Like many of his books, James Michener's Chesapeake is a long-form history of a particular region, detailing various families during their lives and how they act and react to the changing times.
The Steed family are at the center of religion and slavery in the novel; as rich landowners, they have many slaves and are unusual in their attitudes. While they are certain in their status as wealthy and white of the inferiority of blacks, they also treat them with a humanity not often seen in landowners of the time. However, they are steadfastly in favor of slavery as both an economic and moral necessity, and Ralph Steed, a priest, debates the morality of slavery from a religious standpoint with Ruth Brinton, who is from the Paxmore family. The Steeds are descended from Edmund Steed, who joined John Smith's voyage to the Americas to escape religious persecution, and so their religion remains an important factor in their lives.
Perhaps the most important event in the book for the Steeds is the loss of Devon Island, which is their landed base of power; the island is subject to erosion from weather, and is eventually destroyed by a hurricane, heralding the decline of the Steed family.