The story of the settling of the American West is perhaps our most powerful national legend. Westward expansion beyond the Atlantic Coast into a wild and dangerous frontier embodied the American ideal of the rugged and free individual. Liberated from the shackles of the Old World, Americans were in command of their own destiny, no longer living by another’s leave. Every man was free to pursue happiness as he saw fit, including out west — if he could survive.
These days the settling of the West comes in for opprobrium and scorn from woke progressives, for whom it is above all a story of genocide and slavery, like most of American history. And yet the iconic images of the West — the covered wagon on a vast prairie, the cowboy driving a herd on the high plains — are seared into our national consciousness. We can no more escape them than we can escape our complicated racial history by removing statues and renaming schools.
Not long ago, the westward expansion of America, along with the names of the great pioneers, such as Daniel Boone, was taught to schoolchildren — not as history for which to apologize but as something to celebrate and revere, a source of national pride. That was for good reason: What the early pioneers accomplished was remarkable, especially considering that many of them were late arrivals to the American scene, Scotch-Irish who came in the mid 18th century and found the lands of the Atlantic seaboard already full, or too expensive, and so pushed west into the mountains.
These were poor folk who lived hard lives that often ended violently. They spread their Presbyterian churches and log cabins over the Alleghenies into western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, then down through the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the wilds of Tennessee and Kentucky. They forged out ahead of the fledgling federal government, expanding the new republic by their mere presence, eventually stumbling upon the Great Plains, settling Texas, and wresting it from Mexico. From this stock and their exploits sprang our national myth of the frontiersman-patriot. John Crockett, for example, was one of the Overmountain Men from west of the Appalachians who fought in the American Revolution, lost siblings to Cherokee war parties, and barely scratched out a living in northeast Tennessee. His son David would die more than a thousand miles away, at the Alamo.
But another, less iconic westward expansion was just as crucial, perhaps even more so, to the formation of our national identity as the one we have mythologized. This was the first push, in the earliest days of the republic, into the newly organized Northwest Territory. The heroic men and women who managed, against incredible odds, to found the first permanent settlements along the Ohio River weren’t the Scotch-Irish of American lore. They were Puritans from Massachusetts, who carried into the frontier the high ideals of the American Founding.
It is to these people that the venerable historian David McCullough has turned his attention in a new volume, which chronicles a history more Americans today ought to know about. Indeed, McCullough himself discovered much of that history quite by happenstance. Invited to deliver the commencement address at Ohio University in 2004, he learned about the oldest building on campus, Cutler Hall, and soon stumbled onto the story of its namesake, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler.
McCullough’s narrative begins in the summer of 1787, a year before the U.S. Constitution was ratified and four years after the British ceded all their lands west of the Alleghenies, northwest of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi — a territory larger than all of France that doubled the size of the United States. It was at first known simply as “the Ohio country,” and it was a vast wilderness. “There were no roads as yet anywhere in all this wilderness, no bridges, no towns, churches, schools, stores, or wayside taverns,” writes McCullough, nothing but a few remote forts and a small number of trappers and hunters, from whom word came back to New England of forests teeming with dangerous animals and even more dangerous Indians.
But for Manasseh Cutler and a small group of leading New Englanders, all of them veteran officers of the Continental Army, the Ohio country represented nothing so much as an opportunity to survey, sell, and settle this territory according to the New England system. To accomplish what was essentially a venture in land speculation, they formed the Ohio Company, and the first order of business was to purchase lands from the federal government and establish a settlement on the Ohio River.
To do this, however, they needed the Continental Congress to pass an ordinance outlining rules for the formation of new states in the territory and establishing some framework for government. Cutler was chosen as the spokesman for the “Ohio cause” charged with winning congressional approval — what we would today call a lobbyist. McCullough describes Cutler as the quintessential New England gentleman of the Founding era: a Puritan minister and father of eight, a Yale graduate who qualified for doctorates of law, medicine, and divinity, the founder of a private boarding school, and “at once an avid astronomer, meteorologist, and naturalist.” Cutler was, moreover, “particularly esteemed among his fellow scientists for his work in botany, and for having written the first-ever treatise on the classification of the flora of New England — a study of some 350 separate species.”
This was the man who, more than any other individual, was responsible for the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. And not just its passage but its content, from freedom of religion in the territory, to public education and the establishment of a university, to the just treatment of Indians and their lands. Of even greater significance for posterity was Article VI of the ordinance, which boldly proclaimed, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.”
This, McCullough notes, “set forth a tenet such as never before stated in any American constitution,” and at a time “when slavery existed in every one of the thirteen states.” Its inclusion in the ordinance was a remarkable, history-altering achievement. And although McCullough concedes that no contemporary documents attribute Article VI to Cutler, he concludes that Cutler “had played the most important role by far,” and that “the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stands alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual.”
The Ohio country, then, would be born free, thanks to an ordinance that, as McCullough says, “was designed to guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life.” But that did not mean it would be settled without trouble, or without much loss of life. In 1795, seven years after the establishment of Marietta, the first permanent town in the territory, Cutler’s son Ephraim would lose two of his four young children to illness while journeying down the Ohio River en route to Marietta. Of his eldest daughter, who died at age seven, Ephraim wrote, “To add to our distress, we had no alternative but to commit her to the earth in the dreary wilderness.”
If his father exemplified the New England gentleman, Ephraim exemplified the Puritan pioneer. Although he had almost no formal education, shortly after his arrival he was commissioned by the territorial governor as captain of the militia, justice of the peace, and judge of the first court of common pleas. Two years later he founded a new settlement in the wilderness 20 miles north of Marietta in what would become Athens County, Ohio, and he was later elected both to the territorial legislature and, in 1802, to the Ohio state constitutional convention.
It was at this convention that Ephraim Cutler would add to his father’s antislavery legacy. Interested parties hoped to eliminate the tenet of the Northwest Ordinance that excluded slavery and bring Ohio into the Union as a slave state. Cutler opposed these efforts with all his force. The day the issue was to be voted on by the entire convention, he fell so ill he couldn’t get out of bed. McCullough reports that by one account, informed that he must make it to the vote or the cause might be lost, Cutler was carried into the convention on a stretcher. The exclusion of slavery from Ohio passed by one vote. “It was an act of wholehearted fortitude and the result was never to be forgotten,” writes McCullough.
The Cutlers are but two of the personages McCullough brings out of the shadows of history in his narrative. There is General Rufus Putnam, the irrepressible leader of the first Ohio expedition, founder of Marietta, and “father of the Northwest Territory.” There is Joseph Barker, who taught himself how to build boats and log cabins and eventually became a master architect, erecting elegant stone houses throughout Marietta and even a sprawling mansion on the banks of the Ohio. There is Harman Blennerhassett, the strange Irish aristocrat who commissioned the mansion, and who later got caught up in a conspiracy against the United States headed by Aaron Burr and was nearly convicted of treason by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Indeed, part of McCullough’s desire to write such a book came from “the realization that I now had the opportunity to write about a cast of real-life characters of historic accomplishment who were entirely unknown to most Americans.” With this volume, McCullough has brought them and their achievements into the full light of history, where they belong.
This article appears as “Founders of the Frontier” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.