Volume 9, Number 52, 2006

The People Who Settled The West And Their
Unique Invention, The Red River Cart
By Mel McIlveen

I drove past the Vancouver Island Agricultural Heritage Museum last Monday and had a look at all the historical machinery displayed there, the steam driven threshers and the horse drawn mowers and it made me wonder what a display of this sort was doing on Vancouver Island. Then suddenly I saw something vaguely familiar. It looked like the Red River Cart I remember which is standing by the roadside near the town of Selkirk, Manitoba. That Selkirk Red River Cart is definitely not a working model, it’s a tourist attraction since it has wheels ten feet tall and is painted bright red. The Red River Cart here on the island in the museum however is an authentic cart. I wondered about its history. How did it get here? I asked one of the caretakers at the museum, and he didn’t seem to know anything about it, including what it was. He was unable to tell me if it was or was not authentic. However, my own knowledge of the history of Western Canada, and the entries in the various historical records of the region have convinced me that this is a real Red River Cart.

The Cart was a unique invention of the Metis People, and was in use in Manitoba as early as 1801. The settlement of Red River, which became Winnipeg, needed a way to move their produce south to market and to carry their purchased goods north from St. Paul, Minnesota. The carting industry preceded by more than 60 years the development of the railways. The Red River cart, made in Red River by the Metis people, became the major means of transportation for goods in the territory. The carts moved regardless of the weather. Neither freeze up nor breakup on the Red River stopped the cart brigades. The system became an active competitor to the shipments carried by the York Boat fleet to Hudson’s Bay and Europe.

It was made entirely of wood, mostly oak, and it had no mechanical or metallic parts at all. It was made locally in Manitoba, by skilled Metis. The wheels were quite large and the rims were bound with buffalo hide sinews, commonly known as shaganappi. The spokes were sturdy and were attached to slant outwards from the center hub so that they could carry heavier loads without sinking into the prairie soil, especially if the soil was wet. A typical cart could carry 800 pounds of freight. There was no such thing as wheel bearings, the axles turned in wooden housings, which generated a loud screeching, high pitched sound. Their approach and departure could be heard for miles. Grease was never used because it tended to get encrusted with mud which in turn wore out the axles prematurely. Even without the grease problem, axles tended to wear out and a typical cart would use four or five axles during a trip. This was not a problem because local material for repair was always available so that new axles or spokes could be made on the spot. The buffalo had a part to play in this industry too. The shaganappi bound wheels could be easily removed if floods were encountered on the journey and the body of the cart could be wrapped in buffalo hide to make it waterproof. The cart would resume its journey across the water afloat, like a boat.

The motive power was oxen, one ox to each cart, although for short journeys, horses would be used. The ox was a docile creature with tremendous strength, and could be depended upon to walk steadily, never falter, never shy, and in many cases could feed itself as it walked along.

A typical cart brigade would consist of one hundred carts in trains of ten, each train with one driver riding the head cart with the other nine tethered and walking in line behind.

It must have been a lucrative business. It is known that one of the pioneer Inkster brothers in early Manitoba owned and ran over a thousand carts between Manitoba and Minnesota and between Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The cart brigades were only made redundant with the advent of the railroad from St. Paul and the CPR from Ontario.

P.S. I was looking for a real story about this Red River Cart, how it may have been transported here by some pioneer Metis settler, but I have had to accept the truth of the matter: this one is simply a demonstration model made by a man named Ford in Humboldt, Saskatchewan to demonstrate the forgotten skills of the Metis people. It looks brand new as if it had never been used on the road, but at least it is authentically made!