Red River Carts - by Kade Ferris 

The Red River cart used by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Metis was capable of carrying nearly a thousand pounds of cargo.  It could transport this weight faster and several times more efficiently than a horse travois, especially when linked together into a wagon train of several dozen carts.  A historical example describes the amazing construction and capacity of the Red River cart:

"The carts composing the train were of uniform make, and of a species called “Red River carts”.  They are constructed entirely of wood, without any iron whatever, the axels and rims of the wheels forming no exception to the rule.  Although this might at first sight appear a disadvantage, as denoting a want of strength, yet it is really the reverse, because in the country traversed by these vehicles, wood is abundant and always to be obtained in quantities sufficient to mend any breakages which might take place.  The only tool necessary, not only to mend but to construct a cart, are an axe, a saw, a screw-auger, and a draw knife. . .Each cart is drawn by an ox, and in cases where speed is an object, a horse is substituted. . .[with] the wiry little “Indian ponies”, one of which, with a load of four or five hundred pounds in the cart behind him, will overtake from fifty to sixty miles a day in a measured, but by no means hurried, jog trot.  The common rate of progress made by heavy [ox] freight carts is about twenty miles a day, of traveling ten hours, the load averaging about eight hundred pounds per cart." (Hargrave 1871: 58-59)
Red River Carts at St. Paul, MN
Red River Cart
This new technology allowed the Chippewa and Metis to carry massive amounts of buffalo meat and hides, which was not previously possible.  With the Red River cart the Turtle Mountain Chippewa were able to rise above the loss of the beaver trade of the early 1800s and were no longer confined to hunting for mere subsistence with the extras serving as trade fodder. Instead, a cultural revolution had begun.

In terms of sheer yield, the buffalo hunts that followed were almost beyond reason in terms of the amounts of meat and hides taken by the Chippewa and Métis, and the economic ramifications were astounding in terms of human organization. Unlike tribal-level organization, the cart-driven buffalo hunts were coordinated to include hundreds of people to maximize yield:

"The operations connected with these buffalo hunts give employment to somewhat over one thousand men and twelve hundred Red River carts.  The people go to them with their families, who are employed in preparing the meat after the animals have been killed.  The whole of those connected with the [hunting] business may be divided into two sections, of which one leaves the [Red River] settlement by the road leading to Pembina, and the other. . .[on] White Horse Plain." (Hargrave 1871: 169)

6/10/2012 07:44:29 pm

Nice blog about the red river cart and the area around the river.Thanks for the blog post to read.

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4/18/2013 06:01:40 pm

There was an uncle in our village that had a cart. This site reminded me of him. Actually these carts are vanishing from the society or we can hardly find one. Good to see this post. I liked the historical things on various topics you explained throughout your blog!

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10/21/2013 04:19:56 pm

The people go to them with their families, who are employed in preparing the meat after the animals have been killed.

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    Content is provided by Kade M. Ferris M.S.  Kade has a B.A. in anthropology and history from University of North Dakota, and a M.S. degree in anthropology from North Dakota State University.  Kade serves as the Historical Society board Vice President and is a professional historian and anthropologist with over 18 years of experience.  He serves as the THPO and Director of Natural Resources for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and is the Vice President of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Historical Society Board.


    June 2012
    March 2012