A Tale of the Red River Carts
by Frank Hall
Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, Volume 12, Number 2
No one knows who invented the wheel or the axle. No one knows who first mounted a box on an axle and fixed a pole to the box so that a man could pull this simple machine (with the incredible revolving wheels) from place to place. No one knows who first broke a domestic animal to harness and hitched him in shafts to a cart, so that the innovator and his family, his goods and chattels could be hauled (wondrously without human effort) by a beast of burden. One thing, however, is clear: these things happened somewhere in the Old World a long time ago.
The origin of the wheel is lost in the mists of time, and the origin of the two-wheeled cart - first of all land vehicle - is lost in the dawn of history. We do not know who invented the first two-wheeled cart in the world, but we do know who invented the first two-wheeled cart in Manitoba - at least, we think we know.
Alexander Henry, a partner in the North West Company, is usually credited with building the first Red River Cart, but nowhere in his journal does he claim such credit for himself; nowhere does he say he is the inventor. He does not refer to this vehicle as a Red River Cart. He does not call it by any other name. In Henry's own words it is simply "a new kind of cart" - nothing more.
We may be sure, however, that this particular cart, by whatever name it may have first been known, was the original Red River Cart. Henry's first reference to this vehicle: "Men now go for (buffalo) meat with small carts, the wheels of which are made of solid pieces sawed off at the ends of trees whose diameter is three feet," indicates quite clearly the striking difference between the prototype and its offspring - the Red River Cart as we know it today.
The first Red River Cart was built at Pembina Post. This central entrepot of the North West Company in Red River District was situated at the fork of the Red and Pembina rivers, five miles south of the International Boundary, in the present State of North Dakota. Henry came to this strategic place on May 12th, 1801, to build a post from which he could maintain his trade with the Sioux to the south, and from whence he could develop overland trade routes to the hunting and trapping grounds of the Cree and Saulteaux in Manitoba.
Soon after he had established trade connections with these tribes, he realized that they could supply him with more furs than he could carry. The few saddle horses he had bought from the Snakes of Portage la Prairie for "a nine-gallon keg of mixed rum each" were poor pack animals. At first Henry reckoned the exchange was a good one. His horses were "passible good mounts." Moreover, he was proud ., the first white fur trader at Red River to own his own horses. Later however, after his first pack-trip, his enthusiasm waned, for now he knew that the Indians had outsmarted him.
His horses had sore backs. They were consequently ill-tempered and hard to handle. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, they would break their lines and cinches, spew their loads upon the ground, then roll in the sand to ease their pain. When coralled, hobbled, and tightly reined, they would reluctantly submit to being loaded with one 90 lb. pack of furs or trade goods. But it really wasn't worth the trouble. A strong man could carry two packs. Why bother with horses?
In the face of this impossible situation, Henry put "these miserable creatures of unknown parentage" out to pasture on the rich, short-grass prairie, then he set his men to the task of building a cart "that would increase five-fold the hauling capacity of each horse." It was not until six months after he had put this project in hand, however, that he was able to report success. "These carriages we find much more convenient than it is to load horses," he wrote, "the country being so smooth we can use them in every direction."
A year later, on September 20th, 1802, Henry sends "a new kind of cart to Pinancewaywining" (Morden.) This cart is "four feet high and perfectly straight." The spokes are set perpendicular in the felloes, "without the least bending outward, and there are only four to each wheel." Henry concludes this particular observation with obvious relish: "These carts carry about five pieces (450 to 550 lbs.) and are drawn by one horse."
Entries from Henry's journal of 1803 show that the cart is being altered as its usefulness becomes more apparent. March 30 - "One of my men undertook to make a real pair of wheels on the plan of those in Canada (Quebec.) He finished them today and they are well done. I made him chief wheelwright, and we shall soon have some capital carts." May 5th - "I started Mr. Cadotte with a man for Riviere aux Islets de Bois (Morris River) 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."
Henry continues to use his carts. He makes many trade trips with them, but makes no specific reference to them until five years have passed. Then, on May 16th, 1808, he writes: "I sent off six carts drawn by two horses each for 40 kegs of sugar to Red River" (Winnipeg.) May 25th - "The men returned with 40 kegs of sugar and other baggage, equal to nine pieces per cart; several of the kegs weighed 100 lbs."
These large carts, each drawn by two horses, each having a maximum capacity of 1000 lbs., are not the typical Red River Carts, as drawn by a single horse or oxen, of which many sketches and paintings - and some photographs have come down to the present day. No picture or photo of the large carts is known to exist. Thus we do not know what they looked like. If, however, they were large enough to carry up to 1000 lbs., then they must have been approximately twice the size of the "standard" Red River Carts, such as those that now stand at Lower Fort Garry, Assiniboine Park, and the Gateway Stopping Place Museum at Emerson.
And so there were different kinds of Red River Carts, and changes in the construction of each were made from time to time. For example, after Henry's men had made their first cart with the straight-spoked-wheels, someone decided to "dish" the wheels; that is, to slant them, so that the spokes were inclined outward on a plane of about 15 degrees between the hub and the rim. These concave wheels served a useful purpose. When dismounted and covered with buffalo hide, they were used as boats to cross prairie streams, after the fashion of the Anglo-Saxon skerries on the fens of Lincoln and York.
Also at some unknown time, the original wheels which were three feet in diameter grew to become six feet in diameter. A "short" wheel was no good in prairie gumbo. A wheel so "tall" that it would never sink out of sight was needed. If a cart with large wheels became bogged down in the mire, horses or oxen could be hitched to the exposed parts of the rims, to try to drag the wheels clear of the mud - hopefully as well, the cart to which they were fixed.
Red River Carts were made of native wood, but this is a story we should like to link to the once great trees of Manitoba and tell at another time. There were large trees in this province years ago - trees large enough to yield Alexander Henry "solid wheels three feet in diameter." There were much larger trees as well. One time when Henry and some of his men went hunting, they found seven racoons in the hollow trunk of a tree. "The size of this tree was enormous," wrote Henry, "it had a hollow six feet in diameter, the rim or shell being two feet thick including the bark."
Are there any trees like this in Manitoba today? That is another story.
(Copyright, Canada, The Bison, 1966)
Page revised: 18 July 2009