Red River Carts

Many Métis people worked for the Hudson Bay Company as freighters, tripmen or buffalo hunters. They ran the York boats that took supplies to and from the Hudson Bay, as well as other locations. As rail lines increased, the company began using Red River carts to travel the distance.

The first Red River cart was recorded by Alexander Henry the Younger who, in his journal, recorded the construction of the cart for the Pembina Post. The first cart was made in 1801: it had solid wheels cut from logs about three feet in diameter. In 1802, the cart now had wheels with spokes that were dished about 3 inches, to increase the strength and stability of the cart. The dished wheels could be wrapped in canvas, removed, then placed under the cart to travel over water. The cart weighed around 550 pounds and could carry 500 pounds when pulled by a horse and more if pulled by an ox.

The carts were made out of wood, so repairs could be easily made without the use of metal or nails. The cart was built using very simple tools, such as the hand axe and screw-auger. Grease was not used as it would attract dust and debris and would wear down the wheel axles. Because of this, there was not a lot of metal in the carts. The harness was made out of hides, first for the horse and later for an ox. In rare cases, when there was a heavy load and speed did not matter, the cart could be pulled by a team of two horses or oxen.

When on long journeys, these carts would travel in trains or brigades. A brigade consisted of ten carts with three drivers, an overseer, and a guide in front. An ox cart train could span two miles or more. Each of the oxen were tied to the cart in front of them and could travel at a rate of about two miles an hour or around 20 miles per day.

More than 2500 cart trips were made for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC used the carts to transport goods and furs from the Red River Settlement to St. Paul. Starting in 1870, steam boats and trains became more common and the use of the ox cart to transport goods became rare.