Material Culture: Red River Cart

Red River Cart at Ft. Carlton, SK

Red River Cart at Ft. Carlton, SK (Photo: D Fortin)

While Canada’s waterways were instrumental playing a role in the commercialization of the fur trade and the country’s development, “on the Plains the canoe proved far from ideal as a transport mode” due to a general lack of available wood along the river edges, their meandering shapes, seasonal flow variations, lack of linkages, and sporadic sand bars. (1) Instead, the prairies relied heavily on goods being transported by land, which was made possible with the invention of the Red River Carts use by the Prairie Métis. (2) These carts not only helped to carry good and provisions across the country but were also involved during periods of migration. It is documented that they were also used as temporary shelters when travelling long distances. (3)

Red River carts were made entirely of wood, using a variety of different species commonly found throughout the region. The carts also showcased an iron and bolt free construction which is recognized as one of their most distinctive features. (4) Evidence found within a journal written in 1810 seems to conflict with this claim. It was reported that Company carts at the Brandon house (located between the Souris and Assiniboine River) incorporated the use of iron nails and possibly other elements made of metal.(5) However it appears to be the only account which exists to date suggesting the Métis incorporated metal into the production of their carts, therefore it seems unlikely that this was a common theme.

Drawing of the Red River Cart (Image Source)

Drawing of the Red River Cart (Image Source)

From the early to the mid-nineteenth century, the carts developed slight variations in their design; becoming more refined as time went on. The wheels in particular developed spokes rather than formed full solid wheels, as well as slight dish-like forms to prevent them from sinking too low in the mud. (6)  According to Knox, who carefully documented their craftsmanship, each of the carts components were usually constructed using specific species of wood corresponding their properties with their intended use. (7) He writes;

I learned that the immense hubs of the carts from which the spokes radiated, were usually made of elm, because elm was hard to split. The fellows, which I had always called the rim, were made from white ash or oak, because it would bend into a curve. The axle was made from a hard maple, because there was no spring to hard maple. The bow or the oxen, was cut from ash or oak, which was boiled and pressed into the desired shape. (8)

Across the Prairies the Métis as well as other travelers established roads which would often link one fort to another [9]. Some trips would take weeks and sometimes even months to reach their destination . One road in particular provided a link from the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton to the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in Winnipeg. (10) These lengthy transportation routes would often provoke the need to make stops to allow the men and the horses to recover.

Although there is a lack of photographic evidence to support the claim that the Métis utilized their carts as temporary shelters, a number of written accounts document this habit. (11) (12). A diagram illustrates the way the cart may have been tilted to provide shelter (see diagram). A number of photographs and images already showcase the cart pitched forward onto the cart tongues or ‘shafts’ once they were removed from either side of the horse’s harness. The large wheels raise the cart bed to a considerable height and subsequently provide ample room beneath to give someone shelter from the elements for a short rest or after a long day’s travel. (13)Diagram Metis Sleeping Cart.jpgDiagram: Métis fur-trader sleeping underneath a Red River Cart.

While many photographs document large groups of men traveling in a caravan of carts, some picture families, during periods of migration, sitting on the ground huddled closely to the carts. Interestingly, in one photograph in particular, a number of women and children are pictured using the cart as an anchor point to erect a temporary canvassed tent shelter, using the nearby limbs of birch trees to prop up the fabric (see figure 1). Often, at least one man or woman can be seen leaning against one of the large wheels of the cart; using it as a sort of backrest, treating the cart like a piece of furniture (see figures 2,3). It can be emphasized that this nomadic lifestyle provoked a certain familiarity in erecting expedient shelters wherever they traveled.

Make shift cart

Figure 1: Photographer: McKenzie, Peter. (ca. 1906) In the lee of a Red River cart – Métis women and children seated on the prairie grass in the shelter of teepee poles draped with cloth or leather on the side of an ox-cart. (Image Source)

When travelling from one site to another, the Métis would load the carts with all of their worldly possessions. This may explain why families would huddle around these carts when stopping to rest; in order to protect their belongings. For the Métis, the carts held considerable value, as they were an essential tool required for their livelihood as well as their non-sedentary lifestyle. These carts were characterized as more than just a vehicle for transport but symbolized a sort of mobile home to carry everything they held of material value.

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Figure 2: Métis and Red River carts, photo by B.F. Upton 1869.  (Image Source)

Figure 3: Red River Carts from Pembina camped on St. Anthony’s Hill. 1858. Minnesota Historical Society.  (Image Source) 

Carts could also be covered with a stretched canvas arching over the frame of the box similar to the American style covered wagons [14]. However there is no evidence to suggest that the Métis used the inside of their carts canopy’s as shelters. One can assume that it would be difficult, once taken off the horse’s harness, to make the cart level with the ground to be better suited to use as a potential shelter. The tarp seemed to only exist as a tool to protect the goods being transported from the elements as well as potentially providing shelter from the sun while driving the cart.

Camp scene of Métis people with carts on the prairie, 1872-1873. (Image: Library and Archives Canada / C-081787)

Camp scene of Métis people with carts on the prairie, 1872-1873. (Image: Library and Archives Canada / C-081787)

Later versions of the carts were intended to be versatile; the wheels made to be removed in order to allow the box of the cart to be transformed into a boat or raft. This was most likely achieved by removing the wooden pegs which held them in place on the axle (see figures 4,5). Carts could also be rallied together to form a corral for the horses, protecting them as they grazed. (15)  In order to give the wheels more strength the tires were wrapped in rawhide, drawn tightly around using sinew. (16)

Figure 4: A Red River cart sits on display on the green lawns of Fort Walsh National Historic Site, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Saskatchewan, Canada. The wheels are bound tightly with shaganappi (rawhide) and secured into place using a wooden dowel. (Image Source)

Figure 5: Close up of an unpeeled poplar axle. Image Source – Knox, O., 1942. The Red River Cart. The Beaver (March 1942), p. 43

The Red River Carts are but one of the many pieces of Métis material culture that continue to define their identity. Future publications will continue to document other artifacts unique to the Métis culture and will include other topics such as log home construction, boat building, beadwork and embroidery. In examining other aspects of their built environment, we can not only better recognize and identify these powerful symbols of Métis nationhood but deepen our understanding of the intentions behind their designs.

A Métis family at their camp with a Red River Cart in Manitoba . (Image: Library and Archives Canada / c001644)

A Métis family at their camp with a Red River Cart in Manitoba . (Image: Library and Archives Canada / c001644)

Notes

[1] Henderson, N., 1996. “The canoe as failure on the Canadian Plains.” Great Plains Research: A Journal of Natural and Social Sciences, 6, p.4.

[2] Kaye, B. and Alwin, J., 1984. The Beginnings of Wheeled Transport in Western Canada. Great Plains Quarterly, p.121

[3] McMicking, T., 1981. Overland from Canada to British Columbia (Vol. 4). UBC Press. p. 61

[4] Kaye, B. and Alwin, J., 1984. The Beginnings of Wheeled Transport in Western Canada. Great Plains Quarterly, p.130

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kaye, B. and Alwin, J., 1984. The Beginnings of Wheeled Transport in Western Canada. Great Plains Quarterly, pp.121-134. p. 1 Referenced from George M. Dawson, General Diary and Notebook 1874: 44. (Online, http://www.ourheritage.net)

[7] Barkwell, L.J,Red River Cart, Gabriel Dumont Institute. P. 2

[8] Knox, O., 1942. The Red River Cart. The Beaver (March 1942), p. 39

[9] Kaye, B. and Alwin, J., 1984. The Beginnings of Wheeled Transport in Western Canada. Great
Plains Quarterly, p. 123

[10] Ibid. p.126

[11] Barkwell, L.J,Red River Cart, Gabriel Dumont Institute. p. 4-5

[12] Red River Métis, adapted from Préfontaine, Darren R., Paquin Todd, and Young Patrick. “Traditional Métis Transportation”. p.2

[13] McMicking, T., 1981. Overland from Canada to British Columbia (Vol. 4). UBC Press. P.61

[14] Ibid.

[15] Barkwell, L.J., Red River Cart, Gabriel Dumont Institute. p. 5

[16] Knox, O., 1942. The Red River Cart. The Beaver (March 1942), p. 40

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