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David McCullough’s uncanny journey to Ohio’s past

FILE - In this May 13, 2011 file photo, historian and author David McCullough poses at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's latest work, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” focuses on some of those who embarked to the Northwest Territory in the late 18th century and formed communities in what became the state of Ohio.
FILE - In this May 13, 2011 file photo, historian and author David McCullough poses at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's latest work, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” focuses on some of those who embarked to the Northwest Territory in the late 18th century and formed communities in what became the state of Ohio. AP Photo

David McCullough's new book was a journey to a world both distant and uncanny.

"The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West" is the 13th publication by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the fulfillment of his longtime dream to write about people not widely known to the general public. He wrote it in the spirit of one of his early mentors, Thornton Wilder, and his play "Our Town." The book focuses on some of those who embarked to the Northwest Territory in the late 18th century and formed communities in what became the state of Ohio.

As with virtually all of his work, McCullough started out knowing little about the subject. His interest dates back to 2004 when he was the commencement speaker at Ohio University and wondered whom one of the campus buildings, Cutler Hall, was named for. The Rev. Manasseh Cutler, a New England pastor, is now a hero to McCullough, who compares him to Benjamin Franklin as an early American polymath and visionary. He was among the settlers who in 1788 established Marietta, Ohio, and are at the center of "The Pioneers," the others including Cutler's son, Ephraim; Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War general; and Samuel Hildreth, a doctor and botanist who wrote one of the few extended chronicles on early Marietta.

McCullough's decision to write "The Pioneers" was guided by coincidence. Cutler was not only a man of wide-ranging talents, but a graduate of Yale, McCullough's alma mater. The settlers' westward journey to Ohio passed through Pittsburgh, McCullough's hometown. Hildreth's publishers included A.S. Barnes & Co., founded by an ancestor of McCullough's wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough.

"When Rosalee heard all this, she said, 'You have to write this book," McCullough explained.

Over the past couple of years, McCullough and his longtime research aide Michael Hill immersed themselves in archives at the Marietta College Library. McCullough speaks ecstatically about the rare diaries, letters, photographs and unpublished memoirs he looked through, making him feel like he had "found King Tut's tomb or something." The library's curator, Linda Showalter, said she was moved and gratified by the 85-year-old McCullough's fascination with materials that only local scholars had cared about.

"He is curious about everything, and some of his challenging questions caused me to look at certain things with a new perspective," she said. "When David discovered a great story, his excitement was contagious. He was always cheerful and enthusiastic during his research, and at one time was inspired by a piece of sheet music to sing a little song for us."

McCullough's subjects have ranged from Harry Truman and John Adams to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. But he sees some common themes, many of them present in "The Pioneers." He likes to honor people he believes have either been ignored or treated unfairly by historians. He likes stories that remind Americans of the sacrifices made on their behalf. And he is drawn to grand, torturous, but successful undertakings, whether the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal or the formation of a new state.

"I like to write about people who set out to do something that is thought to be impossible. And how they run into more complicated turns and tests of their fortune than they ever imagined or expected, and how they don't give up," he says.

"They (the early Ohioans) go out there and there's nothing: no highways, no roads, no bridges, no hospitals, to say the least, and no anesthetic. The only anesthetic they have — men, women and children — is whiskey. ... And they put up with adversities of a kind even they couldn't have anticipated: epidemic diseases like smallpox and influenza, accidents of all kind, the premature death of children."

As McCullough notes in his book, Marietta was named for royalty, Marie Antoinette of France. But it was established under the more egalitarian principles of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which Manasseh Cutler lobbied for. The ordinance called for religious freedom, trial by jury, the encouragement of education and, most dramatically, a ban on slavery at a time when all the original 13 colonies permitted it. Ephraim Cutler was later a local delegate who left his sick bed and cast a key vote that ensured blacks would have full rights in Ohio's constitution.

"We don't know precisely how he got there," McCullough says. "One story is he was carried in on a stretcher. I couldn't confirm that but anyway he got there, gave a speech, sick as he was, and cast his vote."

McCullough has now written two books, "The Pioneers" and "The Wright Brothers," about Ohio's past, and he feels a strong attachment to the state that neighbors his native Pennsylvania. He notes that some of the country's most prominent adventurer-explorers come from Ohio: the Wrights, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. McCullough himself had an Ohio adventure, an unexpected one, when years ago he shared a ride in Glenn's plane while working on a magazine piece about him.

"We were flying along and he had me ride besides him in the co-pilot seat, and I had to put my feet on the pedals," McCullough says. "And we're going along for a while, and he said, 'How are you feeling?' And I said 'Great.' And he said, 'I want you to know that you're flying the plane.'"

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