Red River Carts Reviewed

Many of our readers, I’m sure, have heard of the Red River carts. In the early 1800s, the Metis people, descendents of early white fur traders and native Cree or Ojibwe women, used these two-wheeled, all-wood vehicles to carry home meat and pemmican from their bi-annual buffalo hunts in eastern North Dakota. They also hauled trade goods from St. Paul to the Winnipeg area and furs south. So much has been written about the carts that it’s a bit intimidating to try adding more information. In 1979 the Minnesota Historical Society published the definitive work on the subject, The Red River Trails: Ox-cart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement 1820-1870 by Rhoda and Caroline Gilman and Deborah Stultz. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in the trails and carts, the early history of the Valley or just a good read. It’s excellent and still available from MHS or local libraries and bookstores. So I’ll just submit a few details about the carts that haven’t seen much press.

First, regarding their construction. After studying scores of photographs and several existing carts, I’m struck by the similarity in their construction. You’d think that with hundreds of independent cart builders working there would be numerous variations, but there really aren’t. Granted, most of the carts and all of the photographs I’ve seen date from the 1850s and 1860s, some half a century after the first carts appeared. The Metis had had plenty of time to work out the bugs. But I suspect that it didn’t take long for the carts to evolve into a standard pattern.

Our replica Red River Cart.

Our replica Red River Cart.

We have in our collections a wonderful replica cart built by John Hall and Eddie Gudmundson. It’s a very typical looking cart. It weighs about 400 pounds and could carry 800 pounds. The heart of the cart is a pair of heavy, parallel, 12-foot long shafts. The single draft animal stood between the shafts to pull. The box rests on the shafts, mortised to keep it in place. The corner posts and side rails of the box are ingeniously located to allow side boards to be slipped in to keep objects from falling out of the cart.

The all wood carts were easy to repair with wood found along the route. The hubs were left ungreased – trail dust would mix with lubricants and work like sand paper. So they squeaked. Of the dozens of cart trip descriptions I’ve read, every one mentions the annoying squeal of the carts.

The most striking feature is the cart’s wheels. Over five feet in diameter, they are dish-shaped with the spokes angling out from the hubs to the rims. This gives the cart a wider stance making it harder to tip over. The big wheels give the cart plenty of ground clearance for going over stumps and through mud.

The rims are wide, about three inches, to keep the cart from cutting into soft sod. They’re made of six curved felloes (sections) pinned together end to end with wooden pegs. I’ve read accounts that suggest that the felloes were made of bent pieces of oak but I’m skeptical. It doesn’t seem practical and every cart and illustration I’ve seen shows the segments cut in a curved shape. The twelve spokes (there are almost always twelve) are mortised into the heavy hub and completely through the felloes. Wedges inserted in the outer ends of the spokes keep the spokes in place, much like wedges in the end of a hammer handle.

Cart drivers near St. Paul change the axle on a cart before the return trip north. Note the extra axles.

Cart drivers near St. Paul change the axle on a cart before the return trip north. Note the extra axles.

The key to the cart is its axle. It supports the entire weight of the cart and load and was the most likely part to fail. A cart typically went through four or five axles on a trip from Winnipeg to St. Paul. Many photos show spare axles tied to the rear of the cart, ready to replace ones which break. The cone-shaped ends of the axle slipped through a similarly shaped hole through the middle of each hub. A lynch pin through each end of the axle held the wheels on.

The shafts rested on the axle in mortises cut not into the axle but into the shafts giving that weakest part greater strength. Some accounts suggest the axle was fixed to the cart with wet rawhide straps which, when dried, shrank and held the parts tight but more commonly the cart body was pinned to the axle with pegs angled down and in through the floor boards and the axle. This would make replacing the axle much easier.

We actually have a date for the invention of the carts: summer or fall of 1801. Alexander Henry was a fur trader for the Northwest Fur Company who had a post near present day Pembina, ND. He left a detailed account of his eight years there which has become a classic in fur trade literature. Some of his employees were French-Canadians from Quebec who improvised carts similar to the two-wheeled, iron tired carts common in their hometowns. I wondered why similar Voyageurs hadn’t come up with the idea earlier, say in the early 1790s when Peter Grant kept a similar NW Co. post at Pembina. The answer is the availability of horses. Horses were a rare commodity in early 19th century Red River Valley. Fur traders came from Canada and Hudson Bay via boats and canoes. Bringing horses was nearly impossible. They had to be purchased from Indians living along the Missouri River with contacts further south. Trader Charles Chaboillez preceded Henry at Pembina in 1797-1798 and also left a journal. He mentions having only two horses for his whole operation. In Henry’s first years he had only two or three. But in the summer of 1801 his men purchased a number of the animals from the Assiniboine Indians to the west and the carts soon followed. In November 1801 he reports, “My men finished a stable for our working horses… Men now go again for meat, with small carts, the wheels of which are each of one solid piece, sawed off the ends of trees whose diameter is three feet. Those carriages we find much more convenient and advantageous than it is to load horses, the country being so smooth and level that we can use them in every direction.”

From these crude beginnings the carts went through a couple of other changes in the next few years. In September 1802 Henry reported that several of his “posts are overland, and require horses to transport the property. We have enough for all purposes, and a new sort of cart which facilitates transportation, hauling home meat, etc. They are about four feet high and perfectly straight; the spokes are perpendicular, without the least bending outward, and only four to each wheel. These carts carry about five pieces [450 pounds] and are drawn by one horse.”

Tinkering continue. The following spring Henry wrote, “I started Mr. Cadotte with a man for Rivir’re Aux Inlets de Bois , with one of our new carts. This invention is worth four horses to us, as it would require five horses to carry as much on their backs as one will drag in each of these large carts.” Assuming a pack horse could carry 150 pounds or more, these “new, large carts” could carry 750 to 800 pounds. They were probably already similar to the standard pattern seen later.

Speaking of draft animals, horses were used exclusively to pull the carts at first. Although some authors use the terms Red River cart and ox-cart interchangeably, cattle were also a late addition to the Valley. Though a few cattle may have reached the Selkirkers by 1815, it was fall 1821 before they come north in any numbers. An ox is a bull castrated at age three. These beasts grew huge and relatively docile and could pull a cart load of half a ton. Oxen were probably not used until late in the 1820s or later.

Ox harnessed to a Red River cart. Note the collar around the animal's neck and the saddle-like "clobber" supporting the shafts in his back.

Ox harnessed to a Red River cart. Note the collar around the animal’s neck and the saddle-like “clobber” supporting the shafts in his back.

Often well meaning artists have portrayed the horse or ox hitched into a wooden yoke. Actually, harnesses, not yokes, were used. The animal’s head passed through a collar against which it pulled. Leather straps called tugs attached the collar to pegs stuck in the ends of the shafts. The harness also included straps around the animal’s rear and a saddle-like “clobber” which rested on the critter’s back and supported the weight of the shafts.

Another myth suggests that wheel rims were sometimes wrapped round and round with long strips of wet rawhide to bind the wheels together and create a sort of tire. In 1970 a Winnipeg Free Press reporter tracked this error to an otherwise accurate 1942 article on carts published in the Hudson’s Bay Fur Trade Company’s official magazine, The Beaver. Two photos published showed a Red River cart which had been fitted with large iron-tired carriage wheels for use in a parade. The tires were loose so someone wrapped the wheels with rawhide to keep them on. No original carts were ever fitted this way but almost immediately publishers began illustrating Canadian history books with rawhide wrapped cart wheels. Some eye witness accounts claim that occasionally a wide strip of wet rawhide might be wrapped lengthwise around the outside of the rim and the edges tied together on the inside creating a rawhide tire. But I’ve only seen one photograph of such a cart wheel.

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