Red River cart called “marvel of mechanism” — noise compared to “den of wild beasts”

by Bruce Cherney

One event accelerated the prominence of the Red River cart in Canada’s West. Prior to the trial of Guillaume Sayer, the Red River cart had only been used in great numbers during the annual Metis buffalo hunts, but after the trial, the Red River cart became a large-scale freight carrier throughout the Prairies.

In 1844, Canadian-born Norman Kittson established a trading post at Pembina, Dakotah Territory, near the Manitoba border in direct competition with the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company which was intent on keeping its fur trade monopoly intact. 

Once before, the HBC had been challenged. This challenge by the Montreal-based North West Company was long and bitter, with both sides occasionally taking up arms against each other. But, in 1821, the two former rival fur trade companies amalgamated under the HBC banner. 

The arrival of Kittson was the most serious threat the HBC had faced since the Nor’westers.

The HBC tried to enforce its charter rights granted in 1670 by the English Crown. Sayer, along with fellow Metis fur traders McGillis, Laronde and Goulet, was taken into custody and was to be tried for illegal trade with Kittson.

At St. Boniface Cathedral, across the Red River from the HBC’s Fort Garry post, about 400 Metis gathered to hear Louis Riel, the father of the man who would bring Manitoba into Confederation, preach against the injustice being perpetrated against their brethren. Riel told the crowd he would approach Recorder (judge) Adam Thom, and urge the recorder to deal in the best interests of justice.

Armed with muskets, powder and shot, the Metis boarded boats and crossed the Red to the Fort Garry courthouse. With the Metis milling about outside, Riel was able to approach Adam. Whether it was Riel’s message or the presence of so many armed Metis, Adam refused to pass sentence after the six-man jury returned with a guilty verdict in the Sayer case.

Jury foreman Donald Gunn had himself announced — along with the verdict — the need to show mercy towards Sayer.

With the failure of Adam to pass sentence, the cases against the other three Metis were dropped, and a resounding, “Le commerce est libre! The trade is free!,” echoed about the courtroom.

By breaking the HBC monopoly, the Metis were free to trade with the Americans. Never again would the HBC resort to enforcing their monopoly, instead they were content to remain competitive with the Yankee traders. But, with the collapse of the HBC monopoly, a north-south trade route was opened, and the Red River cart was thrust onto centre stage as the means of carrying freight across the Prairies from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Fort Garry and later Winnipeg.

Even the HBC hired Red River carts to transport its furs to St. Paul. From the city along the Mississippi River, the furs were then transported via water and rail links to the port of New York for shipment to England. The HBC determined that it was more cost effective to ship furs by this method rather than use York boats and the water route to their port at Hudson Bay for eventual shipment to England.

William Gomez da Fonseca (1823-1905), an early Winnipeg resident, politician and businessman, recounted in 1900 to the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (now simply the Manitoba Historical Society), the journeys he made from from Fort Garry to St. Paul and vice versa in the 1860s via Red River cart, which he said was aptly called the “prairie schooner.” 

He spoke from experience since he was heavily engaged in the freight business.

He wrote that “for company and safety” many carts often made the trip to St. Paul and it took a number of days to assemble all the carts. “As the trip extended over six or eight days, it was necessary to be well provided with food.”

Food included flour, strong black tea and sugar as well as pemmican — the staple of the fur trade supplied by Metis hunters which was made from dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and then held together by buffalo fat. Pemmican was stored in 90 pound bags.

Along the route, camp was usually made at a stream or lake, according to Fonseca. “The oxen and horses let loose from their burden, bounded away to the water, into which they plunged neck deep, remaining there safe from the tormenting flies and mosquitoes.”

The freighters’ day consisted of starting out at daybreak, making a camp at noon and then forming another camp in the evening.

Women — and children — commonly accompanied the men and prepared bannock from flour and water in a frying pan over a fire.

“When the water had boiled in the kettle, the pemmican bag was broached, a quantity of it was stirred into the boiling water, flour and salt were added, and thus resulted the celebrated ‘rubaboo’ ... When the mixture was thickened it was then called ‘rowscho,’ but for the journey the former was preferred,” wrote Fonseca.

Two hours was enough for the midday camp, although if the day was particularly hot, the camping time was often extended.

Fonseca said accidents weren’t uncommon, especially when fording streams turned into torrents by summer rains. He said the Metis freightmen converted their carts into boats for crossing streams and rivers.

“Four cart wheels were taken and placed dish upwards and the four points of contact securely fasten together. On the outer rims four pieces of wood were lashed forming a square. Meanwhile six buffalo hides were soaked, when sufficiently soft sewed together, and spread out, upon which the frame was placed. The edges were brought up and laced to the outer bars, one line fastened to the stern, another to the bow.

“A party would then swim across, carrying the bow line over; the boat was launched, and floated like a duck ...”

Other accidents were associated with the very animals used to move the carts. William Coldwell, a journalist who emigrated to the Red River in 1959 to establish the settlement’s first newspaper — the Nor’Wester — with William Buckingham, described his first encounter with Red River carts on September 20 in St. Paul: “Hardly had the oxen been yoked to the carts, when they kicked up their heels and ran off in every direction. Being unused to yoke and fresh from the pasture, the animals were as wild as harnessed buffalo and kicked and plunged for nearly an hour ...”

Type and printing equipment were scattered over the streets of St. Paul by the bucking oxen, but the equipment was recovered and the journey again got underway for Red River.

After the midday camp, the carts travelled for about 12 to 15 miles, according to Fonseca. Instead of rubaboo, “re-chaud” was served. Re-chaud was pemmican cooked in a greased frying pan along with pepper, salt and a “trace of potatoes and onions,” Fonseca wrote.

Following the meal, fiddles appeared and “the Red River jig was struck up.” Only after they had exhausted themselves with music and laughter did the voyageurs go to sleep.

Joseph James Hargrave (1841-1891), a fur trader and historian, wrote that carts were fitted out to act as tents for the evening.

The first Red River cart was designed and built in Pembina in 1801 from an adaptation of a cart used by French-Canadian fur traders in their Eastern hometowns, according to North West Company fur trader and journalist Alexander Henry the Younger, who died in 1814. Originally, the carts were small with three-foot solid wood wheels and were horse-drawn, but they soon grew in size and used multi-spoked wheels able to carry twice as much freight. Because of their increased size, horses were replaced by oxen.

Not a single nail or a piece of metal went into the making of a Red River cart. In the place of nails and metal, wooden pegs and all-purpose buffalo hide, called shaganappi, was used to hold the carts together. The wheels, standing six-feet high, were made of Red River or burr oak, and were rimmed with a wet rawhide called babiche, which when it dried adhered tightly to the wheel rims, and proved to be tough and durable. 

No self-respecting cart driver went on the 800-kilometre (500-mile) journey from Fort Garry to St. Paul without a supply of babiche in the event of a “blow-out.”

In the Red River Settlement, the price of a cart, harness and ox was given as $15 by Hargrave.

Fonseca said five or six oak axles were required to complete each trip and were manufactured when needed along the trail. 

He called the Red River cart a “marvel of mechanism ... They pass over soft and swampy ground where wagon wheels would almost sink out of sight.”

Hargrave said the only tools required for the manufacture of a cart were an axe, a saw, a screw-auger and a draw-knife.

Because prairie dust would soon clog and immobilize wheels that were lubricated, no friction inhibitors were used on the cart’s axle, with the result that they gave off an incredible screeching din that could be heard for miles. This trait earned the Red River cart the nickname the “North West Fiddle.”

One French visitor to the region wrote of the noise generated by a Red River cart that “a den of wild beasts cannot be compared with its hideousness.”

The lack of nails is attributed to their high cost. A pound of nails cost 10 times more in the Red River settlement than in Ontario.

Hargrave said 1,500 carts were used on the route between Red River and St. Paul, employing about 450 men. 

“Of these carts about five hundred make two trips each season. At the commencement of summer when the Plains become dry, and the grass grown, the first parties start, taking with them the furs collected for exportation; the return trip bringing the manufactured articles from the civilized world is the one that pays best ... The autumn brigade of carts leave the settlement late in August and return in October ...

“A train of great length is divided into brigades of ten carts each, three men being considered sufficient to work such a brigade; one of the three is invested with a certain minot authority over the other two, while an individual considerably more highly paid than any of the rest has charge of the entire train, and, moving on horseback from one brigade to another, exercises a general supervision over the whole party throughout the journey,” explained Hargrave.

Taking the Carlton Trail to Edmonton took about 70 to 80 days return from the Red River Settlement, and Hargrave said about 300 carts employing 100 men made this trip once a year.

Prior to the opening of the north-south trade route, the Metis had organized hunting expeditions that had hundreds of carts. Alexander Ross (1783-1856), a fur trader and historian, wrote of one 1840 buffalo hunt that employed 1,210 Red River carts. Their expertise gained through the buffalo hunt meant that the Metis had control over the Red River cart freight system in the West.

Oxen were used by the Metis, since these beasts of burden were better adapted to living off the land than horses. Oxen were also capable of moving large loads. The average weight of freight carried in a Red River cart was about half a tonne.

The weight of the carts established deep ruts in the trails that they passed over, and as a result, cart drivers tended to string their carts across the prairie landscape to avoid the deeper ruts. On some occasions, the carts went down the trails 20 abreast. An interesting result of this practice is reflected in modern-day roads found across the Prairies. Portage Avenue’s width is a result of the 20 cart track.

The end of the Red River cart’s heyday on the Prairies came with the introduction of steamboat travel on the Red River in 1859. Greater speed and a larger carrying capacity made steamboats more economical to operate. 

Carts continued to be used on the western trade routes, but the railway ended the cart’s practicability. The demise of the buffalo herds in the 1870s also caused the great annual hunts and the accompanying cart’s use to come to an end. Local freight traffic using Red River carts continued for a time, but other more efficient methods soon drove the carts out of existence.