave up and returned to the East.

Basic Principles

The dedication of these early pioneers to certain American principles, makes me proud to be an Ohioan. From the beginning their compacts included wording insisting on fair treatment of the Indians (although they were not totally successful), a ban on slavery and inclusion of all religions. From the very first year, they established schools, even Ohio University at the idealistically named new town of Athens, Ohio got their early attention. And every family in the Ohio Company was required to plant fifty apple trees. Johnny Appleseed was not the alone in carrying the gospel of the apple throughout Ohio.

I came away thinking that these people had both a phenomenal ability to believe in the future, together with some failings to see how things would change. They somehow knew that the towns they established would become cities of great importance, but they overestimated the lasting importance of river trade. Even after the invention of the steam engine and railroads started crisscrossing the country, they were slow to see the change. They wisely built roads much wider than needed by their carts and pedestrians, but of course had no clue that those roads would one day carry motorized vehicles. And flying machines? A fantasy. .

But whatever advances civilization made, those Pioneers were right about one thing–education.