Write—if you live to get there

From a news release

writeifyouliveWrite, If You Live to Get There: Tracing Westward Expansion through 120 Years of Family Letters tells the true story of the Phillips family’s westward migration from Vermont to northern California. Mary K. Sonntag and Mary Jo Sonntag use their family’s collection of old letters to paint a rich and detailed portrait of American life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The letters date back to 1842, when the Phillips family traveled from Vermont to Western Pennsylvania in a wagon pulled by oxen. Between 1850 and 1868 the children left Pennsylvania for the western frontier. Soon letters were crisscrossing the country from Pennsylvania to Kansas, Illinois, Colorado and the Lake Tahoe region.

Through the letters we learn about the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and how they combined their business and hospitable instincts to build prominent Lake Tahoe resorts at Phillips Station, Rubicon Springs and Meeks Bay. The letters also tell of health and disease; marriages, births and deaths; adventures; simple pleasures and the strong desire to stay connected to family in poignant words like the following:

  • We are all so scattered it is hard to tell whether we will meet again.
  • I have come to the conclusion that you have forgotten your old Uncle Dan but he has not forgotten you. I will enclose a piece of gold that I found last winter so you will have some little token to remember me by.
  • I am still on the face of the earth & I find lots of work to do but little money for it but then there is lots in the same boat.
  • I have been mining for the last year but I spend more than I make so I am not gitting rich very fast but it may come yet. I still have hopes.

The Sonntags—mother Mary and daughter Mary Jo of Pittsburgh—write a fascinating narrative about their ancestors that illuminates these remarkable letters and the people who penned them. The letters are presented in the actual idiom and spelling of the times and the letter writers. The result is a vivid patchwork of this country’s history interwoven with family lore.

Highlights from the hundreds of letters include accounts of the following family members:

  • J. W. D. Phillips and Mehitable Jane Ball Phillips sailing on the Northern Light for the new gold fields of California, via the Nicaragua route crossing the Isthmus of Panama, and reaching San Francisco in 1852. (Mehitable Jane divorced her first husband because he took the “wrong” side in the Civil War).
  • J. W. D. Phillips building a resort known as Phillips Station at Lake Tahoe known for “its grand scenery and no rattlesnakes nor poisonous vines.”
  • The energetic and enterprising Sierra Nevada “Vade” Philllips establishing a mineral water spa in Tahoe, adding to her profits by marketing the water with the slogan “tastes better than whiskey!”
  • Great Uncle Dan Phillips, a bachelor miner, rancher, stage coach driver, and forest ranger—a rugged but gentle pioneer who was the bedrock of the Phillips family.

The book contains 47 family photographs depicting nearly all of the letter writers.

Mary Jo Sonntag will share stories from the book at various Northern Nevada locations in August. For places, times and more, visit the authors’ website.


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