Welcome to Vantage Points Flashback. We highlight stories that shape us as a region. We dig deeply into the layers of history, of what is now Southwest Manitoba. Thank you, Municipal Councils, for your support
Please listen below to the audio recording of this story with David Neufeld.
Red River Cart
Blazes! We’re stuck again! We've got 10 carts in this brigade; crossing the Manitoba prairie. And we're nowhere close to our next camp. The mud makes it tedious for my men, and outright exhausting for the animals. But at least these carts make it better than it was before.
I’m Alexander Henry Jr. I travel from Red River to the Rockies, trading with Indigenous folks for furs. I'm based at Fort Pembina, just south of the 49th Parallel, beside the Red River. When I started fur trading, we'd carry goods overland with horses, or even on our backs! For some loads we’d use an Indigenous designed sled called a travois.
I knew there had to be a better way to cross the prairie; to get us through marshes, mud, creeks and rivers. Canoes just don't get us everywhere we need. So, my men and I built a 2-wheeled wooden cart. It's fairly easy to construct at base camp and, with limited tools, we can replace parts on the trail. With this cart, an ox pulls up to 900 pounds and travels 25 miles a day. A horse, on the other hand, does 50 miles a day, but, with only a load of 500 pounds.
Wheels for these new carts were first made by cross-cutting trees, a meter or more in diameter. That's a large tree for these parts! We'd wrap the outside of the wheel with braided buffalo hide to give it grip, so it'd turn on wet grass. The next year we added four spokes and the following year we gave the wheels more of a slanted or dished shape. Better stability along slopes. To top it off, the wheels can be removed! And lashed to form a raft, with the cart's body set on top, to allow ferrying across rivers.
This all seems pretty amazing, but gee willikers. The noise! Those wooden wheels make a terrible shriek. You'd hear us coming 10 miles away! We can't quieten them! Greasing the axle only attracts dust around the hub, so the wheels won't turn at all!
Metis families have come to rely on the cart, driving from Fort Gary to Turtle Mountain and places further west and south chasing and harvesting bison. The Red River Cart has become part of their identity! They transform their carts into shelters by attaching saplings in a “D” shape to the side rails and pulling a canvas over top. Sun, wind, rain, snow. Not a problem.
Because of their long trains, up to a thousand carts, they attract attention from the Dakota. So, the Metis devised a unique military strategy based on the cart. When their scout warn of danger, the carts are circled, nudged together, with their pulling shafts to the middle, giving protection for women, children, cattle and clergy. Brilliant. But, that's another story!
The Red River Cart was the best overland transport on the prairies until about 1870. By then steamboats and trains were getting the attention. Well, our carts had a good run of it!
Loud and proud we'd say!
Betty Sawatsky and I created ‘Red River Cart’, based on a story in Vantage Points, a 5-book series. This radio series can be found at www.discoverwestman.com/ or click HERE!
Please learn about other resources created by Turtle Mountain Souris Plains Heritage Association. Our website is www.vantagepoints.ca.