Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310
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 Margaret Bolton, both Quakers, receives a letter from Philip. Rebelling against the rules of the Friends, Ruth tells her parents that she wants to do something different, perhaps study medicine.
Sellers continues to befriend the two young men in St. Louis. He goes so far as to suggest that the railroad should be built through Stone’s Landing, a small village not along the route planned for the road. Like Sellers, Harry is a man of imagination. When their money...
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runs out, Harry and Philip go to an engineer’s camp near Hawkeye, and the Colonel joins them to plan the city to be built there.
Philip and Harry arrive in Hawkeye eight years after the death of Squire Hawkins. The Civil War has been fought; the Hawkinses are still supported by Clay, and Laura has become a beauty. During the war, she married a Colonel George Selby, who, already married, deserted her when his regiment was transferred. After that calamity, she turned her eye upon Harry Brierly, who fell in love with her.
When Senator Abner Dilworthy goes to Hawkeye to investigate Colonel Sellers’s petition for funds to improve the area, he meets Washington Hawkins. Thinking Washington a fine young man, the senator takes him on as an unpaid secretary. Laura charms Dilworthy to such an extent that he invites her to visit his family in Washington, D.C.
Ruth is in school at Fallkill, where she stays with a family named Montague. On their way to New York, Philip and Harry stop to see her. Philip is disappointed with the manner in which Ruth accepts him. Alice Montague is kinder to him; Ruth seemed too attentive to Harry. In Washington, D.C., Harry sees the appropriation for Stone’s Landing passed by Congress. When the New York office sends no money with which to pay the workers at Stone’s Landing, Harry goes to New York to investigate. Speculation is everywhere; even Mr. Bolton decides to buy some land near the railroad in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Harry learns that the bribes to obtain the congressional appropriation have been so costly that there is no money left to pay for the work at Stone’s Landing. Hired by Mr. Bolton, Philip goes to develop the natural resources of a tract of land in Ilium, Pennsylvania. He becomes a frequent visitor at the Boltons’.
Senator Dilworthy invites Laura to come to Washington, where she immediately becomes a belle—much to Harry’s consternation. Many people believe her an heir. The senator attempts to use her influence in getting congressmen to vote in favor of a bill in which he is interested. At a party, Laura sees Colonel Selby, who has come to Washington to claim reimbursement for some cotton destroyed during the war. When the former lovers meet, Laura knows that she still loves Selby and the two begin to be seen together. When Selby leaves Washington and Laura, she follows him to a New York hotel, where she shoots him.
The opening of the Ilium coal mine finds Philip and Harry hard at work. Before they locate the main vein, however, Mr. Bolton goes bankrupt and surrenders all his property to his creditors. Philip is able to buy the Ilium tract. Ruth, now graduated from medical school, goes to work in a Philadelphia hospital. Harry is in New York, a witness at Laura’s murder trial. Philip, hoping to read law in a squire’s office, visits the Montagues in Fallkill. Mr. Montague, seeing value in Philip’s mine, offers to finance a further excavation.
Laura’s trial attracts much attention. Claiming that she is insane, her lawyer tries to show that her mind has been deranged from the time she lost her parents in the steamboat fire.
Senator Dilworthy’s bill, a measure to establish a university for African Americans on the Hawkins land in Tennessee, has been for some time in committee. Washington and Sellers expect to make a fortune when the bill passes. Then Dilworthy, up for reelection, attempts to buy votes and is exposed, and his bill is defeated on the floor of the Senate. Washington and Sellers are crestfallen.
Laura is acquitted of the murder charge. Penniless, she tries to begin a lecture tour, but on her first appearance, she finds only an empty auditorium. On the streets, she is attacked by angry citizens and driven home to a cold room, where she dies of a broken heart.
Philip finally finds coal in his shaft, but his elation subsides when a telegram from the Boltons tells him that Ruth is gravely ill. He hurries to her bedside, where his loving presence brings her back to life and to him.