David McCullough’s new book on pioneers’ history draws criticism

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP file photo) Historian and author David McCullough poses at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington. McCullough's new book is facing strong criticism for romanticizing white settlers and deemphasizing the pain inflicted on Native Americans in the present-day American Midwest.

Albuquerque, N.M. • David McCullough is one of the country’s most beloved historians, known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, acclaimed works on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, and for narrating such famous documentaries as Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

But with his latest book, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” McCullough is seeing some of the sharpest criticism of his career.

Days after the book was released and reached Amazon.com’s top 20 best-seller list, a new generation of historians, scholars and activists took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Americans Indians. Criticism also has come from many reviewers, including in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

“He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about ‘savages’ and ‘wilderness,’ words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land,” Harvard history professor Joyce E. Chaplin wrote in a review for The Times on Monday. “He also states that the Ohio Territory was ‘unsettled.’ No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians ‘considered’ the land to be theirs.”

McCullough tells the story of a group of New Englanders, led by The Rev. Manasseh Cutler, who in the late 18th century ventured into the Northwest Territory — now Ohio — to create communities. The author told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he wanted to write about people not widely known to the general public.

“I like to write about people who set out to do something that is thought to be impossible. And how they run into more complicated turns and tests of their fortune than they ever imagined or expected, and how they don’t give up,” he said.

McCullough continued that the early Ohio settlers he writes about “go out there and there’s nothing: no highways, no roads, no bridges, no hospitals, to say the least, and no anesthetic. ... And they put up with adversities of a kind even they couldn’t have anticipated: epidemic diseases like smallpox and influenza, accidents of all kind, the premature death of children.”

Critics say McCullough is relying too heavily on the perspective of whites who saw themselves as taming a primeval wilderness. The book relies on old stereotypes about American Indians and overlooks the complex and diverse tribes and cultures already there, they say.

Detractors have seized on one particular line in which McCullough describes white settlers being surrounded by American Indians during a conflict. “The only hope was that the savages would be so taken up with plunder of the camp as not to follow after,” McCullough writes. “No preparation could be made. Numbers of brave men must be left a sacrifice, there was no alternative.”

That passage offended Brett Chapman, a Tulsa, Okla., attorney and descendant of White Eagle, a Ponca chief.

“It’s just sickening. He hits every single stereotype. He hits the wilderness stereotype — that no one was there. He hits the drunkenness stereotype,” said Chapman, who read the book this week and live-tweeted criticisms. “He hits the vanishing race stereotype. That’s what the pioneers used to justify in stealing the land.”

Simon & Schuster spokeswoman Julia Prosser said that both the publisher and McCullough were declining comment.

The criticism comes as new voices in history and American studies are challenging traditional narratives about westward expansion as a story of progress and American exceptionalism.

McCullough uses settlers’ diaries to document how Cutler, a white clergyman and Revolutionary War veteran, and others moved to country that had been ceded to the U.S. from Great Britain after the war.

The American Indian tribes there, however, did not agree to surrender their lands, said Columbia University history professor Karl Jacoby. After the war, they formed a confederation to stop violent invaders.

“As all these new desperate states of the new United States are coalescing and are trying to form a new system of government, all these indigenous communities are coalescing and forming their new form of government to deal with the threat of the United States,” Jacoby said. “If you are talking about a history that isn’t known, I don’t think it’s the history of the pioneers. It’s the history of what indigenous people are doing.”

Kai Minosh Pyle, a University of Minnesota graduate student who is Ojibwe/Nishnaabe, said McCullough barely mentions the names of any indigenous people, and reduces their existence to fights with white settlers.

“There’s been so much scholarship in the past 20 years from Native and allied scholars who’ve been trying to tell this history in a better way. It felt like he was simply ignoring this work,” Pyle said.