Squire Hawkins of Obedstown, Tennessee, receives a letter from Colonel Beriah Sellers asking Hawkins to come to Missouri with his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Emily and Washington. Moved by the Colonel’s eloquent account of opportunities to be found in the new territory, the family travels west. On the journey, they stop at a house where a young child is mourning the death of his mother. Feeling compassion for the orphan, Hawkins offers to adopt him. His name is Henry Clay.
The travelers board the Boreas, a steamboat headed up the Mississippi. The Boreas begins to race with another, rival steamboat, the Amaranth. The boiler on the Amaranth explodes, causing a fire on board and killing or injuring scores of passengers. As the Boreas rescues survivors, Hawkins finds a stray child, Laura, whose parents apparently have died. The Hawkinses, although now burdened with four children, find hope in the promise of Tennessee lands that they still own and adopt Laura.
After a tiresome journey, they reach their new home, a log cabin surrounded by a dozen or so other ramshackle dwellings. There Colonel Sellers helps the Hawkinses start their new life. However, Squire Hawkins does not prosper as he has hoped; rather, he makes and loses several fortunes.
Ten years later, Colonel Sellers is living in Hawkeye, a town some distance away. Squire Hawkins, by this time, is impoverished. Clay has gone off to find work, and Laura, now a beautiful young girl, volunteers to do so. Washington and Emily cannot decide what to do. Clay brings money to the destitute family and pays Washington’s stagecoach fare to Hawkeye, where he finds Colonel Sellers as poorly off as the Hawkins family. Colonel Sellers, however, is a magnificent talker. His fireless stove becomes a secret invention, his meager turnip dinner a feast, his barren house a mansion, and under the spell of his words, Washington’s dismal prospects are changed to expectations of a glowing future. Colonel Sellers speaks confidentially of private deals with New York bankers and the Rothschilds. He confides that he is working on a patent medicine that will bring him a fortune. Sellers takes Washington to the real estate office of General Boswell. It is arranged that the young man will live with the Boswells while working for the general. Before long, he falls in love with Boswell’s daughter Louise.
Squire Hawkins dies, leaving his family only the lands in Tennessee. Among his papers, Laura finds some letters from a Major Lackland, who apparently came across a man believed to be Laura’s father. Before Hawkins can get in touch with the man, he disappears. Laura’s doubtful parentage makes her an object of scorn in the region.
Meanwhile, two young New Yorkers, Philip Sterling and Harry Brierly, set out for Missouri to work as construction engineers for a railroad company. In St. Louis, they meet Sellers, who entertains them with boasts about his investments and treats them to drinks and cigars. When he shows embarrassment, pretending to have lost his money, Philip relieves him by paying the bill.
In Philadelphia, Ruth Bolton, the daughter of Eli and...
(The entire section is 1310 words.)