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Ox Cart Era in the Red River Valley


Debbie Gooselaw

When civilization began to rise along the Red River, peopleneeded ways of transportation. At first the people only needed to travelon horseback, as they had not settled down. As the Red River Valley becamemore populated, people needed a reliable way of transporting things becausehorses alone could not carry some of their heavy loads. At this time theox carts were introduced.

These first ox carts are credited to Alexander Henry, Jr.,but he did not invent them. When he came to the Red River Valley, he justnoted that people were using them. This was in the year of 1801. The personwho really invented the ox carts is unknown.

The carts Henry discovered being used were very crude. In Henry's writings, he described the carts as follows: small low carts,wheels of one solid piece sawed from the ends of trees with the diameterof three feet. Because of the smooth country, he wrote, they used theseto go in any direction to carry heavy loads.

Although these carts were the first in the Red River Valleyfor heavy transportation, they were not the first carts to be found in thiscountry. The first was probably in Massachusetts Bay Colony where GovernorEndicott, in 1626, reported that the people were using carts with two wheelwrights. Also early American colonial writers mentioned of two wheeled ox cartsbeing used for trips between farms and villages no longer than a day's travel.

In 1841, a fur trader named Joseph Rolette came to theRed River Valley. With him was a man named Fisher. They saw that the cartswere being used in Pembina, North Dakota. Fisher decided to cross the RedRiver, and in l843, he introduced the ox carts to Minnesota. Charles H.Lee, author of The Long Ago, said that Rolette and Fisher had used the oxcarts from Pembina to St. Paul. This was in l843 while they were transportingfurs they had.

Norman W. Kittson was an early resident and pioneer ofthe Red River Valley. Kittson County was named after him. Kittson wasan agent for the American Fur Company. He was stationed in Pembina, NorthDakota in the 1840's. R. I. Holcombe told of Kittson in some of his writings. He wrote that Kittson was sent by Henry H. Sibley to be stationed at Pembina. When he arrived there, he noticed the carts being used, so decided to procurea few and benefit from them himself. Holcombe also wrote: "Afterdue deliberation Kittson procured six of the rude carts which have beenreferred to, loaded his furs, and in the spring of 1844 set out for Mendota,which he reached after a toilsome and expensive journey. Presumably hehad six or eight men with him. The route he followed was that which hadbeen taken by the Red River refugees when they had left the Selkirk settlementfor Fort Snelling; it run along the west side of the river to Lake Traverse,then crossed into what is now Minnesota, then ran to Traverse des Sioux,near St. Peter, and on down the Minnesota Valley to Mendota.(1)

In 1844, Kittson's first train of six ox carts carried$2,000 worth of furs. In 1850, the fur company's records have recorded$15,000 worth of furs being shipped to St. Paul. On the return trips Kittsoncarried $10,000 of goods. Now Kittson was running the service on a businesslike basis. In 1851, one hundred and two carts reached St. Paul. All buta few of these were Kittson's. After St. Paul became the capital of Minnesota,all carts were destined here with their fur goods, because fur warehouseshad been set up by Pierre Chouteau, Jr.

There were many advantages as to having an ox cart. Butthere was one great difficulty for the people with ox carts. It was wherethey were going to go with the ox carts. There were no highways or dirtroads on which to travel. Being that Rolette and Kittson were the firstto travel such great distances with the Ox carts, it was their duty to opentrails for the carts to travel on. These trails that were opened by thesemen and others as well have become very well known. Kittson's first trailwas made along the west banks of the Red River. The west side was higherand drier than the other side. Although this trail was the easiest he hadfound, it was the longest and took too much time for him to deliver thefurs. He decided it would be faster to go along the Minnesota side. Hecrossed his ox carts at Pembina and made his way to the south of the OtterTail River. From here he sought his way to Sauk Rapids which was alongthe Mississippi River. His trail for St. Paul seemed easy from that pointon. This trail through Kittson County was close to the towns now locatedalong the Great Northern Railway lines. Still many more trails that werebuilt have become highways, county roads, and some still remain adventuroustrails.

On an expedition, from Pembina to Fort Snelling, MajorWoods headed it. The route that he followed was said to be traveled everysummer by many large trains of carts bringing their furs in trade. On MajorWoods' expedition, he left on August 26, 1849. Their average travel perday was twenty miles considering they had no interruptions to contend with. Twenty miles was considered a pretty good average. From Pembina to FortSnelling they made the miles in twenty three and a half days. This wasone of the records set by a few of their fastest ox carts although theydid tend to improve mileage as time went by.

In Crookston, Minnesota, there stands a replica of an oxcart. This one cart is known to be that of the great talltale character,Paul Bunyan. This ox cart is a replica of the ones used in the Red RiverValley in the 1800's.

A few years ago, 1962 to be exact, a man traveled fromWinnipeg, Manitoba to St. Paul along the exact trail used by Rolette andKittson. When he did go, however, it was not in a car as we usually travelnowadays, but it was in an ox cart. He made this journey to show how importantthese trails were and are still today.

Ox carts were an important step in the advancement of transportationin the Red River Valley. Without the ox carts, we probably would not havethe highways and railways located where they are today. Thus, the ox cartshave contributed greatly to the prosperity of the Red River Valley.

(1) Kittson County Enterprise. "Red River Ox CartsInaugurate Traffic Epoch." September 11, 1935 p. 9


Home University Encyclopedia, "Transportation"Volume 12

Minnesota History. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1952. pp. 256-238

Kittson County Enterprise. Anniversary Edition" September11, 1935

World Book Encyclopedia, "Transportation" Volume18

ember11, 1935

World Book Encyclopedia, "Transportation" Volume18