The Cracker Barrel: A little-known story

The Pioneers, By David McCullough. Image used for editorial purposes.

A few weeks ago, browsing in the Pequot Lakes Library, I came upon David McCullough’s latest book, “The Pioneers,” which focuses on the settling of the Northwest Territory, a vast area larger than all of France ceded by the British to the U.S. in 1783 as part of the Treaty of Paris, thus doubling the size of our young country.

Having read other books by McCullough, and knowing he’d twice won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his work, I knew the new book would be well worth reading. What I didn’t know was the depth of my own ignorance regarding the subject.

The original Northwest Territory (not to be confused with any of the land obtained from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase some 20 years later) comprised some 265,000 square miles of unbroken wilderness north and west of the Ohio River. From it, five new states were to emerge: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

At the time of its becoming part of the U.S., the new realm was known as “the back country” or “the howling wilderness.” As McCullough writes, “there were no roads as yet anywhere in all this wilderness, no bridges, no towns, churches, schools, stores, or wayside taverns. In New England there were more than a thousand towns, one about every five miles. But in all the immense territory to the northwest of the Ohio River ... there was as yet not one permanent legal settlement.”

In March of 1786, before the U.S. Constitution had been adopted, a group of New Englanders, all veteran officers of the Revolutionary War, met in Boston at the famous Bunch of Grapes tavern to launch a plan for settling the new territory. The plan they devised was both practical and visionary.


Land would be properly surveyed, settlements established by legal process, with lands of the native Indians to remain theirs until purchased from them. In addition, land bounties would be offered to war veterans in lieu of payment for their services, there would be absolute freedom of religion, a particular emphasis put on education for all, and, most importantly, slavery would be forbidden anywhere in the territory.

By the time I finished reading chapter one, I felt as though I’d been transported back in time and was living in the deeply forested wildness of Ohio, surrounded by towering hickory and beech and sycamore and buckeye trees as well as oaks five to six feet in diameter reaching 50 feet tall before sending out branches.

As might be expected, life in the new territory was not free of trouble. Gnats, poisonous snakes, distrustful natives, together with the rigors of trying to make a living in a place where you rarely saw your neighbors made pioneer life a relentless challenge. But the land itself was rich and teeming with edibles. First-year corn crops grew to 14 feet.

The abundance of fish and game seemed immeasurable. If you could aim a rifle, swing an ax or cook a meal, Ohio was the new Garden of Eden.

Or so it seemed until the fall of 1789, when an early frost killed most of the corn and sent some of the settlers scurrying back east. Increasing tensions with the Indians further eroded the sense of well-being, and fortifications were hastily expanded to afford protection against uprisings.

Over the next few years hostilities broke out and the new state threatened to become Hell on Earth. Then, in August of 1795, after President Washington had sent sufficient troops to restore peace, the Treaty of Greenville was signed and life for the pioneers, if not the Indians, took a turn for the better.

And so the saga continued, setbacks followed by successes, joys intermingled with sorrows, as a fascinating but little known aspect of American history appeared before this reader’s eyes.


Craig Nagel color.jpg
Craig Nagel, Columnist

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