Three Weeks With a Red River Cart-Train, Part 1
by Olive Knox
Manitoba Pageant, January 1958, Volume 3, Number 2
In the early years of our prairie history the Red River carts not only captured the imagination of visitors, but often helped them out of difficulties.
For example ... in 1860 the astronomers, Simon Newcombe and William Turrell, and the naturalist, Mr. H. S. Scudder, travelled three thousand miles from Boston to view the total eclipse of the sun on the Saskatchewan River.
On their way they had travelled by canoe, covered wagon, steamer, and finally in Sir George Simpson's large, personal canoe.
When they had completed their observations of the sun and returned to Winnipeg, they discovered that the steamer, the Anson Northup, was marooned on a sandbar, so they arranged to join a special cart-train going to St. Paul. This cart-train was accompanied not only by three covered wagons but by a buffalo and calf that the naturalist wanted to take back home.
As they waited for the departure of their Red River cart-train they saw the return of the buffalo hunters from the plains
"Every day carts come in laden with buffalo meat, hides and pemmican," the naturalist, Mr. Scudder related. "The prairie, back from the river by Fort Garry, is dotted with carts, lodges and tents."
Some of the hunters made lodges out of carts. Placing the carts back to back, they covered the sides and made a roof of buffalo hides.
"The carts are without springs, of course," wrote Mr. Scudder, "and rawhide and wooden pins keep together the pieces out of which they are made."
He, like all the other writers, mentions the music of the Red River carts. "Each cart has its own peculiar squeak, hoarse and grating, and waggles its own waggle, graceless and shaky on the uneven ground." He then added a note on the cart shafts. "They are heavy, straight beams, between which is harnessed an ox, the harness made of rawhide without buckles."
Mr. Scudder and his astronomer companions had plenty of time to observe these carts in the three weeks it took them to reach St. Paul. It was too early for the Fall cart-trains to St. Paul but Mr. McKinney and his brother-in-law, Dr. John Schultz, who owned a store, arranged a special cart-train to accommodate them. Mr. McKinney went along as master and guide of the train. The rest of the party was made up of a minister and his wife, the wife of a Hudson's Bay factor, a miner, visitors from St. Paul, and a theological student from Toronto. Of course there were ox teamers and several half-breed servants.
The cook, Sandin, was a memorable character. He had once acted as a clown in a circus, and one of his tricks was to stand on the edge of a stream, and bend his body backwards, and take a drink of water.
This cavalcade of Red River carts left Winnipeg accompanied by armed horsemen and a troop of friends riding ponies. The pony-riders spent only the first night with the cart-train, but the mounted warriors, as Scudder called them, rode in advance of the train that stretched a half-mile in length, to keep eyes alerted for Indians on the war path. The cart which carried the buffalo calf was the last in the procession and behind it walked the buffalo.
Each morning the travellers rose at four, got the oxen harnessed and hitched, and were on their way by five-thirty. After two hours of travel they would halt for breakfast, then go on until it was time for a longer halt so that the animals could graze.
While the animals grazed, the travellers had lunch. "A bit of straw matting was spread on the grass," said Mr. Scudder, "then the dishes were put around and we sat Turk-fashion until Sandin, the clown-cook, boiled tea and meat. Hard-tack and pemmican was our main food. Then after a few more hours of joggling ... our camp was pitched."
The monotony of the trip was relieved only by the excitement of crossing rivers. At Scratching River one of their loads almost capsized from the rickety ferry scow. Said Mr. Scudder, "One of the thirsty oxen, still yoked, leaned over for a drink. He tipped the scow and tumbled head first into the river. Everyone else rushed to the opposite side to keep the carts and passengers from going overboard too."
Further on at another river they used a different method to get to the other bank. A canoe was sent across with a tow rope and a wagon box was used as a boat. It was first filled with luggage and pulled across by the man with the tow rope. Then the travellers crossed ... and there were many frightened screams from the women of the party.
Finally the horses and oxen were swum across - the oxen pulling the carts. "The carts were fastened to a long line and a driver swam at the tail of each cart to keep it from upsetting and soaking the furs and food supply."
They managed to save their cargo that time but they weren't so lucky on the rest of the five hundred mile trip to St. Paul - but more about that again.
Page revised: 5 December 2010