Nicole Duval is a high-class lady with a past. She is octaroon – a woman of one eighth negro blood – in New Orleans of 1853. She gains her freedom from slavery, sells out, and heads west to escape her past and the threat of being re-enslaved. In Independence, Missouri she meets up with her cousin Magdalena. Together they outfit wagons, engage drivers, and start the two-thousand-mile journey to California, admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850. Both cousins try to pass for white. They are helped by a few enterprising gentlemen, fellow members of their wagon train, and Indians. They are hindered by storms, dust, desert, mountains, slave hunters, disease, and Indians. The people and the relationships they form along the way transform their lives, and they are propelled on their journey by the wings of the dawn.