Red River Carts | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Red River Carts

Oct 17, 2019

On this date in 1907, the Wahpeton Times reminded readers of a historical artifact unique to the region: the two-wheeled Red River cart. C.W. Andrews of Walhalla had loaned a cart to the State Historical Society. He thought it was important to save this reminder of the state’s past.

The Red River cart was the freight carrier of its day. Early fur traders utilized the rivers, but as pioneers moved inland, they needed ground transportation. Alexander Henry, a trader in Pembina, is credited with fashioning the earliest version of the cart in 1801. The wheels were solid, cut from logs three feet in diameter. The Metis, early settlers of mixed European and Native American heritage, adopted the carts for their buffalo hunts. It would take five pack horses to transport the equivalent volume of goods that could be carried in one cart pulled by one animal. The Metis most often used oxen, although horses and mules were also employed. Each cart could carry up to 1,200 pounds.

Eventually, the solid wheels were discarded in favor of wheels with rims and spokes. It was easy to make repairs since no metal was used. Just an ax and some rawhide could often do the trick. Since the axles were open, they couldn’t be greased. If they were, dust from the trail would mix with the grease and create a glue that prevented the wheels from turning. Settlers living near ox cart trails said the squeaking of the wheels could be heard for miles.

Before there were roads, the Metis made their own trails to haul bison hides, furs, and pemmican all the way to St. Paul. They traded these for goods they needed to survive the winter. Cart tracks can still be seen in some areas of North Dakota and western Minnesota.

Ox carts eventually gave way as improved roads made stagecoaches and freight wagons practical. Steamboats and railroads also contributed to putting the carts out of business. No longer needed for transport, the carts were broken up and the wood used for building materials or firewood.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Wahpeton Times. “Red River Cart. Wahpeton ND. 17 October 1907. Page 1.

MNopedia. “Red River Carts.”  Accessed 10/14/2019.