The Red River Carts
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 14, Number 1, Autumn 1968
The Red River Cart is a symbol of the early history of Manitoba. It was the pioneer type of land transportation in the West and was used extensively by the fur trade, for the buffalo hunt, and in the early development of the Red River Basin, as well as the opening up of the vast Canadian Prairies.
The vehicle, which later became known as the Red River Cart, first made its appearance in 1801 at Pembina Post, at the confluence of the Red and Pembina Rivers, according to the journal of Alexander Henry, the younger, which is the earliest record of this cart. Pembina Post was within the old realm of Rupert’s Land, the land grant of Charles II to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670.
In the beginning the carts were small, with solid wheels cut from the ends of trees about three feet in diameter. In 1802 a new sort of cart was made, with wheels, having four perpendicular spokes without bending or “dishing” . In March 1803, Henry states his wheelwright made a real pair of wheels, on the plan of those in Canada. These may have been “dished” wheels with a greater number of spokes.
In May 1803 he put one of these new carts into “dished” wheels with a greater number of spokes. In May 1803 he put one of these new carts into service. All of these carts were drawn by one horse.
The cart was a great advance in transportation over man’s back, the pack-horse or the shafts slanting to the rear of the Indian pony, called travois. The Indians did not have the wheel. The cart pulled by one horse would carry five “pieces” or 450 pounds, which would require five horses to carry on their backs. Further improvements were made in the cart as time went on, but while there was a general type of two-wheeled cart there was no standard of construction.
The wheels varied from the original three feet up to six in diameter and the number of spokes reached as high as twelve. In some instances the outer rims were bound with strips of “shagganappi,” made from the hide of the Indian pony. The upright sticks of the cart-side, were frequently small rough branches of trees and the axle was sometimes a stout poplar log with the bark left on. Sometimes a wide board was placed on the floor vertically around the body of the cart, to prevent anything slipping off and at times saplings were bent in a semi-circle and attached to the side rails, on which hides or canvas were placed, to provide a canopy from the weather.
Where possible, the carts were made of hardwood and no iron was used in their construction, the wood being held together by dowels. The shafts were either straight or bent. When straight, they converged from the rear toward the front. When bent, they were parallel for the length of the cart body and then bent inward forward, to bring them closer together at the animal collar. The tools required to build them were: axe, saw, screw-auger and draw knife. Any damage could be repaired on the trail, where wood was available.
Oxen and horses were used to haul the carts and practically the same harness was used for both, subject to individual variations and the materials at hand. This included the collar for the ox, instead of the heavy wood yoke and loop. The yoke was rarely if ever used with a cart pulled by one ox. The harness was made from raw hide of animals and thongs were used for binding, but it appears that some metal hooks or rings were used when circumstances made them available.
The “dished” wheel of larger diameter was an important development in the cart. It gave greater stability, facilitated getting out when stuck in the mud and when covered with hides or heavy canvas, was used as a raft for crossing rivers. The carts were renowned for the loud piercing squeal of the wheels, which could be heard miles away before they came into view. Greasing the wheels was impracticable, because the dust of the trail would cause the grease to congeal and prevent the wheels from turning. They were employed as “single” carts or in “brigades” of ten and in “trains” of several hundred, one to two miles long.
During the first half of the 19th century, the number of carts increased rapidly, as the cart came into general use as the chief means of land transportation on the prairies. No accurate figure is available as to the total number in use in 1869, when they reached their peak, but it appears several thousand were on the trails. With the coming of the steamboat and later the railroad, the use of the cart declined. They had practically disappeared from the trails by the end of the century.
Page revised: 12 October 2013