Red River Cart
by Olive Knox
Manitoba Pageant, April 1956
I was lured on the trail of the Red River cart by the sight of the one that stands in the Hudson's Bay museum. Before I reached the end of the trail I had become acquainted with explorers, immigrants, scientists, artists and buffalo hunters.
The trail began in 1801 with the North West fur trader, Alexander Henry, then at Pembina. While there, he taught the Indians and Métis how to make these two wheel carts, similar to the ones he had known in Quebec. So the Red River cart was born on the river from which it was named.
I visited an old man nearing ninety, and mentioned the Red River cart. He threw back his head and laughed, then began making the weirdest sounds I had ever heard.
"Yes Ma'am," he said. "That's them. You could hear them coming for miles before you could ever see them, their wheels a'squeaking and a'shrieking."
"Why didn't they grease the wheels?" I asked.
He chuckled, crossing his gnarled hands on his cane. "No, Ma'am. They couldn't do that. Why the dust those carts threw up would have choked up the grease so they wouldn't move at all." He sank into a moment of remembering. "I've seen a good many of them in my time, Ma'am."
From him I learned that the immense hubs of the carts were usually made of elm because elm was hard to split. The felloes, which I had always called the rims, were made from white ash or oak, because it could be bent into a curve. The axle was made from hard maple, because there was no spring to hard maple. The bow, for the oxen, was cut from ash or oak, that had been boiled and pressed into the desired shape.
But those immense wheels, standing over five feet high, and curving in like a saucer, were works of art - practical art too. Because they could be taken off the cart and tied together, wrapped in oil cloth or buffalo hides and used as a boat to cross deep streams.
"Being made of wood," said my old timer, "was an advantage in this country. There was plenty of it around to mend breaks. And all the tools we needed to mend, as well as make them, were an axe, a saw, a screw-auger, and a draw-knife." He pointed at the rim of the wheel. "Sometimes they wound rawhide around the rims, " he said. "A sort of tire."
Then he explained that the strips of rawhide were first soaked in water, then wound around the wheel rims. When dried the rawhide shrank and clung like glue.
In my search for more interesting items about the Red River cart I discovered that they came in handy for more than every day business and the buffalo hunt. They were used like the Covered Wagons, for migration to different parts of the country. When the Swiss left Fort Garry, after the flood of 1826, they hired carts to transport themselves and belongings to the States.
When twenty-three Red River families decided to migrate to Oregon, by crossing, what is now Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the mountains of British Columbia, they set out in Red River carts. Sir George Simpson, on his way around the world, met them and according to him "Their cavalcade extended over a mile. Each family had two or three carts, together with a band of horses, cattle and dogs. The men and the lads travelled on the saddle, while the carts, which were covered with awnings against the sun and rain, carried the women and young children." So the Red River carts were our first prairie schooners, or Covered Wagons.
There were other cart migrations. Catherine Schubert, the first white woman to cross the Rockies, left Fort Garry in a cart with her three children. Sara Riel, sister of Louis Riel, went with the missionary nuns to Ile a la Crosse in 1871 by Red River cart. The first Fort Garry settlers to Prince Albert travelled by Red River cart. And Louis Riel, at the age of 14, travelled with a cart train to St. Paul, on the first stage of his trip to Montreal, where he was to finish his education.
Exporting cart trains of fur to St. Paul began slowly in 1844 with only 6 carts; in 1851, there were 102 carts; in 1858, 600 carts; and by 1869, the year of Louis Riel's return to Fort Garry, the number had grown to 2500 carts.
Page revised: 13 June 2009