Red River Carts

The Cart

(excerpt from: The Red River Cart and Trails: The Fur Trade by Harry Baker Brehaut, P. Eng.)

In the unrecorded history of our primitive ancestors a new device was found in the wheel. No one knows who discovered it and authoritative sources estimate it was about five thousand years ago. The Indians had the travois (see picture on the right), but did not have the wheel. Since there would have been no trail without the cart and no cart without the wheel, reference to the wheel is relevant as it not only made possible the development of our civilization but also the opening up of our western plains.


Authentic reproduction of a Red River Cart by "Jerome Cartworks"

We may speculate how the wheel came about. Possibly one day aeons of years ago, a tree trunk denuded of branches rolled down a hillside. An imaginative prehistoric man watching it realized that a short length of tree trunk could be made to roll by hand wherever required. Later perhaps this round slice of tree trunk with a short stick driven through a hole in its center, which we would call an axle, could be used as a crude sort of foot wheel. In time it is conceivable two round slices of tree trunk would be joined together by a short pole and there would be born the cart, the vehicle of land transportation.

The two wheeled cart was used in Europe, Asia and Africa millenia ago and it was indispensable in the opening up of our vast Canadian prairies. Its advent into the Red River Valley relatively near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers made it peculiarly a vehicle adapted to this area and it has become a symbol of the pioneer era of Manitoba. Water transportation by canoe or boat served the purpose as long as activities were relatively close to river or lake, but as man pushed farther and farther inland, this mode of transport became greatly limited, and in many situations difficult enough, to make land transportation preferable. Other factors militating against water transportation were: the conveyance of the spoils of the buffalo hunts, the great increase in the fur trade and the establishment of inland trading posts. Man's back, the pack horse or the Indian travois could no longer cope with these conditions and during the nineteenth century it appears the cart became one of the chief means of land transportation on the prairies, until superseded by the steamboat and the railroad.

The pioneers of Manitoba were either too busy or it did not occur to them to leave an adequate record of the early development of the cart. Consequently what little information is available must be gleaned from later scattered references, in which the cart is mentioned incidentally and not as a prime consideration. It was left for a busy fur trader, Alexander Henry, the Younger, who kept a daily journal, to record the first and only information as far as is known about the cart. He relates the making and putting the cart into service at Pembina Post.

In the fall of 1801 the first cart [6] appeared with solid wheels "sawed off from the ends of logs whose diameter was three feet." These would be similar to the prototype heretofore mentioned. In the fall of 1802 "a new sort of cart was made having four perpendicular spokes without the least bending outward." In the spring of 1803 a further improved cart was put into use, "having a real pair of wheels on the plan of those in Canada." These were probably 'dished' wheels but Henry does not mention it. This was the beginning of the cart later to be called the Red River Cart.

There was a general type of cart but no standard of construction. Measurements taken from existing old carts vary as to dimensions and sizes of parts. The wheel diameters were not the same. The number of spokes varied. The shafts were either straight and converging, or bent to bring them closer together at the animal's collar. A stick or a cradle was used to support the ends of the side rails. A board was usually placed vertically on the floor along the side sticks and across the ends to prevent anything slipping off, but in hauling packs of ninety pounds called 'pieces', they were probably large enough for the side sticks to hold them in the cart.

The cart body including shafts might be dowelled to the axle or in another design the cart body and shafts would be secured to the axle by two long trunnels, one on each side. The lower stick of the cradles at each end of the cart body was recessed to receive the ends of the floor boards, to prevent them moving lengthwise. On top of the floor boards a cross piece was placed directly over the axle and rested on the shafts. A long trunnel through this cross piece and the center of the floor board adjacent to the shaft, passed through the axle and thus secured the cart body and shafts to the undercarriage of the cart. This facilitated, not only renewal of broken floor boards but also the replacement of a broken axle, by permitting the removal of the cart body and shafts from the undercarriage and a new axle installed.

The journal of the axle and the hole in the hub were tapered toward the outside away from the cart body. There was however a difference in the manner of tapering them. [7] The hole in the hub was tapered concentrically from both ends. The journal was tapered on the top but was straight on the bottom, while on the sides the taper was equalized. This rather ingenuous design was used for several reasons. It equalized the stress on the dished wheel and together with the equalized taper on the sides of the axle, permitted the felloe to sit level on the ground and the wheel to travel in a straight line on the trail. It also increased the size of the axle at its weakest point where the change in cross-section is made from circular to rectangular.

The 'dished' wheel was an important development in the cart. The 'dish' was made by inclining the spokes outward from the cart body. The amount of the dish varied but was about 3 inches. It gave the cart better stability by preventing tipping on rough terrain and facilitated getting out when stuck in the mud. The dished wheel was also used as a raft when crossing rivers, by removing the wheels and lashing them together concave side upward. Then the cart body and cargo were placed upon them and ferried across the water.

Saplings bent in the form of a semi-circle and attached to the side railings of the cart, provided a frame to which a covering of hides or canvas was attached, as a shield from the sun or weather. The carts were not only used as a conveyance but also as a shelter, a defence in case of attack or a barrier for an encampment.

The drawing of the general arrangement of the cart, [8] shows the typical dimensions: the wheel 5'-3" diameter; cart body 3' by 5 or 6' long; height ground to floor about 3'; height floor to side rail about 2'-4"; length about 12'-4". After the original solid wheels, the number of spokes varied from four to sixteen. The old cart at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Park has eleven spokes. The old cart in the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature has twelve. Near Borden, Saskatchewan on Yellowhead Highway No. 5, a glasses in site panel has photographs of old carts having fourteen and sixteen spokes. Research has established that twelve spokes were the most prevalent. The weight of the cart was approximately 550 pounds and the load capacity in the neighbourhood of 500 pounds when drawn by a horse for faster travel.

The cart was made of indigenous hardwoods whenever available. The hubs were elm. Oak was used for the axle and shafts. spokes and felloes with ash for the side sticks. Other woods were no doubt used when these were not available. No metal of any kind was used in its construction. Only the simplest tools were used to build it - hand-axe, small saw, draw-knife and screw-auger. It is of interest that these tools and a chisel were found at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan in 1955. [9]

Repairs when required could readily be made on the trail where wood was available. When the dowel, connecting two sections of the felloe broke, two flat pieces of wood were cut to conform to the wheel curvature, and one piece was placed on each side of the felloe at the joint requiring repair and bound together with strips of animal hide, wound crosswise around the felloe, usually referred to as shagganappe, which had been soaked in water. When the strips dried they held the curved flat wooden boards firmly against the felloe and enabled the cart to travel to the nearest post where permanent repairs could be made.

It appears that the repair of a felloe section with strips of hide encouraged the idea, that the entire felloe was bound all the way around in this manner, and it is alleged that some Indians used this practice. Best informed opinion rejects this as being incorrect. There is however some evidence from early accounts, that a rawhide tire was used in some instances on the wheel of the cart. [10] It ran all the way around on the rim of felloe of the wheel on the tread and folded over on the sides, and tied with thongs between the spokes. It was put on 'green' or wet and when it dried shrank and held in place so tightly, that it never came off but lasted as long as the cart held together. There is an old Red River cart in the museum at North Battleford, Saskatchewan, equipped with these tires.

The harness for the animal pulling the cart was made from hides. The first carts were drawn by one horse. The hames and collar were used for both the horse and later on for the ox. The shafts were connected to the hames by a short trace called a 'tug'. A rectangular hole was made in the hames to permit the tug when folded over to go through it, after which the loop in the tug was opened out and a wooden key was placed in it. Then the tug was pulled to bring the key firmly against the hames. The other end of the tug, was secured to a dowel, or later metal hook, near the end of the shaft. From this dowel a check-strap went around the animal's rump, to a similar connection at the end of the other shaft. Straps over the animal's back held this in place. Behind the animal's shoulder the 'clobber' was located and was grooved to receive the belly-band and the strap which was attached to each shaft to support them. These are shown on the one twelfth size model of the cart, ox and harness.

Alexander Henry stated he had several carts drawn by two horses in 1803, [11] the same year in which he produced his improved cart with a real pair of wheels. It would be unrealistic to expect that simultaneously with building an improved one-horse cart, he made a cart for a team of horses. Two ponies were used in a Red River Cart on a trip by John Schultz in 1860. [12] In these instances it is possible that some sort of a tandem hitch for two horses to the cart was used, when a heavy load was to be hauled or speed was not essential. Such a tandem arrangement was used in 1868 by Walter Traill, [13] when he was stationed at Fort Ellice.

There is no picture of the two horse cart, but numerous photographs are on the record, of the cart with two shafts for one animal. We know the Red River Cart had two shafts, consequently we conclude it was pulled under normal conditions of trail transportation by one animal.

The heavy cumbersome yoke [14] which is popularly associated with the cart is a practice which should not be used. The fact is the heavy yoke was designed for a team of oxen and was rarely if ever used with a single ox. [15] Wooden collars are known to have been used for single animals. These were elliptical in shape and fitted around the neck of the animal like a hames and collar, but there was no resemblance to the heavy impracticable yoke. At all events it was part of the harness and not the cart.

The formation of the carts on the trail, aside from local freighting, was in 'brigades' or 'trains'. A brigade consisted of ten carts, while a train was a procession of carts up to two miles or more in length. There were three drivers to every group of ten carts and an overseer, who attended to everything necessary to keep the outfit moving, including the supply of animals and the repair of the carts. In hostile country it was the practice for several carts to travel abreast, to prevent an attack being made on the rear. At the head of the procession the guide walked beside the leading ox and each ox was tied at its head to the rear of the cart in front. The rate of travel was about two miles per hour or approximately twenty to twenty-five miles in a day maximum. If faster travel was required horses were substituted for oxen and a large supply of these animals was maintained at the principal posts. They were also available to replace animals which had suffered injury or otherwise rendered incapable of travelling.

According to early accounts the cart was a most unimposing looking vehicle and wonder was often expressed, by those unfamiliar with it, that such a rickety looking contraption could stand up under the rigorous conditions encountered on the trail. When loaded it gave forth a blood-curdling squeal which could be heard for miles and which came to be associated with it. This squeal was caused by the friction of the dry wood of the hub of the wheel turning on the axle and could not be eliminated.

If grease was used the dust of the trail would mix with the grease and wear down the axle or congeal and prevent the wheel from turning. Notwithstanding the cart not only held together but performed a prodigious job of transport and in a unique way seemed peculiarly adapted for the terrain and conditions under which it was used. The crude cart with solid wheels had become the famous Red River Cart.

Notes and Acknowledgements

5. New Light on the Early History of the Greater North West Henry and Thompson Journals Vol. I Elliott Coues 1896.

6. Ibid as note 5.

7. Harry Ford, Humboldt, Saskatchewan, researched this cart in 1953 and verified the writer's investigation of the tapered journal. Mr. Ford has built 400 of these carts in four sizes and shipped them practically all over the western world.

8. Made to scale by the writer in 1969. See Autumn 1968 Manitoba Pageant for brief history of cart. Donated along with scale drawing of cart, ox and harness to Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba and Provincial Archives.

9. Ibid as note 7.

10. See Wanderings of an Artist by Paul Kane 1859 edition, page 76. Also article on Authenticity of Red River Carts by Clifford Wilson, Winnipeg Free Press, Magazine Section, January 24, 1970, page 7, and Red River Cart by Olive Knox, 'The Beaver' magazine, March, 1942-page 40.

11. Ibid as note 5.

12. The Old Crow Wing Trail by Hon. John Schultz. Address given to the Manitoba Historical Society in 1894, describing his trip over trail in 1860.

13. In Rupert's Land, Memoirs of Walter Trail, by Mae Atwood 1970.

14. Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company George Bryce 1900.

15. At the Philipsburg Manor Restoration, North Tarrytown, New York. There is a lightweight small yoke with loop for a single animal, circa 1750, which the writer photographed in 1970. In West of Yesterday 1965 by George Shepherd, Curator. Western Development Museum, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, states he never saw ox yokes in use on the prairies.

© Rick Kurtz 2011