Possessing a dream to travel west and settle in California, but lacking the necessary resources, Ben Cartwright, a first mate, marries his long-time fiancee, Elizabeth Stoddard, and settles in New England, where he begins a ship chandler's business.
A year later, after giving birth to a son they name Adam, Elizabeth dies. Motivated by Elizabeth's desire for him to seek his dream, Ben sells his business, journeys west, and settles in St. Joseph, Missouri, where, eight years later, he marries a Swedish girl named Inger.
With Inger's help and understanding, Ben organizes a wagon train and begins his journey west. During the hazardous trek through Nevada, Inger gives birth to a son, Eric Hoss. During an Indian attack, Inger is killed. Abandoning his dream forever, Ben settles in Virginia City, Nevada, and establishes the Ponderosa Ranch in the Comstock Lode Country.
The birth of Little Joe, Ben's third son, evolves from a complex story in which Ben journeys to New Orleans to personally fulfill the last request of a ranch hand who died while saving his life. Love develops as a result of his meeting with Marie DeMarne, the widow of the ranch hand, and a marriage ultimately results. Shortly after the birth of their son Little Joe, Marie is thrown by her horse and dies.
Stories relate the struggles of the Cartwright family as they attempt to maintain and operate their 1,000-square-mile timberland ranch, the Ponderosa, in an era of violence and lawlesness.