Red River: Wagons West
Red River carts tracked the grasslands
The Red River cart has become the historic symbol of the settlement of
Manitoba. The cart, drawn by oxen, provided transportation to bison hunters,
merchants, and settlers in the Red River Valley.
Based on carts commonly used in Scotland, the Red River cart was made entirely of wood and
leather. Because it had no metal parts, it could easily be repaired and could be floated
The design was adopted from Lord Selkirk's settlers by their neighbors, the Métis
hunters, who used the carts to carry bison meat and hides home from the interior plains.
When they lost their main market with the takeover of the North West Company by the Hudson's
Bay Company, the Métis employed their Red River carts to set up a freight business
between present-day Winnipeg and St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Métis cart trains operated in violation of the Hudson's Bay Company's business
monopoly. The Métis called themselves "free-traders". The company treated them as
smugglers. Ultimately, the Hudson's Bay Company gave up its attempts to enforce its monopoly.
The Red River cart trains were driven out of business by the steam-driven riverboats which
linked St. Paul and Winnipeg in half the time the carts had taken.
In 1859, the first steamboat surprised the townsfolk at Winnipeg with a loud bellow from
its steam whistle. This first riverboat on the Red River had actually come from the Mississippi
River. It had been hauled over the snow from the Mississippi and then relaunched in the Red
River, earning a $2,000 prize offered by the merchants of St. Paul, Minnesota for the first
riverboat service on the Canada-bound river.
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