What’s in a Cart

R.C.M.P. Vol. 41, No. 1 Winter 1976

What’s in a Cart?

By C/M Philippe Grant

Close-up of a Red River cart showing the rough-hewn elm axle supporting the floor and the linch pin in the axle tip. Shagganapee (crude buffalo hide) is wrapped around the wheel to help secure the felloes. This wheel probably stood five feet high. The railing shown is simple and was used to cart hay.

What’s in a Cart

In a Red River cart, that is. Who invented it? When did it come into general use? How was it built and kept in good repair? Were there many “models?” How was it driven? How was its use affected by the advent of the railroad? Just so many questions that might be asked about a seemingly legendary conveyance.

Now, as far as one can go into history, there is no instance known of an all-wooden cart construction. Even the Babylonians, who are credited with the invention of the wheel, did not build a cart until they discovered iron and the method to work it into such simple devices as a metal axle. This is borne out by the stone records unearthed to this day in Mesopotamia.

In a country of such continental vastness, where pioneers were really far from civilization, a means of transportation had to be thought out and built using only essential tools. Alex Henry, at about the turn of the 19th century, was the first to have the idea of a cart, which came to be known as the Red River cart, from the area where it originated. The rough-and-ready Metis, who spread the use of the cart, made use of whatever material was at hand, wood growing alongside streams and around lakes, different kinds being chosen for different components. The cart was easily kept in good repair because of the availability of materials, for there were more wooded tracks of land then than now; a sort of equivalent to our garages, but more omnipresent than facilities in our modern cities.

There were also several “models” of the cart, the most generally used being the one provided with open-work rails. There was the half-railed cart with the lower portion full, that is, made up of boards on all four sides of the vehicle. There was the covered model, the forerunner of the covered wagon; this model was reserved for women and children which provided protection from the weather on long trips. Lastly, the homesteader had the railless cart for conveying anything you may name on the farm.

This extraordinary vehicle was drawn by all sorts of animals, which then instantly became “dray” animals – horses of course, but just as often oxen, cows, even dogs. Frequently Indian ponies were used, and could pull a 500-700 lb load at a jog-trot for several hours, quite a test of endurance considering the terrain.

But did such a greaseless, indescribably squealing and moaning conveyance actually contribute to transportation in the prairies from the time Henry applied his idea of an all-wooden cart? The answer is positively yes. As rough and plain as the West where it was born, it could be bought or made for a few dollars. The Red River cart was not only used by the hundreds to take men and women to and from the buffalo hunting parties, but also for carting loads of every description with the appropriate model.

Such transportation was not limited to short runs. With time, longer journeys were undertaken, and increasing numbers of carts were used in what came to be known as “brigades,” which were not unlike the trains of railroad carts in arrangement. So it was that the Red Rivers, as they were sometimes called for short, opened an increasing number of trails in the prairies, trails that took the settlers as far as the Rockies. These trails extended in all directions from such centres as Fort Garry, Edmonton House, Red River, Fort Ellice, St. Paul de Cris, St. Paul, Minn., etc. On such distances, dozens and with time, hundreds of carts travelled the trails, caravan style. One of the great users of the conveyance on long journeys was the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The cart was THE vehicle for the transportation of people, equipment and supplies to and from another growing country, the United States. We all know how a cart brigade made the RCM Police March West possible.

A typically western achievement, the Red River cart thus helped in no small measure in developing the prairie economy, and thereby had a beneficial effect on the Canadian economy. It may be said in praise of the cart that it was used to move some of the first railroad material on the sites as construction of the rail progressed towards the Pacific, an undertaking that evolved into the Canadian Pacific Railway. Indeed, railroad building through such a vast territory would have been much more of a problem had not the cart opened the way.

And it was thus that the railroad train was substituted for the cart train. The carts, the last of which could still be seen about 1930, began the history of transportation in the prairies. Tourists can now see Red River carts in the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s museum, Regina, where they remain as old memories and tangible witnesses of man’s effort in the settlement of the West.

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