Manitoba History: Review: Rhoda B. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman and Deborah M. Stultz, The Red River Trails, Oxcart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement, 1820-1870

by Henry C. Klassen
Department of History, University of Calgary

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Much can be learned from this book about the history of the movement of trade along the transportation corridor between St. Paul and the Red River Settlement. The emphasis, as the sub-title and the photograph of the cart brigade on the front cover tell us, is on the oxcart routes in this corridor during the period from 1820 to 1870. For the first time, historians of Red River transportation can conveniently find in one study the story of the various trails that linked Lord Selkirk’s colony in Rupert’s Land with St. Paul, Minnesota. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society, it has been written in the best tradition of works which reveal a close knowledge of more than one country. One does not have to read very far in this book to discover that the authors are as familiar with the historical literature in the Canadian part of the Red River Valley as they are with that on the American side of the valley.

A good sense of organization is evident throughout the text. Following a general introduction to the history of the economic, political, and geographic aspects of the route, there is a detailed discussion of the development of the individual trails, beginning with the Manitoba Trails in the north and concluding with the Metropolitan Trail leading to St. Paul.

Photographs, sketches, paintings and maps have been effectively woven into the narrative, and the maps showing either entire cart routes or sections of them are especially well done. While the authors are right in suggesting that more research has to be done, thanks to their diligence it is now possible to follow the historic carts in their travels from one river crossing to the next, over the flat prairie, through swamps and woodlands, and on to their numerous stops at trading posts, missionary establishments, inns, villages and towns along the way.

The main argument of this study is that the Red River trails played an important part in the opening of the American and the Canadian West. This stands up well and adds to the worthiness of the book.

Page revised: 23 April 2010