Women On The Wagon Trail Featured in Original Musical

Aug 14, 2014

The cast of Bound for the Promised Land. Back row from left to right: Deb Koppers, Jennifer Furney, Jocelyn Furney, Jaclyn Furney. Front row: Heidi Cernik and Kim Dunham
Credit New Vic Theatre

Remember that video game Oregon Trail where you’re a pioneer traveling in a covered wagon?

If you’ve ever lost the game it might be because you wasted too many bullets on bison when you could only carry back four pounds of meat. Or maybe you and your virtual family drowned trying to ford a river. Or, most likely, your family members died of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid one by one.

It may be a game, but these are all things that happened to American pioneers heading west in the 1800s.

On Friday, the New Vic Theatre in Kalamazoo will premiere an original musical that focuses on the women on the wagon trail called Bound for the Promised Land. It features real journal entries from six pioneer women mixed in with folk songs of the era.

Director Jennifer Furney wrote the musical. She says it was hard to bring some of these diaries to life. Women back then weren’t in the habit of expressing their feelings and many of the journals were written as handbooks for relatives and friends thinking of taking the trip themselves.

“But they do…you can hear it and you see it when they start talking about how many people are dying or seeing the animals who have not made it and the wagons that have been abandoned," Furney says. "Little bits and pieces of how they’re feeling about this do start to emerge.”

Furney says one thing you’ll find is many of these women were not too happy about going on this journey.

“One of the women in this is pregnant with, I believe, her ninth child. When they start out she’s in the first trimester—very, very common. And so they had not only to deal with the walking themselves, they had little children to care for and everybody to feed and to try to build the fires and get things going. So, no, they weren’t really looking forward to it. And many times they were leaving their own family behind because their parents were…they were too old, they weren’t going to do it. So no, I think it was just ‘This is what my husband wants to do, so I’m doing it.’”

Don’t forget, these wagons weren’t for riding in—unless someone was sick. New Vic actress Heidi Cernik says the wagons were for carrying everything you need to survive for several months.

“I mean you think a wagon and you’re going to take a little bit of bread and some flour and some frying pans. But, you know, each person has to take an allotted amount and it’s so much poundage that that’s why they need the ox teams, the horse teams. And when an ox team died or went lame or anything like that, there was no possible way to pull these wagons because you had hundreds of pounds of supplies just to make it across the country.”

Furney says by the end of the train, the land was peppered with family heirlooms left behind. And, unlike in Oregon Trail, every time you decided to float across a river that meant taking apart the wagon, unloading all your stuff, and then putting it back together on the other side.

Pioneers could end up doing this several times a day. If you were unlucky, actress Deb Koppers says you could end up a few planks short.

“The burials of the ones that they lost. They would dismantle wagons for that too, to build coffins,” she says.

But Director Jennifer Furney says something positive did come out of these desperate times. It showed the strength and entrepreneurial spirit of women.

“They did everything that the men did and all of the ‘women’s work,’" Furney says. "And so did women’s lib really start in the ‘60s, no I think in this country it started long, long before that.”

The musical Bound for the Promised Land premieres Friday night at the New Vic Theatre in Kalamazoo and runs through September 27th. Tickets have to be purchased 48 hours in advance.