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When Johan Sutter is falsely accused of murder in 1833 in his native Switzerland, he leaves his wife Anna, daughter Annaliese and son Johan, Jr. for America. He is immediately offered a job as a cable car driver in New York, but both he and Pete Perkin, who was hired with him, are beset by strikebreakers and are hospitalized. While recuperating, Johan decides to go to California, which has been described to him as paradisial, and upon his release, he and Pete head West. For two years they run a successful general store in Missouri until they have saved enough money to continue their travels. Pete reluctantly follows Johan to Vancouver, where they board Captain Kettleson's California-bound ship just in time to avoid being trapped in wintery Canada. The ship stops first in the Sandwich Islands, where King Kamehameha treats Kettleson, Pete and Johan to a feast, after which Pete decides to stay. Back on the ship, Johan discovers that Kettleson has secretly taken over two hundred Kanakas as slaves. Johan tries to get off the ship, but Kettleson takes him hostage, and when Pete decides to return, Kettleson holds him and steals their savings. Upon running out of water, the crew mutinies and shackles Kettleson and the first mate. Johan takes over as captain, frees the slaves, and gives everyone a last sip of water. The ship arrives on the coast of California, where Johan immediately makes himself known to General Juan Bautista Alvarado, who arranges for Johan and the Kanakas to settle the land around Fort Ross to dissuade the Russians from taking the land. Johan names the colony New Helvetia, but after three years without money for supplies, the colonists face starvation. Just in time, Russian General Rotscheff offers to sell Johan his fort, ship and farm animals, in exchange for yearly payments. Johan completes the deal and makes the acquaintance of beautiful English-born Countess Elizabeth Bartoffski. She helps him herd the animals to the settlement, and then promises to follow his career when she is back in Russia. The colony flourishes, and eventually Johan takes final ownership of Fort Sutter. Having grown bored with the life of Russian royalty, Elizabeth visits Johan in California. He falls in love with her and proposes, but Pete protests that Johan has a wife and children and warns him that Elizabeth is only after his wealth. Johan refuses to listen, and Elizabeth stays on until gold is discovered on the land and he is robbed of everything by greedy prospectors. Elizabeth leaves Johan, who then becomes destitute until his wife and grown children arrive, having been summoned by Pete. Anna dies shortly thereafter from tropical fever, but has bound Johan to a promise to fight the loss of his land and finish New Helvetia. After many years, Johan's lawyer son, Johan, Jr., wages a court battle to reclaim his father's land. During this time, Annaliese becomes engaged to Juan Bautista Alvarado, Jr., and when Juan is fired upon because of Johan's land fight, Johan sends them out of the country for their own protection. During Johan's Admission Day speech in San Francisco, it is announced that the Supreme Court has returned Johan's land to him. The crowd of landowners riots, and Johan, Jr. is shot and killed, just as another announcement comes that the Supreme Court has reversed its decision in favor of the prospectors. Johan is mortified that the greed of the people has caused his son's death and vows to fight them for the rest of his life. By 1876, however, Johan is an elderly man waging a lost battle in Washington, with his faithful companion, Pete, by his side. One day in a park, some newsboys shout jokingly that Congress has awarded Johan his land. He rushes to the Capitol, where he buys a paper and reads the truth, that Congress has adjourned. Johan collapses on the Capitol steps and dies.