“Nothing In Life Is Free,” Book Review

Book Review – Donna Potter Phillips

Nothing In Life Is Free, by Della Gould Emmons, 1953

“A Historical Novel of the Pioneer West”

“Selected as the Official Book Commemorating the Washington Territorial Centennial”


This book tells the story of the settlers to the area in Washington south of Tacoma, the founding of the town of Steilacom, and the trials and hardships they endured to get there.

It was in the fall of 1853 at a meeting in Olympia with Governor Isaac Stevens that the immigrants got the answer to one of their plaguing questions:  “As for the Indian title (to the land) it must be extinguished throughout the length and breadth of this territory. In my judgment under the Donation Law the settler can locate his claim west of the Cascade Mountains.” And so they came.

Jenny and Julius and their wagon train were stalled in Northwest Oregon debating how best to proceed to their goal, the Willamette Valley of Washington. The leaders held council: they could float down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver and then overland to the north. Or they could go in a more direct northwesterly direction which would take them along the Yakima River and then up and over the Naches Pass. The wagon master had been told that a road had been built for that route and that it was passable for oxen and wagons. He was misinformed.

This “road” turned out to be a myth and the wagons struggled for weeks crawling along the rivers, down cliffs and over Mud Mountain (aptly named). With the rich and timbered lands at the foot of Puget Sound as their goal, the continued on despite been harassed by the Indians and having to chop clear every mile of the way. Jenny’s only shoes wore out and her dress rotted at the hem.

Quoting from the story:  “Rain, which hadn’t bothered then east of the mountains, decided it was due on the west side and had better make up for any time that it has lost. Down it came, emptying huge pocketfuls and as the immigrants pushed aside head-high underbrush they were showered liberally, as though receiving a Puget Sound baptism, without which they could never be true citizens.”

They did finally make it to Steilacom.  Page 221 described how Jenny and Julius measured off their claim by carrying 66-foot chains over and over and over through the dense and dripping undergrowth that is the country in Pierce County.  And Jenny in her long skirt!


Upon their arrival in 1853, the story details how these hardy pioneers became embroiled in the conflict between the U.S. government and the Hudson’s Bay Company over who rightly owned the land. The local Nisquallys, believing the land was theirs, also acted against the settlers. Jenny, now with a young son, lost her Julius and watched her cabin go up in flames but held onto her 160 acres of land no matter what befell.

The Donation Land Act decreed that “all male citizens of the U.S. who immigrated and settled in Oregon after 1 December 1850 and before 1 December 1853, and who should comply with the requirements of the stated law, should each receive, if single, 160 acres of land, and if married another 160 to his wife, in her own right.”

Finally in 1864 most disputes were settled but it took until 1869 for the fighting factors to pull out of the area. The novel continues with the story: it was in late 1866 that Jenny and her new husband went to the Pierce County courthouse in Steilacom to testify for final ownership of her land.

In the story, Jenny finally receives the patent for her land signed by U.S. Grant, President of the United States, and dated February 1875.

The inside cover of this hardbound book shows a map of their travels. How they came from the Midwest through southern Idaho over Emigrant Hill (near Baker, Oregon) and then cut up to re-supply at Fort Walla Walla. They then went west of Pasco and northwest along Selah Creek and Wenas Creek to the 4988’ Naches Pass. Finally over, they followed the White River, crossing south of Lake Tapps to the area around Fort Steilacom between what would become Tacoma and Olympia.

Della Emmons’ sense of poetry shines out of here prose:  “Spring. Dogwood trees bursting stars and new green gowns dressing the bushes.”

This book was a wonderful read and made me so glad I was not placed by God on earth in the 1850s to be an Oregon Trail pioneer!


** As of February, 2015, this book was available via Amazon for about $10.00.