Thursday, August 12, 2010

From Where Hails the Red River Ox?

by Larry T. Dake, Copyright 2010
Photo: Encylcopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America

Red River fur-traders developed the Red River cart — but where did they get the ox? (In the early years of the 19th century the Red River carts were pulled exclusively by horses.)

A man named Lord Selkirk was responsible. *Selkirk was born at Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland (Kirkcudbrightshire is bounded on the north and northwest by Ayrshire — home of the Ayrshire cow); being the 5th Earl of Selkirk, he had taken an active interest in the desperate situation of Scottish crofters who had been removed from their crofts by landlords.

A philanthropist at heart, Selkirk established the Red River colony in 1811 as an avenue of hope for the displaced crofters. By 1812 he had moved 128 men to the colony with the ambition of transforming the wilderness into farmland. Of course, Scottish farmers needed cows for their farms, so Selkirk made a contract with a New Yorker to have **five-hundred head delivered.

The War of 1812 made immediate delivery difficult, but when the war began to wind down the New York man had sublet the contract to two cattle drovers from St. Charles, in Missouri Territory.

Missouri was still sparsely settled in 1815, but the two drovers managed to buy up enough cattle to execute the contract; many were purchased on credit. At the time, Daniel Boone was one of the settlers who farmed near St. Charles; it was a town of less than a thousand people, populated primarily by French-Canadians; if one were traveling west, it was the last “civilized” stop; it had been the jumping off point for the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition just eleven years earlier.

When “Old Dick Carr” and B. Lewis Musick set out for the Selkirk Colony on the heels of the 500-head of cattle — one day in 1815 — they had a journey of a thousand miles ahead of them; there were no roads, no bridges, and the Native Americans weren’t necessarily friendly.

They didn’t think to bring their USGS Topographical Maps or their Global Positioning Systems. Their cow-ponies didn’t come equipped with OnStar.

The courageous pair of drovers pushed the cattle up the Mississippi River bottoms until they arrived at, and forded, the Des Moine River. They rested the cattle for several days there on the Sand Prairie. They had enlisted some local men to help with this first leg of the journey.

From the Sand Prairie they headed northwest across Iowa country, paralleling the Des Moine River right on into what is now southwestern Minnesota. Continuing north-northwest they skirted Lake Traverse and picked up the Red River of the North, which guided them into the new Selkirk Colony (Selkirk is in what is now Manitoba, Canada — about 22 miles northeast of modern day Winnipeg). The Native Americans had given them some problems along the way and did manage to steal some livestock (probably horses). In spite of the difficulty of the journey their losses in cattle were small.

The Selkirk colonists were pleased with the cattle and the contract was honored. Carr and Musick returned to Missouri with the necessary paperwork to collect payment from their New York counterpart. They traveled south to St. Paul Minnesota, from where they paddled a canoe down the Mississippi River to St. Charles. It is said that when Carr and Musick got back to St. Charles they were cheated out of every dollar of the contract they had fulfilled.

What became of the cattle is unknown, because, after the arrival of the cattle the settlers were routed out and scattered by the Northwest Fur Company. A number of Lord Selkirk’s colonists were killed and their farms were burned to the ground.

I would like to believe that some of the cattle survived the assault to produce oxen for the Red River carts. However, that is uncertain. Manitoban winters can be harsh. If left to fend for themselves, in the Canadian wilderness, the cattle may not have survived.

We do know several more herds of cattle arrived from Missouri in the 1820's, but not without heavy losses en route. At least two of those herds didn’t manage to complete the trip before winter. Many are ***known to have perished near Lake Traverse.

In any event, the Red River Carts were supplied with oxen, and oxen became the favored animal for the grueling task of moving furs and trade goods along the Red River trails.

*Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, (2010), Wikipedia

**The History of Lee County, Iowa, (1879), Western Historical Company, Chicago

***The Red River Trails: Oxcart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement, 1820-1870. Gilman, Rhoda R.; Carolyn Gilman & Deborah M. Stultz (1979). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.