For Jacob Wheeler, the lure of unknown adventure spurs a journey from his Virginia home to the open spaces of the unsettled West.

"He's a young fellow whose imagination has been captured by Lewis and Clark, by Daniel Boone and the outdoors," said Matthew Settle, who portrays the fictitious Wheeler in "Into the West," a six-part mini-series executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. "Jacob has ideas, and he wants to make history."

Wheeler does make a bit of history with his rescue of and marriage to a Native American named Thunder Heart Woman, linking his family with her heritage. The chapters of their lives, and of those around them, unfold during the series from the dual perspectives of settlers and a Lakota family. Marriages, migration to new territory, individual hardships, failures and success map Spielberg's vision of the rugged, sometimes violent, West.

"You know that with anything under Steven's name, he wants to make a contribution to our understanding of it," Settle said. "It's not just a black-hat, white-hat story about the West."

Filmed in 180 days in Santa Fe, N.M., and Calgary, Alberta, the series "allows people to reflect on our origins as a country," said Darryl Frank, co-head of DreamWorks Television, which produced the project.

"For good or bad, this is where we all came from," said Frank, also an executive producer of the series.

Spielberg "is a history buff, so this was something he knew a ton about but had not really explored before," Frank said. "And the key to it for everyone involved from the beginning was authenticity."

For Settle, that authentic touch included learning to make wagon wheels because his character is a wheelwright. He and Skeet Ulrich, who plays Jacob's brother Jethro, went to school to study the trade.

"We learned just how the process works, how the wheel is shaped," Settle said. "It helps you develop the character if you know what he does and how he does it."

Settle is just one member of a substantial cast that includes newcomers, veteran actors and familiar names: Beau Bridges, Gary Busey, Jessica Capshaw, Keith Carradine, Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Modine, Judge Reinhold, Keri Russell -- and what seems to be countless head of buffalo.

"There were literally thousands of buffaloes," said Justin Falvey, co-head of DreamWorks Television and an executive producer.

"We had a whole separate buffalo unit. On those sequences, they decided how many real ones we'd have and which ones would be CGI [computer-generated images] buffaloes."

Falvey said he and Frank found the series was "a reeducation for us, in diving back into the history books."

"From both the Native American and pioneer sides, this really is a look into our past and how this country was defined," he said.

Irene Bedard, who plays Jacob Wheeler's daughter Margaret, called the story a personal journey for her character.

"She's not certain of her station in life, and even after she makes the decision to marry and live in the Anglo world, she is unsure she can fit in and feels something is missing," Bedard said.

When Margaret is captured by the Cheyenne, she chooses to remain in the Native American world and is then called by her Lakota name, Light Shines.

Bedard described the scale of the series, which spans 1825 to 1890, as "simply huge, with 300 speaking roles and 15,000 extras."

"With the railroad being built, the gold rush, there is so much struggle, so much happiness over that time," she said. And working together on the set was "like a family reunion of all the Native American actors."

Bedard said to get ready for her role, the big thing was putting on all those corsets. "You can't imagine what it feels like."

She also read Lakota history, "but just being on the set, there are also those bits of history that you absorb by osmosis, things that make you say, 'I didn't know that,' " she said.

Sean Astin, who portrays prospector Martin Jarrett, said the series picks up where documentaries leave off.

"You're showing a more complete story than what we read about in the sixth grade," he said.

Astin's character is an "example of those thousands of American dreamers and adventurers who were seeking a life that was more exciting than living in St. Louis," he said.

"And you could see how difficult that life was. Beau Bridges plays the manager of a wagon train who's responsible for hundreds of people -- does he have enough people who are armed and can do battle? He has to worry about the women and the children.

"He's part P.T. Barnum, part padrone, and you see how everything is all happening around him, as it did to those travelers," Astin said.

The shifting viewpoint of the series "lets you feel the complete story," he said. "In one scene, you're identifying with the settlers, then in another, you feel the pain of the Native American."

Because of the size of the cast, "it was never going to be star-driven," said Frank, another of the project's executive producers. "Certain roles are bigger than others, but at the same time, we wanted someone who embodied the character."

Some characters span the duration of the series, requiring multiple actors to fill the roles.

"That was one of the toughest things creatively," Frank said. "What we were going for was more the essence of the person, as opposed to the look of the person."

Settle's character ages from 17 years old, when he tells the first part of the story, to 42, but Settle portrays him at every stage.

"In his later years, he has so much weight on his shoulders, the weight of life experience, and his walk is different," Settle said. "It helped me to delve into the character, to see how he changes from those younger years."

Each Friday episode repeats on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m.

Story Guide

All episodes air at 8 p.m.

1) "Wheel to the Stars" (Friday): In 1827, Virginia wheelwright Jacob Wheeler seeks adventure, trekking west to California. A young Lakota, named Loved by the Buffalo after he is spared in a bison stampede, sees visions of the buffalo vanishing. His sister, Thunder Heart Woman, is saved by Wheeler, who marries her and brings the two families together.

2) "Manifest Destiny" (June 17): As the western frontier changes, some Native Americans adopt the ways of the white settlers. Jacob Wheeler takes Thunder Heart Woman back to Virginia. But the prospect of a new life in California again leads them, and his brother Jethro, to head west.

3) "Dreams and Schemes" (June 24): Thousands of prospectors race to California in their race to find gold, destroying sacred Lakota land in the process. Jethro Wheeler is among the greedy, while Loved by the Buffalo still seeks the prophet who can save his tribe. And President Lincoln's election divides the nation.

4) "Hell on Wheels" (July 8): The railroad's rise bridges the geographic gap between East and West. One of Jacob Wheeler's sons works for the railroad, the other is an Army scout, and his daughter Margaret is captured by the Cheyenne. Horrified at how her brethren are treated by soldiers, Margaret stays with the Cheyenne, where she is known by her Lakota name, Light Shines.

5) "Casualties of War" (July 15): The discovery of gold in the Black Hills prompts the Army to take over the land. But Chief Sitting Bull will not yield, and his vision of a defeat of the Army comes to life in Crazy Horse's triumph over Custer's troops at Little Big Horn.

6) "Ghost Dance" (July 22): When Sitting Bull is killed by soldiers, whether by accident or design, a rebellion by the Lakota escalates as brutality toward Indians grows. After many years, Loved by the Buffalo and Jacob Wheeler meet again, and Loved by the Buffalo resolves to pass along the traditions of the Lakota to future generations.