I’m departing from Cincinnati history to recommend a book by the distinguished historian David McCullough. While The Pioneers is not Cincinnati history, it certainly provides context for understanding Cincinnati’s earliest years. The book explores the story of Marietta, the first frontier settlement in the Ohio country.
McCullough is a master story teller who typically uses short bio sketches to tell a bigger story. In The Pioneers, he utilizes this device to great effect in examining the cultural ideals brought west by the hardy New Englanders who established Marietta. The number of Marietta residents who played key roles in shaping Ohio’s early culture is truly astonishing. They helped engineer important policies like banning slavery and creating a system of publicly financed education. These are key characteristics of New England’s political culture which became important parts of Ohio’s identity as it became a state in 1803.
McCullough also devotes attention to Marietta’s role in helping to establish a thriving commercial economy in Ohio with industries like ship building, again paralleling New England. The average reader will be unfamiliar with figures he highlights, including Manasseh Cutler and his son Ephraim or the tough frontiersman and Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam. All of these figures committed themselves to the old New England ideal of turning Marietta into a “city upon the hill” in the wilderness of the Ohio Valley.
In the course of looking at Marietta’s establishment, McCullough examines the trials and tribulations of establishing homes and farms in the beautiful and dangerous isolated wilderness. Marietta’s story mirrors that of early Cincinnati as its residents dealt with disease, struggled with backbreaking labor and clashed with Native Americans for control of an Ohio “Garden of Eden”.
As the story of Marietta unfolds, a cast of characters more familiar to students of American history passes through - everyone from Tecumseh to Aaron Burr to John Quincy Adams and John Chapman, more familiarly known as Johnny “Appleseed”. With each person comes a good story and a better understanding of how America came to be what it is today. Though it is not a work of great analysis or of deep intellectual insight, it does tell a good story, which makes for a good history and a worthwhile read!