A reader searching for a locale with a thrilling, romantic history propelled by larger-than-life heroes would probably not think to look to the state of Ohio. The seven presidents it sent to Washington—William Henry Harrison, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Taft, and Harding—present no cavalcade of Olympians; they’re neither demigods nor demagogues and only add to the Buckeye State’s pop-culture reputation as bland, drab, even stifling.
It’s therefore shocking that the celebrated historian David McCullough chose a single small town at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers as the focus of The Pioneers, his loving and luminous account of an oft-ignored chapter in America’s glorious past. McCullough hails from Pittsburgh, a much larger and more consequential town upriver from Marietta, Ohio, and he has previously concentrated on epic narratives about grand achievements (the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge) or legendary leaders of global significance (John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman). Here, he illuminates the lives of strictly local dignitaries in a village that reached its peak population of 17,000 in 1970. The contents of the book, though fascinating, don’t easily match its stirring subtitle: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. McCullough’s narrative never ventures farther west than the Mississippi River, and the stories he recounts follow five specific and supremely admirable Ohio families rather than summarizing the sweeping experience of “settlers” in general.