I’ve always considered myself a pioneer, and I’ve never been overly averse to risk and more prone than your average bear to leave comfort and security to pursue an unknown path. But how much of a pioneer am I truly when I stack myself up against some real pioneers?
In this book, I met the Cutler and Putnam families and a handful of others, who, after the American Revolutionary war, were among the first to expand westward into the vast untouched regions northwest of the Ohio river. This massive chunk of land, spanning five states today, was the prize for victory over the British.
What I love about this book is its constant use of diaries, journals and letters from the pioneers themselves. I didn’t just learn about pioneer life’s hardships, adventures, and challenges; I experienced them through the very words and thoughts of the pioneers themselves. As someone who has been faithfully journaling for over 35 years, it was a thrill to peek into the lives of these courageous souls from 230 years ago through the very words they left behind.
Pioneers vs Indians
The pioneers coming down through New England utilizing the Ohio company had a charter that promised not to take native land, have no enslaved people and promote education, religious freedom and morality. For 1790 the document is way ahead of its time, but sadly the Indian wars still happened.
What was that season of struggle like through the eyes of the pioneers? As I read one first-hand account after another hurriedly scratched into a journal or mailed in letters to loved ones back east, there is only one word that aptly describes the experience — Terror.
The natives of the Ohio territory in the 18th century were robust, well-armed and numerous. The pioneers thought in terms of plots of land privately owned, of which there would be more than enough for both pioneers and Indians to co-exist peacefully together. They didn’t realize how different a native conception of land was from their own. Plots of land for everyone to own didn’t make sense in the native economy. Because of their nomadic ways, they required massive sweeps of land with the freedom to camp wherever they liked. At first, there wasn’t much of a fuss at all. The first fort built in the Ohio territory wasn’t built to protect from Indians. It was built to protect against Scottish and Irish squatters moving up from the south and grabbing land illegally. Still, as the white populations grew, the indigenous tribes began to see the incompatibility of these two perspectives on land. To mitigate the threat to their way of life, they embarked on a campaign of terror. First, they began by threatening. Then they killed off all the hunting stock so that the pioneers would starve, and finally, when the settlers wouldn’t take the hint, they began targeting small outposts for massacre. They killed men, women, and children, maiming their bodies and burning their buildings. Scalping was a real thing, and a legitimate potential fate for an early pioneer. The terror campaigns were successful. Many pioneers packed up and headed back east. But for others, even the threat of death would not deter them. They dispatched frantic letters to government officials in Washington, pleading desperately for protection. The government responded by sending out two small armies to deal with the Indian problem. Both were poorly trained and had no concept of the enemy they were facing.
Consequently, they were both decimated, the second army losing 1100 of its 1400-man force in an absolute rout. Finally, the government formed a third army, which dealt a severe blow to the Indian threat and brought relative peace to the region. But fear was never too far away. In 1812 Tecumseh, one of the last great remaining chiefs in the territory, joined forces with the British to fight against the United States. If Tecumseh and the British won, the plan was to expel all the pioneers from the Ohio territory and turn it into an Indian nation. When the British managed to sack and burn Washington, the pioneers realized again they were fighting for their lives. It was only after a series of stunning victories by the American forces that the British and their native allies were vanquished, and the threat of an Indian attack in Ohio dissipated for good.
A clean house is worth the risk of getting scalped!
From a journal at the time:
His daughter, Anna, brought the china teapot, cups, and saucers. Lydia brought the great Bible, but when all were in the block house, we discovered that mother was missing. Where was mother? She must be killed! No, says Lydia. Mother said she would not leave a house looking so. She would put things to right, and then she would come.
Thankfully the journal entry details that mother did arrive at the safety of the blockhouse just in time to avoid her death and feeling much better about the condition of her house!
Life, love and the language of the Pioneer
Ephraim Cutler made the trip to become a pioneering settler. On the journey, two of his four children died, his wife Leah fell and broke her ribs, and he came down with dysentery. But Ephraim loved the land and felt sure this was where he was supposed to be. Twenty years later, he had carved out a life for himself. In addition to becoming a settler, he had also become a politician and an advocate for education in the newly minted state of Ohio. Then his wife died, but before she died, she whispered to him who his new wife should be. “Mary Sally Parker,” Leah said before she breathed her last. Ephraim didn’t know who Sally was, and Leah had only heard of her. But to be without a mate on the frontier with children was a problem that needed immediate remedy.
Ephraim found out who Sally was and wrote her this letter:
It is with great diffidence I presume to address you on a subject which, to me, is of the highest importance. I am at this time destitute of that solace of the heart that only a female friend can give. Someone to whom I can disclose my cares, who can alleviate my sorrows, assuage my grief, and share my joys.
The author of our natures has given your sex the most unlimited faculties and powers in all these respects and has said that it is not good for a man to be alone.
I am not insensible to the hard terms which I have to offer you. And in consequence, a total rejection of my suit is what I have a right to expect. I have nothing to give as compensation for this but my love and respect.
But I find the impetuosity of my passion has carried me too far. I will then only ask a favour to address you and cultivate an acquaintance as I am very anxious to know my fate. I must ask a favour that you condescend so much as to convey to me your sentiment in such a way as you may think proper.
Who writes letters like that? Pioneers do! What a spectacular use of language! Sally responded to the letter and married Ephraim. Their deep love for each other produced five more children to add to Ephraims’ four.
To answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article about my pioneering chops, well, I’m not so sure anymore. These people were at a whole other level when it came to industry, creativity, determination and courage. They risked everything, pushing the boundaries of human accomplishment to carve out a challenging but rewarding life for themselves.