The prolific historical popularizer David McCullough, perhaps best known for his biographies of Truman and of Teddy Roosevelt, here offers a book about less famous people. Most of us heard in high school about the Northwest Territory, ceded by Britain to the United States after the Revolutionary War. Most of us haven’t thought much about it since. McCullough corrects our lack of interest, or knowledge, by showing how very interesting the opening up of the Northwest Territory was.
The frame for this is a longitudinal examination of the town of Marietta, on the Ohio River (using largely previously unknown primary sources). The pioneers who settled Marietta were mostly veterans forging a new life, under the conditions set out in the Northwest Ordinance (which included no slavery). McCullough focuses on a set of families, primarily the Cutlers and the Putnams, descended from a Massachusetts minister (Cutler) and a Revolutionary War general (Putnam). This is old-fashioned frontier narrative; these people, men and women, carved Marietta out of nothing, facing—and defeating—innumerable dangers and challenges.
Among those challenges were varying degrees of hostility from the local Indians, who, no surprise, originally welcomed the settlers and then changed their minds when they began to expand their settlement. A good deal of the book is taken up with these conflicts, in which the Indians are shown as they were—competent, but overmatched in technology, numbers, and will by the Europeans. In one battle, the Indians managed to kill eight hundred men, women and children. The response was their defeat by “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which fully opened the Northwest Territory. In general, McCullough excels at both relating these historical incidents and offering well-drawn profiles of all the many individuals who made Marietta, and made Marietta what it became, from blacksmiths to political and war leaders.
He always comes back to Marietta, though. It never became a large city; it was eclipsed by others. Today, it only has about ten thousand people. But as a stand-in for innumerable other such settlements that made America what it is today, it is timeless. And showing America is McCullough’s purpose, in which his book does an excellent job.
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