The B&N Podcast: David McCullough on the Voices of the Pioneers

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

Since his marvelous 1968 book The Johnstown Flood, and through National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning works like The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, and John Adams, McCullough has brought his brilliantly illuminated pieces of the American story together like segments of a stained glass window. At 85 years old, David McCullough could be expected to want to rest on his laurels. But his brand new book The Pioneers is bursting with the energy and curiosity of its subjects. It’s the story of the early settlers of the then freshly-acquired piece of America called the Northwest Territory, in the era just after the War of Independence had been won. It’s the story of courage and community, risk and determination, and how the pioneers made a critical decision about the nature of the place they were going to build — a decision that would have enormous effects on the country in the decades to come. To talk about The Pioneers, we asked if we could visit David McCullough at his home in Massachusetts, where he works and writes, and he was kind enough to invite us to bring our microphones along.

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

The Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition includes a previously unpublished lecture by David McCullough.

Explore more books by David McCullough.

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