The Paxmore family is one of the main families whose history is traced through the time span covered in Chesapeake.
Edward and Ruth Brinton Paxmore are Quakers who settle in the Chesapeake Bay after being driven from Massachusetts in the religious persecution directed against their faith.
Edward is the founder of what becomes Paxmore Shipyard. He and his descendants build boats for use on the Bay and ocean-going ships that play important roles in the Revolutionary War and the slave trade.
Ruth fights against slavery, teaches the family's slaves to read, and her grandson leads their Quaker Meeting House in outlawing slave-ownership among its members.
Ships built by Paxmore Shipyard are used by pirates and by the colonial navy during the Revolutionary War; later some are modified and used to bring slaves to the new country.
The Paxmores become involved in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves make their way north to freedom. The Paxmores support the North's cause during the Civil War and fight to extend the vote and other rights to the newly freed former slaves after the war has ended.
Woolman Paxmore deals directly with Adolf Hitler and buys the escape from Germany of forty thousand German Jews prior to the start of World War II, although only twenty-five thousand are actually permitted to emigrate to other countries.
At the end of the book, Pusey Paxmore returns to Chesapeake Bay in disgrace after completing his time in prison, convicted for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.