Red River Ox Carts: Minnesota's First FreightCarts

by

Marilyn Weir

 

Almost everyone has heard of the giant ox carts full ofvaluable furs running from Pembina to St. Paul. But everyone seems to overlookthe labor, men, money, and hardy pride involved.

The whole thing started when the white people in the RedRiver Valley found how profitable the fur business was up here. There wasalways a bounty of mink, raccoon, rabbit, deer and other pelts so much indemand in the year 1844. At this time, St. Paul was the gateway to everythingout West as well as the fur trade center of the whole area.

With the exception of one thing, transportation, the wholebusiness was easy and rewarding. But the predominantly French settlersfound a way to conquer this problem. In the late 1830's and early 1840'sthe first ox carts were made. It was made entirely of wooden frame and wheels.Tanned buffalo hide fit into peg holes to help hold the parts securely.The pegs used were made from wood scraps left over after the main partsof the carts were made. Each wheel was massive. All carts had only two wheels.They ranged anywhere from five and a half to seven feet in height and therims were sometimes eight inches across. In the ox cart's infancy they wereonly a solid slab cut from a single round of a tree. Later on spoked wheelswere added and the slab wheels completely discarded. The furs were in arack or box placed on the cart's axle. This container could easily supportseven or eight hundred pounds of furs or supplies. Oxen, or borine usedfor working purposes, were used most often as power to pull the cargo. Butsometimes a tame buffalo or pony was used. The only real requirements ofthe animals were that they must be strong, obedient, and enduring.

The ox cart was perfect for this type of trip for muchof the ares covered on the way was wet and swampy. Several lakes, rivers,and streams had to be crossed. Much of the land was swampy. Several rainsswept across the state so in some places mud was several inches deep. Buteven these obstacles were no match for the brains of the Red River man.The carts were built lightly and the wide rims helped keep them above themuck and marsh. The ox carts were economical in another way. One cart inits entirety cost $15.00 to build. It lasted three trips or 2,688miles. This was quite good considering all the rough country coveredon each trip.

But no matter how sturdy or practical the carts were, theystill couldn't run in the winter. The same Frenchmen and halfbreeds thatran "Minnesota's first freight cars" kept up the trains with dogsleds just as with the carts, the drivers took fur pelts, tender buffalotongues, and pemmican to St. Paul. In return, they brought many suppliesnecessary for the life in the rough Red River settlement. Whiskey was alsobrought back.

Each trip involved a lot of work and worry. It all startedat the first tiny hint of spring and didn't even stop long enough for abreather until the snow was too deep to plow through. But even then therest was short for soon the sleds must start out. Here is one summer tripin its entirety.

The first days of spring brought on the start of a lotof confusion and hustling around in the small settlement of Pembina on theRed River. There wasn't one person idle. Men lined up supplies, and fursand got enough carts in good shape to make the run. Women prepared pemmican(dried meat pounded into a paste often served in cake forms) and made sureevery man had a sufficient outfit of the special costume worn by the cartdrivers. Every man on the trip wore moccasins and Indian breeches. Aroundhis waist was a fringed tartan like piece of hide. On this accessory wasa very colorful Indian pattern. The rest of his outfit consisted of a heavytopcoat and a warm black fur cap. Children helped in any way they could.

When the people saw that their oxen could have sufficientgrazing along the Pembina - St. Paul route they decided it was finally timeto commence the first run of the year. This was generally in thefirst half of June. Before anyone started, a supply check was carried on.On a good sized run, many supplies were taken. Some of these were guns andammunition, harness, saddles, spare ponies, whips, axes and other trivialequipment such as tents, cutlery, etc. All these supplies were needed becauseon the 1840 train there ware 1,210 carts, 620 hunters, 650 women and 360boys and girls. The reason there was so many people then was because ofa load of trappers from Fort Garry further up the Red River joined the peopleof Pembina with their furs.

After a thorough double check they finally departed forSt. Paul. The carts left in sections to allow the buffalo grass eaten bythe preceding section to grow back. Each section consisted of twelve men,all well armed, and as many carts as the men could keep control over. Theparty should expect to cover fifteen miles on a good day.

When the caravan really got started it seemed as thoughevery person within miles was out riding a lead pony or driving oxen. Nomatter which way a person looked, there were carts full of furs coming fromall directions.

The ox carts creaked slowly through all kinds of weather.

It was a special code of tough men from the valley to besure and get to St. Paul no matter what happened. The carts received nospecial care. They did not even use axle grease. Sometimes the creakingand grinding could be heard for a four mile radius. One old timer's storysaid that once a band of carts moved by an old St. Anthony church whilea sermon was in progress. The minister was just about to open his mouthwhen the banging carts were heard. He hastily said, "continued nextSunday, and finished the service.

After the hard days traveling, the carts formed a circlefor an encampment. All the tents, campfires and supplies needed for thenight were inside. Guards on ponies rode around the outside of the encampmentbarricade to watch for Indian enemies. All this together made a very gooddependable fort.

After approximately forty days of traveling and campingthey finally got to St. Paul. It all turned out to be a big celebration.Just about every person in the city turned out to meet the carts. Brisktrading started immediately. Large companies as well as individual touristsflocked to buy goods brought by the world. St. Paul's giant fur trade wouldnever have gained as much importance as it did if not for the Red RiverCarts.

After the furs were sold, the people involved in the carttrains for themselves prepared to have a big time in the big city. Thiswas about their only chance all year to catch up on the news and do a littlecelebrating. It could get very boring sitting up in frosty Pembina eightmonths of the year. The day could also give them a chance to rest a littleand get the constant bang! bang! out of their heads.

But no matter how tempted the people were to stay anotherday, they must get packed and ready to go back home. Sometimes trappersfelt rich for they had enough money to pay off their debts. All the supplieswere bought on credit from stores situated between Pembina and Fort Garry.

On their way home the trip seemed so much longer than thetrip to the twin "Cities~ Even the toughest men grew weary of the jolting,banging, trip over the wide open nothing. Often the nights were spent arounda campfire with story telling and fiddle playing. These times were enjoyedby all.

Soon, familiar country came into view and everyone's spiritslifted considerably. But the most joyous time was when they landed in Pembina.The very sight of the streets and buildings lifted all the people's spiritsimmediately. No matter who was along, every person was glad to get home.

Soon, all the families went home to be sure nothing hadhappened to their home or belongings. After all people were at easeabout their homes, the oxen were taken care of. In those days, a good driverwas always more concerned about his horses and oxen than himself.

After the Pembina folk took a breather, it was soon timeto pack up and leave for St. Paul again. The carts were packed and set togo as quickly as could be managed. No one really wanted to go again. Butyet, the people of Pembina had a certain "thing" about them. Theymust all be moving and rambling or they would feel strangely trapped.

This particular trip was considered to be a great success.The train was only halted once because of a wheel breakage. It was backbreaking work to replace a damaged wheel. The strongest men and boys stillcame out of it with hurt fingers and backs. When the travelers returned,all carts were given a very particular check. The most vulnerable areasto damage were the wheels and axle because of the heavy load. On some tripsthe advancement had to be halted three or four times to repair something.

Another good thing about the trip in 1840 was that therewas a bounty of expensive furs. Sometimes the animal pelts were so terriblethey couldn't bring in quite enough for payment of bills. This year allpeople got enough to pay up.

On a good trip hardly anyone got sick. Sometimes a smallscale epidemic would break out among the cart people. That could reallymake the going hard.

The ox carts died off after the appearance of railroadsin 1867. But the ox cart is by no means dead. Several modernfamilies have the same last names as some of the more famous cart drivers.If the people want to see a cart, there is one at the museum in Crookston,Minnesota and another at Abercrombie, North Dakota.

So the ox carts that made companies rich, developed tradeand travel in the valley, and helped shape and form the prosperous Red RiverValley will never be dead or forgotten.

Bibliography

 

Blegan, Theodore C. Minnesota History, University of MinnesotaPress, 1931

Ford, Antoinette E. and Johnson, Neoma, Minnesota, Starof the North Lyons and Carnahan, 1961

Ross, Alexander, The Red River Valley; Its Rise, Progressand Present State, Ross and Haines, 1957nesota, Starof the North Lyons and Carnahan, 1961

Ross, Alexander, The Red River Valley; Its Rise, Progressand Present State, Ross and Haines, 1957