The Betsy Ross of the Bears tells the story of California pioneer Nancy Kelsey. She was the first U.S. woman to cross the Sierra Nevada, which she did with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in 1841. With her husband Ben she played an active role in the final years of Mexican California and provided the material from which the famous Bear Flag was made.
The standard picture of the pioneer wife is of a heroic woman overcoming the hostilities of nature, and perhaps Native Americans, to make her family’s life on the frontier. She helps to build America and fulfill Manifest Destiny. But pioneer women were also subject to the universal conflicts that troubled all families. They had to deal with restless husbands who never let them put down roots, or belligerent parents who thought them fools for leaving home in the first place. If she were illiterate, a pioneer woman had to go years perhaps without hearing news from the family she left behind. Most such women left no written record of their lives. Because of the role she played in the Bear Flag Revolt, Nancy Kelsey was interviewed late in her life. Therefore we do know how she viewed some of the central events of the overland journey and of the place that would become the State of California. The Betsy Ross of the Bears directly addresses the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools at many points. For grade four it tells the story of the Bidwell party and the overland journey. It also teaches about one of the “women who helped to build California during these years.” For grade five it addresses the topic of pioneer women. For grade eight it deals with the Mexican-American war as it appeared to a participant in the Bear Flag Revolt. For grade nine it shows dramatically “the effects historical events have had on women.”
It is 1851. Nancy Kelsey is busy in her cabin, baking bread and packing things in a trunk. Her children are outside playing, her husband Ben is off somewhere. Nancy is in a pensive mood. She sings a haunting hymn of the period. She wishes she could write her mother back in Missouri. But she can’t write and her mother can’t read. So instead she talks to the mother in her imagination. It turns out they parted badly ten years ago. Her mother thought her a fool for marrying Ben Kelsey, and a double fool for going on the wagon train to California, taking a daughter less than a year old. But Nancy treasures the memories of good times planting and harvesting with her mother. And she fondly recalls how she carried with her the precious seeds from her mother’s garden to start her own garden in the west. Nancy justifies her life to her judgmental mother, reliving the tumultuous events of the past ten years. She takes the audience along on the difficult journey: the tornado, the abandoning of their wagons, the loss of the trail, the near starvation in the wilderness, their jubilation on reaching California. Through it all it is her music that keeps her going. We experience with her the death of her second child, born just two months after she reaches Sutter’s Fort. We learn of her friendship with Mariano Vallejo and the Kelsey’s steady rise to prosperity. Then comes the Bear Flag Revolt, the defeat of the Mexicans, and the mixed blessings of California’s coming under U.S. control. Then, when the family overreaches itself, they are reduced nearly to poverty once more. But Nancy’s tough spirit survives, and with it her sense of humor, her love of music, and her knowledge that she has been a part of history. At the end she can even tell her mother that she loves her. The play dramatizes the full complexity of a “simple” woman’s life on the frontier in an era when the husband’s word was law.
This play began its life as the second scene of the play Women of the Bear, which premiered at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora, California on October 9, 1998. During that run, it was performed for adult audiences in the evening and for schools bussed in for matinees.
It began its tour of schools in the Central Valley and Mother Lode on December 7, 1998, and it expanded to a statewide tour in February 1999.
Suitable for grades 4 and up as well as adults.
- Can be performed in theater, classroom, multi-purpose room, gymnasium, or out-door space.
- Sound system is not required except for unusual situations.
- Special lighting is not required.
- Set up time is fifteen minutes.
Reviews and Comments
From reviews of Women of the Bear, which premiered at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora, California on October 9, 1998. The Betsy Ross of the Bears was the second act of this play.
LEO STUTZIN, The Modesto Bee, 10/14/98
…A production as astonishing as it is spare…tour de force performances give vibrant life to the women they portray, and to their provocative and passionate histories…a finely crafted play…All three roles are played superbly by veteran actresses who give us an epic gamut of physical and vocal devices to display weaknesses as well as strengths, and above all a determination to survive.
JEFF HUDSON, Capital Public Radio
…a marvelous, ambitious, insightful and original piece of work…
SHERMAN SPENCER, The Stockton Record, 10/12/98
…the world premiere of Rick Foster’s The Women of the Bear hits a new level of engrossing drama…all three performances are superb…a masterful production of a thought-provoking work, an example of intimate theater at its most rewarding.
Availability and Pricing
Please contact Duende regarding production or performance rights for this play.