Vilification and Erasure: The Story of Indigenous History in The Pioneers
Michael John Witgen
One April 23, 2021, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told the audience of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, “If you think about this country . . . . We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” Setting aside this pronouncement about the relative influence of a non-specific, generic pan-Indigenous culture, Santorum’s statement represents a complete erasure of the history of Native North America. For this brash and ethnocentric bit of historical gaslighting, Rick Santorum was fired from his position as a paid commentator on CNN.
While Santorum paid a high price for his boorish behavior, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough has been amply rewarded. His book The Pioneers became an instant best seller upon publication despite presenting a similarly biased narrative of the founding and western expansion of the American republic. Indeed, McCullough’s book, like Santorum’s speech, performs a whitewashing of American history that allows American consumers, and citizens, to avoid confronting the fact that their immigrant ancestors settled Indigenous lands, in the process dispossessing Indigenous peoples. This is the fatal flaw in The Pioneers; it attempts the impossible, removing Native peoples and their history from the story of the continent and of the emerging American republic.
McCullough’s narrative begins at dawn on December 3, 1787, when a band of forty-eight men gathered in front of the Congregational church of Manasseh Cutler in Ipswich, Massachusetts, before departing for the Northwest Territory. Each man carried one ax, one hoe, and thirty pounds of personal baggage. After listening to a brief address by Reverend Cutler, land speculator and one of the principal investors in the Ohio Company of Associates, the men fired a three-volley salute and began the long, arduous trek to land recently purchased by the company in the Ohio country. These “first pioneers” according to historian David McCullough, marched into an unsettled wilderness with “no roads . . . no towns, churches, schools, stores, or wayside taverns” (7). In the year prior to their departure, the fledgling republic of the United States wrote a new constitution for itself, and penned and passed a land law, the Northwest Ordinance, designed to facilitate American settlement of the newly organized Northwest Territory—wo political developments that made this errand into the wilderness possible. In McCullough’s narration of these events, American pioneers sought to claim, “an unsettled empire north and west of the Ohio River” (7). The Ohio Company and its settlers, he writes, were engaged in a sacred mission to “guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life” (13).
To imagine McCullough’s pioneers as the “first” people to enter the country west of the Allegheny Mountains is an act of erasure. Telling their story this way obscures the history of Native North America, which unfolded for millenia before the arrival of Europeans. It erases the extent to which Indigenous peoples profoundly impacted the history of European empire and settlement on the continent. There was a reason Anglo Americans called the Seven Years’ War The French and Indian War, and it wasn’t because of the absence of Indians. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence accused the British of siding with “merciless Indian Savages,” as opposed to their own colonists when they attempted to halt settlement at the Alleghenies. The Pioneers, as a work of history, represents this same twined pattern of vilification and erasure, and as such it presents a false narrative of American expansion as a benign history of settlers taming an unsettled wilderness.
McCullough’s settlers slogged through the Allegheny Mountains and across the Pennsylvania back country along a road carved into the wilderness by the British General Jack Forbes during the Seven Years’ War. This existence of this road, suggesting that the western wilderness was not exactly unsettled, was not the only clue unexplored by McCullough. Bogged down by harsh weather, the pioneers wintered on the Youghiogheny River, a watershed with a Lenape name, approximately thirty miles below Fort Pitt, a settlement established by the French and then inherited by the English and Americans, and visited frequently by the resident Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Lenape (Delaware), and Shawnee peoples. From their winter camp the Ohio Company settlers built a substantial flat-bottomed boat, a galley they named The Mayflower, which transported them northwest to the Monongahela River and eventually onto the Ohio. Traveling rivers named by the Lenape and Seneca Iroquois, respectively, they eventually arrived at the mouth of the Muskingum River, a watershed named by the resident Shawnee peoples. The settlers beached their galley on a point of land at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. Following a script established by some of the first English settlers in North America, they promptly renamed their newly “discovered” territory Plymouth Rock, “most heartily congratulating each other on the sight of our new country” (42).
As soon as they landed one of the settlers grabbed his ax and leaped ashore. This man, Jervis Cutler, the nineteen-year-old son of Manasseh Cutler, proceeded to chop down the nearest tree he could find, a buckeye. He was immediately followed by his fellow settlers who also began chopping down six acres of hardwood forest, clearing and improving the land in the parlance of nineteenth-century settlers. “Trees were an enemy standing in the way of progress,” McCullough writes by way of explanation for this mania, which resulted in a hastily built blockhouse fortification capable of housing 864 people. From the perspective of Jervis Cutler, and apparently David McCullough, this was how one guaranteed “the American way of life.” The mission of the Ohio Company represented a vision of North America as unsettled wilderness, and a belief and an ideology that understood the continent was available for any civilized (read white) person with an ax and hoe to claim, to conquer, and to transform into a civilized settlement. In contrast, any Indigenous settlement or presence represented a void, an absence of civilization, that intangible thing that demarcated a space as unsettled.
One might ask, if Ohio was an unsettled wilderness, why the need to immediately build a defensive stockade for company settlers? Rufus Putnam, company stakeholder and one of the original settlers, confided in his journal the reason for this course of action. Given his review of existing treaties prior to his immigration, he wrote, “I was fully persuaded that the Indians would not be peaceable very long” (46). The Ohio Company compound was just south of an elevated plain, approximately ninety acres of earthen mound structures, testimony to an Indigenous presence in the Ohio country that pre-dated all European settlement in North America. If the massive mound structure failed to signal a Native presence and an Indigenous history, then the party of Lenape people lead by a man named Captain Pipe that gathered to greet the settlers upon their arrival certainly should have done so. He, and his fellow Lenape were present, and living, at the location the Ohio Company selected for the “first” American settlement in the Northwest Territory. In other words, the Ohio Company pioneers did not arrive at and settle an untamed wilderness; they migrated to the Shawnee homeland and began the painful and protracted process of Indigenous dispossession.
14 June 2021
About the Author
Michael John Witgen is professor of history at Columbia University.