‘The Pioneers’ author David McCullough speaks in Marietta
David McCullough is one of us now.
“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” was published in early May after years of anticipation in Marietta, where McCullough’s examination of the Revolutionary War veterans and other characters who settled what was then the U.S. frontier is centered.
He spent three years researching the book, unearthing one treasure after another as he traced the lives, accomplishments, disappointments and triumphs of Manasseh Cutler, Rufus Putnam, Samuel Hildreth and a host of other men and women who not only took a chance on Ohio but also tried to mold it to their ideals. The book has focused national attention on Marietta in way not equaled in its history.
McCullough, 84, spoke to a full house in the Peoples Bank Theatre Friday night, and several dozen other people who took in the event at a satellite overflow telecast in the McDonough Auditorium, two blocks east on Putnam Street at the Marietta College campus.
He was welcomed by an array of local leaders, including Marietta College provost Janet Bland, who described the event as “a night about a great writer and a great town;” Marietta College Legacy Library director Douglas Anderson, who described McCullough as “a great storyteller and a congenial person;” Friends of the Museum trustee Kevin Ritter, who said, “His style invites immersion in key moments of our history,” and Mayor Joe Matthews, who read a proclamation declaring May 31, 2019, David McCullough Day in Marietta.
McCullough received another accolade from Marietta College President William Ruud, who conferred the Presidential Medal of Commendation on him for exemplary service to the college.
McCullough has repeatedly mentioned his wonder and appreciation for the college library, particularly its Slack Special Collections section, home to a trove of historical documents. Ruud announced after presenting McCullough’s medal that he had another to confer – on special collections manager Linda Showalter.
The audience came to its feet as Ruud called Showalter “the keeper of the treasures” and said she has been “of profound assistance to students, faculty, researchers and visitors, and her assistance has brought the library lasting renown.”
Showalter has managed the special collection since 2007.
McCullough said he hoped the book, by shining a light on the founders of Marietta, would remedy what he considers a significant oversight in American history.
“What those people did should never have been passed by,” he said, noting the forging of the Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery in an area larger than all of the 13 original colonies combined, passed by Congress before the country had either a president or a constitution.
He called the town doctor, Samuel Hildreth, “One of the most remarkable characters I’ve ever come across.”
Hildreth, he said, in addition to running a busy frontier medical practice found time to be one of the nation’s most accomplished botanist, a historian, a naturalist, a geologist and a gifted painter of watercolors — and he documented his experiences tirelessly in powerful and engaging prose.
The character of the founders of Marietta made a deep impression on him as he researched the book, he said, and the city still carries that stamp.
“Something about those settlers generated courage, higher purpose and generosity, and that generosity is part of this community today,” he said. “That attitude is still there.” He then publicly thanked John Miller, who was in the audience, for picking up a restaurant tab for him and a group of people he was with during an earlier visit to town.
Miller, who owns a transportation company, said afterward, “It was my way of honoring him for what he’s done for our community. I’m thrilled that someone has recognized Marietta in this way, that someone appreciates it as much as I do.”
Rod Hineman, who is a retired history teacher from Belpre, sat in the back row of the auditorium.
“I’m just thrilled he wrote a book about the Mid-Ohio Valley’s history and the settlement of Marietta,” he said, adding that one of his hopes is that it might generate some interest in refurbishing the grave of Ephraim Cutler, who is buried in Gravel Bank Cemetery.
Ken and Jayne Godsey and Jayne Godsey’s sister, Anne Bohanes, took in the event at the McDonough Auditorium.
“His book told some history I didn’t know about,” Jayne, who lives in Westerville but is from Marietta, said.
Ken said he grew up in Rainbow, on the west side of the Muskingum River across from Devola, and remembers a neighbor who had numerous historical documents about the community that sparked an interest in history for him.
“There’s a cemetery there where many of the first settlers are buried,” he said.
In the lobby at Peoples Bank Theatre, Shane Parmer stopped a moment to reflect before going back into the auditorium to hear the final part of the presentation.
“I read 1776, and McCullough’s spin on history is amazing,” he said. “At his age, making people rethink history, that is awesome.”