On March 7, 1800, Philemon Wright, a farmer from Woburn, Massachusetts, arrives on the north shore of the Ottawa River in Hull Township in Lower Canada. On September 1, 1860, on the south side of the river in the united province of Canada, Queen Victoria's son, Prince Albert Edward, lays the cornerstone for Canada's Parliament Buildings on Barrack Hill in Ottawa.
While the novel dramatizes the real events that unfold between those two dates—Wright's determination to establish a community of farmers, the political scheming that results in Ottawa becoming Canada's capital—it's also the story of immigrants struggling for survival in a new world. Among them, Jedediah Jansen, who is ten years old when his family arrives with Wright's party. Jed marries, enters the volatile timber business, is overwhelmed by both, and his life spirals out of control.
The settlers' attempts to establish a peaceful community are further exacerbated when the government in York (Toronto) refuses to confer legal status on Bytown (Ottawa). And because its inhabitants resent Colonel By's civil authority, the lawless settlement is rampant with self-serving politics, religious bigotry, and barbaric violence.