Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Developed in the Prairie Provinces in the nineteenth century by the Métis, the Red River cart was a small, two-wheeled wooden rig drawn by oxen or horses. It had two long shafts attached to an axle and could be strapped to a single draft animal. The shafts supported a platform with wooden rails on two sides. The cart was well designed for Plains travel. Constructed entirely of wood and tied together with leather, it could be easily manufactured in the Red River country, where oaks and poplars thrived in river valleys, bison were abundant, but metal goods were scarce. Large, spoked wheels made the carts easy to draw through the tall grasses, rugged terrain, and shallow streams of the Prairie Provinces. Thanks to their simple design, the carts could be easily repaired when long journeys across the Plains took their toll.

The Metis initially designed the Red River cart for carrying hides, dried meat, and tallow from their semiannual bison hunts on the Plains. Each cart could carry as much as 1,000 pounds–the hides, meat, and grease of five or six buffalo. By the late nineteenth century, the Prairie Provinces were crisscrossed by Metis cart roads, the most important of which was the Carlton Trail from Fort Garry, the supply depot of the Red River settlement, to Fort Carlton on the Saskatchewan River. Each year, several hundred carts trundled back and forth along the road, filling the air with their distinctive ear-piercing screech, caused by the rubbing of wooden wheels against wooden axles. At first, the Metis sold most of their bison products to the fur trade posts in the Red River country, but in the 1850s they began to organize cart brigades to present-day St. Paul, Minnesota. Primarily a long-distance transport device, the Red River cart was replaced in the late nineteenth century by the steamboat and railway.


Pekka Hämäläinen Texas A&M University

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