Do you have any ancestors who moved to the frontier? What was it like for them to leave their community and create a new home in the wilderness? Historian, David McCullough, provides important insight into the settling of the frontier after the Revolutionary War in his latest book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. We meet five major characters instrumental in constructing the settlement of Marietta, Ohio. Experiencing the inherent challenges through their diaries, letters, and other documents, we can envision our own ancestors and see what it took to settle the great American West.
What was the “west” in the 1780s? At the end of the Revolutionary War, Britain ceded the land west of Pennsylvania, northwest of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River below the Great Lakes. The newly formed Congress of the Confederation established this area as the Northwest Territory in 1787. The region contained the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance set out three conditions for the settlement of the territory: freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery. The Pioneers shows how difficult it was for these ideals to be upheld.
The five major characters whose story we discover in The Pioneers originated in New England and had no idea what awaited them on the frontier of Ohio. They labored to clear the land and build homes. They dealt with all aspects of nature – floods, fires, storms, wild animals. The Native Americans already inhabiting the land did not appreciate the influx of white settlers and the book tells of the conflicts between the two sides. Sadly we see the overwhelming number of settlers driving out the native tribes in the pattern that was repeated throughout the 1800s as American’s pushed west.
Told from the perspective of these pioneers we can learn what our own ancestors might have encountered in their struggles to establish new homes in the west. I heard David McCullough speak at Brigham Young University several years ago – and yes he signed my copy of 1776. He talked about how people may have lived in the past, but it was their present. They didn’t walk around saying, “Here we are living in the past!” That struck me as both funny and profound at the time. Our ancestors lived their reality, just as we do ours.
The Pioneers illustrates the pattern we see in westward migration. The first group, mainly adult males moved in and started building and clearing. Next came families intent on settling and professionals of all kinds. Later, those who had stayed behind caring for the older generation or who just wanted to “wait and see” joined family members or associates in the new communities. As we seek to understand our ancestor’s motives and actions, reading first-hand accounts can open our minds to the possibilities and help us place our people in a migration pattern.
An excerpt from The Pioneers illustrates the details of the first group to embark upon this grand adventure.
The first pioneers—forty-eight men including surveyors, carpenters, boat builders, common laborers, and a blacksmith—were to go in two parties. One, numbering twenty and headed by a veteran officer, Major Haffield White, was to depart first from Ipswich Hamlet. The second, led by General Rufus Putnam, the overall head, or “superintendent,” of the expedition, would leave soon after from Hartford, Connecticut.
Their tools, one ax and one hoe per man, as well as thirty pounds of baggage, were to be carried in the company wagon. In addition, each man was to furnish himself with one good musket, a bayonet, six flints, powder horn and pouch, priming wire and brush, half a pound of powder, one pound of musket balls, and a pound of buckshot. Wages were $4 a month.
By the time all was ready, December had arrived, hardly the best time of year to be setting off for the far wilderness. They would be traveling on foot the entire way until reaching the headwaters of the Ohio, so even under ideal conditions they would be moving at a speed of little more than one mile an hour, or about ten miles a day on an overland journey of some 700 miles that included the mountains of western Pennsylvania.
But spirits were high and the importance of getting there with the least delay possible was very much in mind. Once at the Ohio, time would be needed to build boats for the journey downriver—all to arrive in early spring, soon enough to get in a first planting of gardens and corn sufficient for survival. (1)
I hope you enjoy this view of the settling of the west from the perspective of those who lived it!
Best of luck in all your family history endeavors!
(1) David McCullough, “An Excerpt from the Pioneers,” (https://www.simonandschusterpublishing.com/davidmccullough/pioneers-excerpt.html : accessed 30 September 2021).