James Michener’s 1978 novel Chesapeake tells the history of the Chesapeake Bay along the mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States from 1583 to 1978 through the stories of families who lived on its banks and for whom the bay was a source of livelihood and drama. Structured through a series of 14 “voyages,” each voyage a separate chapter, Michener’s novel traces American history from the settling of the region along Maryland’s Eastern Shore of Susquehannock Indians, through the period of the first English-speaking settlers, through the American Revolution, the Civil War, and much of the nation’s history, including the era of slavery, all the way up to the demise of the presidential administration of Richard Nixon. In a novel of such historic sweep, it is not surprising that too many characters appear in its pages to list here. What follows, therefore, is a list of the novel’s major characters, which revolve around the stories of three families, the Steeds, the Paxmores, and the Turlocks. In addition, a slave named Cudjo Cater and subsequent generations of his family will figure prominently throughout the story, as Michener portrays the practice and business of slavery and the struggle for civil rights through their eyes. In addition, one of the first characters is a Native named Pentaquod, who gives a human face to the otherwise faceless and nameless indigenous populations who preceded the European explorers and conquerors. Pentaquod exists to cement the notion that the Native population was here first, and Michener’s character is described as being the first to settle the land on the Chesapeake.
The Steeds are a family of Roman Catholic who first arrive in North America with the real-life figure of John Smith, and it is that English family’s patriarch, Edmund, who represents the intrusive and exploitive European settlers who ushered in the era of slavery and prospered mightily by it. Edmund Steed’s family will continue to represent the “old money” element in American society and the occasionally rapacious side of the Anglo-American experience.
The Paxmores, in stark contrast to the Steeds, represent morality, albeit of the imperialist kind. The Paxmores, led into the New World by Edward Paxmore, a Quaker and staunch proponent of the abolition of slavery, inject an element of intellectual liberalism into the proceedings and a definite counterweight to the material excess and immorality of the Steeds, who are depicted as founders of the extremely lucrative tobacco industry while using slave labor to build their business empire. The intellectual stand-off between the Steeds and the Paxmores provides Michener the opportunity to debate issues of the day within the context of his history. While the Paxmores begin as humble Quakers, however, Edward’s prowess as a carpenter eventually leads commissions to build ships, sometimes for nefarious purposes, including piracy and the transport of slaves, a practice that brings the Steeds and the Paxmores into direct confrontation.
Finally, there is the Turlock family, introduced to readers in the person of Timothy, a less-than-brilliant lower-class common criminal banished from his native England to the colonies, where he sets the stage for generations of Turlocks-to-come. While the Turlock family represents the impoverished European colonial presence, they are also the lowest form of humanity in the way they come to earn their living in the slave trade. By the end of the novel the reigning patriarch of the family will emerge as a wealthy real estate mogul, a major transformation for a family that saw generations subsisting in a shack on the shores of the bay.
In the meantime, the Caters will similarly spawn generations that appear at the scene of the greatest moments in American history (East Coast, anyway). Cudjo Cater’s heirs will wage the battles against slavery and for civil rights. “Big Jimbo” begins his career as a cook on skipjacks that ply the waters of the Chesapeake developing what would become the oyster industry. Eventually, following the indignities that usually affected African American laborers, Big Jimbo succeeds in becoming captain of his own skipjack and prospers in the oyster business.
While the Caters survive the centuries as stalwarts of morality, the Paxmores and Steeds traverse more difficult terrain. While the Steeds make their fortune in an industry that would – much later – be associated with serious illnesses and exploit slave labor in so doing, they are not the personification of evil, and the Paxmores are not entirely without sin, as Michener’s depiction of the Watergate scandal will reveal.