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Red River cart and driver in St. Paul
Red River Ox Cart at Railway Station

The Red River ox cart was a large two-wheeled cart made entirely of natural materials, and typically was drawn by oxen. The carts were used throughout most of the 19th century in the fur trade and in westward expansion in Canada and the United States, in the area of the Red River and on the plains west of the Selkirk Settlement.The cart was a simple conveyance developed by Métis for use in their settlement on the Red River in what later became Manitoba.



Red River ox cart (1851), by Frank Blackwell Mayer

According to the journal of North West Company fur-trader Alexander Henry (the younger), the carts made their first appearance in 1801 at Fort Pembina, just south of what is now the United States border. [1] Derived either from the two-wheeled charettes used in French Canada or from Scottish cartsit was adapted from 1801 on to use only local materials.[2][3][4]

Because nails were unavailable or very expensive in the early west, these carts contained no iron at all, being entirely constructed of wood and animal hide. Two twelve-foot long parallel oak shafts or "trams" bracketed the draft animal in front and formed the frame of the cart to the rear. Cross-pieces held the floorboards, and front, side and rear boards or rails enclosed the box. These wooden pieces were joined by mortices and tenons. Also of seasoned oak was the axle, lashed to the cart by strips of bison hide or "shaganappi" attached when wet which shrunk and tightened as they dried. The axles connected two spoked wheels, five or six feet in diameter, which were "dished" or in the form of a shallow cone, the apex of which was at the hub.[5]

Motive power for the carts was originally supplied by small horses obtained from the First Nations. After cattle were brought to the Selkirk Settlement in the 1820s oxen were used, preferred because of their strength, endurance, and cloven hooves which spread their weight in swampy areas.[4] The cart, constructed of native materials, could easily be repaired. A supply of shaganapi and wood was brought; a cart could break a half-dozen axles in a one-way trip.[4] The axles were ungreased, as grease would capture dust which would act as sandpaper and immobilize the cart.[3][4] The resultant squeal sounded like an untuned violin, giving it the sobriquet of "the North West fiddle"; one visitor wrote that "a den of wild beasts cannot be compared with its hideousness."[3][6]


The Red River Trails on which the carts were used extended from the Red River Colony via fur-trading posts such as Pembina and St. Joseph in the Red River Valley to Mendota and St. Paul, Minnesota. Furs were the usual cargo on the trip to St. Paul, and trade goods and supplies were carried on the trip back to the colony.

The Carlton Trail was also an important route for the carts, running from the Red River Colony west to Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton in present day Saskatchewan and Alberta, with branches such as the Fort à la Corne Trail. The carts were the primary conveyance in the Canadian west from early settlement until the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway toward the end of the century.

Invented and developed by the Métis and Anglo-Metis peoples, it is sometimes used today as a symbol of Metis nationalism.

Models and replicas

Selkirk, Manitoba, has an oversized model of a Red River ox cart, and models may also be found at St. Louis, Duck Lake and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The Clay County, Minnesota Historical Society has a full-scale replica cart.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Red River Carts (from "Fargo, North Dakota. Its History and Images". Regional Studies at North Dakota State University)
  2. ^ Gilman, Rhoda R.; Carolyn Gilman & Deborah M. Stultz (1979). The Red River Trails: Oxcart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement, 1820-1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-8735-1133-6.  
  3. ^ a b c Berton, Pierre (1972). The Impossible Railway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 25. ISBN 0-3944-6569-5.  
  4. ^ a b c d e Peihl, Mark (2001). "A Few Thoughts About Red River Carts". Clay County Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-02-14.  
  5. ^ Foseca, William G. (25 January 1900). "On the St. Paul Trail in the Sixties". MHS Transactions (Manitoba Historical Society) Series 1 (56). Retrieved 2008-02-14.  
  6. ^ This noise can be heard by listening to a recording of a modern reconstruction of a full-scale cart. "Red River Cart Squeak!". Clay County Historical Society. 2006-06-26. Retrieved 2008-02-14.  

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