Jim and Antonia travel to Black Hawk for the first time on the same train, but their lives are shown to be quite different even before they arrive. An orphan at the age of ten, Jim travels to a new home where he will live with his grandparents; he is escorted by Jake Marpole, who had once worked for Jim's deceased father. In another train car, Antonia is surrounded by members of her family, Bohemian immigrants seeking a new life in a strange land.
Once they arrive in Black Hawk, their living situations are quite different. Jim lives with his grandparents in a comfortable frame house on a farm with a stable and a fruitful garden. He enjoys the advantages of his grandparents' home and financial security.
Antonia, however, lives with her family in abject poverty. Arriving in Black Hawk with few worldly possessions, her family barely survives in a structure dug into the side of a hill. The little money they had with them upon arriving in Black Hawk is gone, since they had been cheated when they bought their "house." Speaking little English and knowing nothing about farming, the Shimerda family's situation, including Antonia's, is quite bleak, very different from Jim's comfortable and secure life with his grandparents.