The story begins in 1841, some 17 years after George has married, borne 2 sons, and is basking in his glory as head cock-fighter, winning yet another cock fight and the approval of his owner Tom Moore. But after the event, he ends up talking to one of his cock-fighting buddies who tells him that he has saved up enough money to buy himself out of slavery, thanks to his owner sharing the profits. This is news to George and gets him thinking about the possibility of doing the same one day, although for the moment, he feels his money is best spent on maintaining his "sportin' man" image and bringing presents back to his family.
On his way back to the plantation with his owner Tom Moore, their carriage is intercepted by slave catchers looking for a runaway named Nat Turner who they claim has been killing whites in the area. Upon reaching the plantation, with Tom in a drunken stupor in the back of the wagon, George is attacked and eventually shot by Tom's wife, who is fearful of the stories she had heard about Nat Turner and who believes that George had killed her husband. Having descended into a state of paranoia, and convinced that her own slaves are out to kill her, once she finds Tom alive and well, she convinces him of the danger and the rules become more severe on the plantation.
This prompts George to reconsider buying not only himself, but all of his family and he calculates that he would need to save $6000 to do it, which he estimates may take up to 10 years to achieve. However fate intervenes when a wealthy rival cock-fighter desires to buy George and his family in order to boost his own odds of winning big purses - all with the stipulation that George would share in the winnings and he and his family would be set free in 5 years. But Tom Moore refuses to sell and George realizes that Moore will never let him go free.
George descends into a fury wanting to kill Tom Moore, but his mother Kizzy intervenes and finally confesses that Tom Moore is George's father. George confronts Tom about this and Tom proudly admits to fathering at least 20 others across the county. George stands him down by refusing to fight Tom's cocks, but Tom retorts with the threat to sell George's son and wife if he doesn't comply, which gives George no choice.
At a high-purse cock-fight against Englishman Sir Eric Russell, George and Tom lose a bet of $20,000 when their prized cock dies in the ring. In order to pay the debt, Tom agrees to lend George to the Englishman to train others, but he must travel to England to do so, leaving his family behind. However Tom promises George that when he returns, he will be set free.
Hard times at the Moore plantation forces the sale of George's family to the Harvey plantation and when George returns just prior to the U.S. Civil War after 14 years in England, he finds that one of his sons (who he named Tom), has become a blacksmith, has married, and has bore him grandchildren. But he also learns that his mother Kizzy had recently died and that his freedom is contingent on his leaving the state within 60 days. So after much story-telling and soul-searching, Chicken George eventually sets off for the north, leaving his family once more.
The Harvey plantation is graced by a poor but friendly white couple who befriends George's son Tom. The young male, who Tom's wife dubs "Ol George", is offered a position of overseer, albeit a benign one, as he and his wife Martha defy everything that had been believed about the white society. The couple is eventually accepted by the slaves as family.
As time passes, the Civil War is not going well for the south and this forces every plantation to sell off goods to help fund the soldiers. Tom has a run-in with a scheming local who has recently become a rebel deserter. This leads to a confrontation between them that results in the deserter's death.