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Red River Carts

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Black and white photograph of a man and a Red River cart train, ca. 1859. Photograph by Martin’s Gallery.

A man and a Red River cart train, ca. 1859. Photograph by Martin’s Gallery.

Red River carts were used by the Métis for bison hunts and for trade between the Red River Colony (present-day Winnipeg) and St. Paul in the early 1800s. By the mid-1800s, nearly continuous use of the carts had worn trails into the prairie grasses. These trails connected the hunting-farming culture of the Métis on the Red River with the growing industrial culture of St. Paul on the Mississippi River.

Fur traders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used waterways to travel to the upper Great Plains. As they built posts further inland and west, however, they wanted easier land transportation. In 1801, Alexander Henry (the Younger), a trader for the North West Company, set up a post near present-day Pembina, North Dakota, and fashioned the precursor to the Red River cart. Henry wrote that the cart, made in 1801, had solid wheels “sawed off from the ends of logs whose diameter was three feet.”

The design of Henry’s cart likely derived from the carts in French Canada, where many of the workers at Pembina were from. Henry would later write that each cart was worth four horses to them “as it would require five horses to carry as much on their backs as one will drag in each of these large carts.”

After French Canadians introduced the cart to the Red River area, local Métis people started building and using what came to be known as the Red River cart. The Métis, people of mixed European and American Indian heritage, used the carts for their well-known buffalo hunts. After the establishment of the Red River Colony in present-day Winnipeg in 1811, they also used them for trade.

The Red River cart was made entirely of wood. The only tools needed to build it were an ax and an auger. Rawhide, or wood found along the route, was used to mend breaks. The cart was suspended between two large wheels, each more than five feet in diameter. The wheels had spokes that angled outward from the hubs to the rim, which helped stabilize the cart.

When the wheels were taken off, they could be lashed together and, concave side down, used as a raft to cross water. When they were used on land, their squeal could be heard from miles away because they could not be greased; grease would mix with the trail dust and either stop the wheels from turning or wear down the axel. The axel supported the cart’s weight and, even without grease, wore out quickly. Travelers carried spare axels on their journeys; a typical trip from Winnipeg to St. Paul would require four or five.

Drivers used harnesses to hitch their carts to a horse or ox, whose head went through a collar. They attached the collar to the cart’s shaft with leather straps called tugs. Usually, the cart was pulled by one animal, but there are some records of carts being pulled by two. Horses were first used, but oxen, which could pull up to 1,000 pounds, also pulled carts after their introduction to North Dakota in 1821.

The Métis regularly traveled from the area of the Red River Colony to St. Paul, organizing caravans with as many as 200 carts. They carried bison hides, fur, meat, and pemmican to trade, and they returned home with manufactured goods, ammunition, food, tobacco, seed, and other imports. In addition to carrying goods, the carts provided protection. Drivers hung hides or canvas on them to shield themselves from weather and parked them in circle formations around camps to guard against attack.

There were no roads at first, so the Métis created their own trails with the carts. They created three main routes: the Woods Trail, the Plains Trail (on the east side of the Red River), and the Plains Trail (on the west side of the Red River). For a time, the trading routes were commercially and politically comparable to the Santa Fe Trail. Because expansion in the American north was not as successful as it was in the south, however, the significance of the Red River trails and the carts that made them is not as well recognized. In the 1850s and 1860s, steamboats and railways replaced the Red River carts as the region’s main modes of transportation.

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Brehaut, Harry Baker. “The Red River Cart and Trails: The Fur Trade.” Transactions of the Manitoba Historical Society 3, no. 28 (1971–1972). http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/redrivercart.shtml

Gilman, Carolyn. “Perceptions of the Prairie: Cultural Contrasts on the Red River Trails.” Minnesota History 46, no. 3 (Fall 1978): 112–122. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/46/v46i03p112-122.pdf

Gilman, Rhoda, Carolyn Gilman, and Deborah M. Stultz. Red River Trails: Oxcart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement, 1820–1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.

History of the Red River Valley: Past and Present, Including an Account of the Counties, Cities, Towns, and Villages of the Valley from the Time of their First Settlement and Formation. Chicago: Cooper, 1909.
https://archive.org/details/historyofredrive01chicuoft

North Dakota State Government. The Métis and Red River Carts.
http://ndstudies.gov/gr4/frontier-era-north-dakota/part-2-fur-trade-red-river/section-4-métis-and-red-river-carts

Nute, Grace Lee. “The Red River Trails.” Minnesota History 6, no. 3 (Fall 1925): 278–282.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/6/v06i03p278-282.pdf

Peihl, Mark. “Red River Carts Reviewed.” Clay County Archives. Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
http://test.hcscconline.org/clay-county-histories/red-river-carts-reviewed/

Related Images

Black and white photograph of a man and a Red River cart train, ca. 1859. Photograph by Martin’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of a man and a Red River cart train, ca. 1859. Photograph by Martin’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of two men, probably Métis, preparing a Red River cart train at Pembina, 1856.
Black and white photograph of two men, probably Métis, preparing a Red River cart train at Pembina, 1856.
Black and white photograph of Red River Carts encamped, 1858.
Black and white photograph of Red River Carts encamped, 1858.
Black and white photograph of a camp with Red River carts, ca. 1860.
Black and white photograph of a camp with Red River carts, ca. 1860.
Black and white photograph of Métis drivers with Red River ox carts, probably in Minnesota, 1860.
Black and white photograph of Métis drivers with Red River ox carts, probably in Minnesota, 1860.
Black and white photograph of an ox-cart train on a Red River trail, ca. 1860.
Black and white photograph of an ox-cart train on a Red River trail, ca. 1860.
Black and white photograph of Ojibwe with Red River carts near Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, Canada,
Black and white photograph of Ojibwe with Red River carts near Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, Canada,
Black and white photograph of Red River carts, 1862–1875. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Red River carts, 1862–1875. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of a Red River cart at a Dakota family’s camp, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of a Red River cart at a Dakota family’s camp, ca. 1870.

Turning Point

In 1801, the precursor to the Red River cart is built by fur traders from French Canada living in present-day Pembina, North Dakota. Métis people went on to use the carts to establish a trading route to St. Paul.

Chronology

1801

Alexander Henry and his workers establish a fort at Pembina, North Dakota. That same year, they build the precursor to the Red River cart.

1811

Thomas Douglas establishes the Red River Colony near Winnipeg, where many Métis were already living. The Métis would become well known for using the Red River cart for trade with St. Paul and other trading posts along their route.

1810s

Scottish, German, and Swiss immigrants join the Red River Colony, adding to the diversity in the area.

1821

Oxen are introduced to North Dakota. A horse could pull almost 500 pounds in a cart and an ox up to 1,000 pounds.

1844

Some evidence suggests that traders favor the Woods Trail because it is in Ojibwe territory and they want to avoid the Plains Trail, which took them by the Dakota.

1849

Minnesota Territory is organized; the Red River carts are commonly used.

1859

A steamboat, Anson Northup, makes the first trip down the Red River from Georgetown to Winnipeg, marking the beginning of the end of the Red River cart’s heyday.

1881

Railways reach west of Winnipeg—another signal of the Red River cart’s waning days of prominence.