Historian David McCullough on His New Book, The PioneersHistorians in the News
tags: historians, David McCullough, The Pioneers
There’s no such thing as boring history, only boring historians. At least that’s how David McCullough, America’s liveliest historian, sees it. As a yarn-spinner, he’s reintroduced readers to three presidents, the Revolutionary War, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and the Wright brothers’ first flight. As a narrator, his sonorous baritone guided us through The Civil War and The American Experience on PBS. But after more than 50 years behind his typewriter, he’s worried about the state of the country and that our memory of the past is growing frightfully dim. On a recent spring morning, I connected with McCullough at his home in Hingham about his new book, The Pioneers, the historical case for renaming Faneuil Hall, and how he discovered the story he always really wanted to write.
The Pioneers is a book about settlers in Ohio, but also about New England. As someone who has lived near Boston for most of your life, did writing this story bring parts of Boston alive to you in a new way?
I think for those of us who live here in New England, it’s uplifting to see what a New England story this is. The principal characters all come from New England. Their very first gathering before going out and settling the Ohio territory was at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in Boston. That’s where it all began in March of 1786. There is a plaque now at State Street and Kilby Street. Rufus Putnam came from Rutland, Massachusetts, and the house he lived in is still there. Manasseh Cutler, who was educated at Yale but also had a degree from Harvard, was a pastor of the First Congregational Church in what was then called Ipswich Hamlet—now, Hamilton, Massachusetts. Samuel Hildreth, a young doctor who is one of the most remarkable Americans ever, came from Methuen. The church and rectory where Manasseh Cutler ran a school on the top floor in Hamilton still stands. It’s all still around us within a relatively short radius of Boston.
This book is in some ways a departure for you because it is largely an unknown story. How did you find it?
I was invited in 2004 to give the commencement speech at Ohio University when it was celebrating its 200th anniversary. But I knew virtually nothing about the university. So that’s when I first encountered Manasseh Cutler and the story of his attempt to create what was essentially a New England town in the Ohio wilderness, and how he and the town stood up for both the establishment of education and for keeping the Northwest Territory free of slavery. I was told that his and more papers were down at Marietta College, so after I finished my Wright brothers book, I’d been soaking up Ohio for several years and I went down to the college. When I saw the collection there, my head was spinning, I was so thrilled. I felt like I’d found King Tut’s tomb or something.