The Pioneers ~ by David McCullough

The Pioneers
by David McCullough
2019 / 332 pp
read by John Bedford Lloyd 10h 23
rating: 8 / US history

In some ways this book was much better than I expected. I’d heard rather disparaging comments about how the title seemed to imply the story of westward expansion in general, and readers were disappointed that their own ancestors places were not included. But the narrative was limited to the Northwest Territory, mostly what is now Ohio.

Years ago I read The Trees by Conrad Richter, but never goto around to the rest of the trilogy, The Fields and The Town. I was definitely reminded of The Trees as I read the first several chapters of The Pioneers and then McCullough mentioned the Richter books in his Acknowledgments. I felt vindicated (or something).

But it seems the Northwest Territory was plagued by a number of trials including settlement, Indian warfare, starvation, abolition, education and epidemics to say nothing of the antics of Aaron Burr and various other characters and personalities (the Blennerhasasett family for instance. Several were related to an original party, Manasseh Cutler.

The book has more interest than one would think and McCullough writes well enough to inform and entertain. There’s a bit of everything, politics, exploration, Indian fighting, medicine, technology and expansion, as well as family life and death – even weather and earthquakes along with education and canals. It’s not a great book but it was certainly worth my time and in its own way does McCullough’s reputation no harm. (I have enjoyed McCullough’s books since The Johnstown Flood (1968).

This is a book of limited geography but broad time frame. The story covers the area around Marietta, Ohio between the years 1787 and 1863. The title implies that it’s the story of American pioneers in general – and in general, it is that. What pioneer men and women experienced in those years was the pioneer experience as it played out in Maine, Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon, Montana and even California at their own times and each with their own variations.

Reproduction of a print depicting the courthouse and jail in Marietta, built in 1798.
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