The Red River is sufficiently important in the annals of Minnesota to have an engraving of its typical high-wheeled cart placed on the postage stamp that commemorated a century of Minnesota history. Both Major Stephen H. Long and the versatile Italian, Giacomo C. Beltrami, left their impressions of Pembina and the Red River country early in the nineteenth century. But they were by no means the first. In 1811, the Scotch Earl of Selkirk had interested himself in the region and a few years later had transported settlers there. Some of them, seeking a warmer clime where farming was easier, traveled south to squat on land near Ft. Snelling. A trader complained that “these people that come from Red River have lodged about a hundred head of Cattle in the Bottom where we had inclosed for our Stock and they are destroying the Pasture.”
By the l840’s regular trade had been established between the Red River and St. Paul. Indeed, in 1857, about five hundred carts arrived to trade buffalo hides and furs for necessities — tobacco, salt, and other groceries. The total value of furs brought down from the Red River in 1858 was estimated at more than a hundred thousand dollars. It was this rich trade that stimulated interest in a railroad to tap the Red River valley. “Establish, as we are now trying to establish, a Railroad communication with the Red River valley,” said the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat in 1858, “and the whole trade of the Hudson Bay Company would fall into our hands, or at least seek this avenue of exportation.” A picturesque account of the annual arrival of the carts from Selkirk was written by an unknown author, who in July, 1851 visited their camp near the St. Anthony Road.
WE HAVE BEEN OUT to see the camp of a part of the Red River train, about 20 carts and 12 men, that arrived in advance of the main body on Thursday last. They are encamped near the St. Anthony road, about 2 1/2 miles from town. The whole company left Selkirk on the 4th of June. As we stated last week the entire train consists of 102 carts, drawn chiefly by oxen that are hitched up very much like horses, wearing a collar, instead of a yoke. Mr. Henry Cook, to whom we are indebted for the facts in this article, is a merchant and native of Red River — a full blood and intelligent white man. This is his sixth trip from Red River to St. Paul. He says that the oxen improved on the journey, and are in a much better condition now than when they started.
The Red River carts are curiosities. In most of them there is not a particle of iron, the fastenings being made of wooden pins, and thongs of buffalo hide. A few of them only have small iron bands around the hubs. There is one ox to each cart, and the load is usually about a thousand pounds. They are very light and will float in water. They are easily drawn over new, or rather, wild roads are readily repaired and therefore preferable to any other sort for such an expedition. When a number of heavy laden carts are in company, they are conveyed across streams on hastily constructed rafts. When few, or light, the wheels are taken off, laid on a buffalo hide, or two or three sowed together, and made water tight, the stiff hide is then draw up, and tied so as to form a canoe, the wheels constituting the frame work of the bottom. This hide canoe will float 1000 to 1200 lbs. of freight. A canoe of this kind is constructed in a few minutes.
About one-half of the carts in this train belong to residents this side of the line — chiefly to Mr. Kittson, or rather the American Fur Company of which he is a partner. The other half is the property of different persons who belong to Selkirk, and in this way come down annually to exchange buffalo robes, clothing made of buffalo skins, moccasins, &c., buffalo tongues and pemmican, for groceries, stoves and hardware chiefly, as well as for other merchandize.
The people of Red River — who are mostly half-breeds — rely mainly upon the buffalo chase for their exports and prosperity. The failure of that crop would be to them a dire calamity. They hve two summer hunts; they start on the first about the 10th of June, the second the 10th of August. The party usually consists of from 600 to 700 men with their families, the women and older children of which are employed in cutting up and drying the eat. They take with them from 1300 to 1400 ox carts, each of which will hold the product of from nine to ten buffaloes. The best meat is obtained in the fall, when the buffalo is in fine condition. The hunting plains are very extensive reaching to the Missouri river. The buffalo has but little hair in the summer — the skin is then valuable only to be converted into dressed hides. The robes are procured in the winter, when the animal is well supplied with a thick coat of hair — the best early in winter, when the hunters go out with flat sleds made of thin boards 26 to 28 inches and 15 or 16 feet long, turned up at the prow, which are awn by horses or dogs. Three dogs will draw a sled bearing a load of 700 to 800 pounds.
The train was met at Sauk Rapids by C. C. Cavileer, [sic] Esq., who has been appointed Collector of the Customs for Pembina, and was on his way there. This office was created at the instigation the Fur Company, to cut off the competition of the Selkirk hunters. Mr. Cavalier informed the Selkirkers that they must pay 20 per cent duty on their buffalo robes, and 30 per cent. on their moccasins, which will leave them just that much money less to expend among our citizens in making purchases. The Red River gentlemen we have conversed with on the subject, assure us that this high duty — they never paid duties before — will compel them to abandon trade with us, and to depend upon the Hudson Bay Company for supplies, in exchange for their robes, &c. They pay a duty of 4 per cent to the British authorities for all the goods they take from here.
The time used in making a trip and transacting the necessary business here, is about three months —The distance from Selkirk to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay, their sea port, is about 700 miles — that trip is made in summer with boats. From two to three ships arrive at York Factory each season.
The people of Selkirk are highly gratified to learn that there is now a monthly mail at Pembina, which is only about 60 miles from their settlement.