Wagons West Meant Tough Life

Artist in Residence Sue Allen Pico demonstrates the concept of “longjohns” to seventh grade social studies students at Yerger Middle School during a week-long exploration of life during the westward settlement in Arkansas. Pico is sponsored through the Arkansas Arts Council by a partnership between the Hope Public Schools and the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council. – Ken McLemore/Hope Public Schools

HOPE – The westward settlement of Arkansas was no family vacation; it was a tough journey which demanded decisions that determined, at times, whether everyone lived or died.

The realities were sobering to Yerger Middle School social studies classes facilitated for a week by Arkansas Artist in Residence Sue Allen Pico.

Beginning with traditional Native American art such as “dream catchers,” Pico introduces students to cultural and historical concepts by having them work hands-on. History and the westward development of Arkansas and the United States are specialty subjects for Pico, who brings the perspective of pioneer life to the personal level with demonstrations such as the use of a flint striker, a student’s school slate, and the concept of “longjohns.”

“When you came west, you brought only what you needed to survive and settle,” Pico pointed out. “There were no convenience stores; and, the nearest trading post may be a two-month journey one way.”

Good hygiene was often optional.

“Men and boys had one pair of pants and a shirt, and girls had, perhaps, one good dress for church,” she said. “And, men might wear their longjohns for weeks before they were washed, which meant taking a bath while wearing them.”

Pico brought the stark contrast between today and the 19th Century settlement of Arkansas into focus by having the students divide into groups to draw a covered wagon, then, collaboratively decide what to load in it for the journey.

“The wagon can’t carry more than two thousand pounds, because the animals pulling it, whether horses, oxen, or mules, would not last the whole trip with more,” Pico said.

While two thousand pounds might seem large, considering it must encompass not only enough food to sustain each traveler for several months, but also other supplies, tools and necessities, Pico said the reality left little room for niceties.

She noted that one group in a class she facilitated in another school district seemed to be dismissive of the importance of making relevant decisions about the project.

“I told them, if I were the wagon master of that group, I would not allow them to make the trip,” Pico said. “I would not have wanted to be responsible for their deaths; and, they would have died, and possibly caused others to die.” Pico, of Shirley, Ar., is sponsored through the Arkansas Arts Council by a partnership between the Hope Public Schools and the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council. She facilitates a variety of classes for both students and teachers, using cross-curricular concepts in math, science, history, literature and art

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