For his latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough started with one basic question: What is so special about Ohio?

“When you think of it, the first human beings to fly, one of the first humans to circle the earth, and the first human to set foot on the moon were all from Ohio,” said McCullough, referring to Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. “What made that such an amazing environment for those people to come out of?”

McCullough, 85, explores the founding of Ohio and its impact on the rest of the country in his newest book, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” (Simon & Schuster), which came out May 7.  McCullough and his wife own a house in Camden, near family, and he plans to spend much of the summer there after the tour for this book ends in mid-June.  McCullough, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has spent much of his adult life in New England, including in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the winter.

“The Pioneers” by part-time Camden resident David McCullough came out May 7. Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

“The Pioneers” chronicles the New Englanders who in the late 1780s set out to create new communities based on Puritan and humanitarian principles in the massive wilderness area known as The Northwest Territory. The territory would eventually become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Central to the book is a Massachusetts minister, doctor and botanist named Manasseh Cutler. In 1787, before the infant nation of the United States had a constitution or a president, Cutler convinced Congress to create a set of laws for the new wilderness territory – ceded to the U.S. by the British after the Revolution – that guaranteed free public education and freedom of religion and that outlawed slavery. None of the 13 states guaranteed all those things at the time.

Much of the book’s story focuses on the Ohio River town of Marietta, where the first permanent settlement in the territory was. McCullough describes settlers carving out a New England-style town, with churches and schools, by chopping down trees as big around as six men. The settlers fought off starvation, sometimes hostile natives and disease while sticking to their Puritan principles of being useful, searching for truth and knowledge, and placing the common good over one’s own desires. At the same time, wilderness areas south of the Ohio River in Virginia were being settled, but with no formal plan, no New England-style town governments and no prohibition against slavery.

In the early 1800s, after Ohio became a state, there was a movement to strike down the law against slavery. McCullough writes dramatically about Cutler’s son, Ephraim Cutler, rising from a sick bed and traveling 100 miles through wilderness to the capital, to cast his vote against slavery. The slavery proposal was defeated by one vote. If Ohio had become a slave state and other Northwest Territory states followed, it would have drastically altered American history, McCullough argues.

“(President) Abraham Lincoln came out of Indiana and Illinois, which had been in the Northwest Territory. And (Ulysses S.) Grant was from Ohio, as were other Union generals,” said McCullough.

Part-time Camden resident David McCullough. Photo by William B. McCullough

McCullough first became seriously interested in the early settlement of Ohio while speaking at Ohio University in Athens about 15 years ago, and he later discovered at nearby Marietta College an incredible collection of settlers’ writings that “surprised me and just about lifted me out of my shoes.”

“The more I researched this story the more I realized it needed to be told, and soon,” said McCullough. “I wanted to remind people of the values these people stood for, the old primary American values of respect, courtesy, truth and making yourself useful without complaint. They weren’t (settling the wilderness) to become famous or make a lot of money. They were trying to create the ideal American community. And they did.”

McCullough’s Pulitzer Prizes were for the biographies “Truman” and “John Adams.” His other notable works, dating to the late 1960s, include “The Johnstown Flood,” “The Great Bridge,” “1776,” “The Path Between the Seas,” “Mornings on Horseback,” “The Wright Brothers” and “The Greater Journey.”