Nonfiction: David McCullough’s Idealistic Settlers

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And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

Despite the Northwest Ordinance’s declaration that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians,” several indigenous nations refused to recognize the treaties that, under United States law, nullified their land rights. A confederation of the Shawnee, Miami and Lenape (Delaware) — led by their leaders, Waweyapiersenwaw (Blue Jacket), Mishikinaakwa (Little Turtle) and Buckongahelas — resisted the settlers’ advance. After several attacks, American officials dispatched troops, who built a new fort. Their effort resulted in a battle at the Wabash River (Nov. 4, 1791), which came to be known as St. Clair’s Defeat, a rout worse than any suffered in the American Revolution: 623 men and officers lost, plus an estimated 200 civilians. (Indian fatalities were estimated at 21.) But the United States won a significant victory three years later at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated Blue Jacket’s forces on Aug. 20. The Treaty of Greenville (1795) drew yet another line, one that demanded Indians remove themselves north and west of the Ohio Territory.

McCullough presents this as the end of conflict between settlers and indigenous groups. It wasn’t, not even in Ohio. He simply omits the succeeding confrontations there, as well as in the Northwest Territory and in the greater Midwest, where settlers continued to challenge Indians.

In their desire to remove Indians, Ohio’s settlers uncomfortably resembled their white counterparts in the slaveholding South. Local xenophobia re-emerged when freed blacks made their way to the Midwest after the Civil War, joined by new streams of immigrants: Many white Ohioans became members and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. That probably would have surprised (if not saddened) Cutler. McCullough is quite right not to have written a glib lament for a falling-off from an originary moral peak. But his fondness for the sweetly evoked Midwest of the early to mid-20th century — he admires Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Conrad Richter’s “The Awakening Land” trilogy — betrays an ahistorical vision. Cutler’s plan had not prevented a violent preference for a white-dominated society.

Can we do better? Mars has no indigenous inhabitants. Maybe that will make it easier for Musk — for anyone — to craft a colony that satisfies basic definitions of justice, with a good answer to the basic question: Who gets to go? For that to happen, we need clear and critical views of previous flawed attempts to be pioneers. Otherwise, we boldly go — back to where many others have gone before.

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