Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Making preparations… Red River cart to be featured at Founders’ Day

Bitterroot Woodwright Chris Weatherly leans on one of the solid wooden wheels that graces the Red River cart he built for the Founders Day celebration in Stevensville. The St. Mary’s brand was burned into the front of the cart.

On a cool autumn day in 1841, a small band of travelers made their way along an ancient Indian trail through a valley, now known as the Bitterroot, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. They had come by invitation from the Salish and Nez Perce people: six men in black robes, accompanied by an escort of Indians and guided by frontiersman Thomas Fitzpatrick. At a signal from their leaders the little band stopped beside the river that traversed the valley.

There, on September 24, 1841, Jesuit Father Pierre Jean DeSmet planted a rough-hewn wooden cross on the east bank of the Bitterroot River, thus, establishing the mission which he named St. Mary. Over the years a community, St. Mary Village, developed around the little mission, later the Fort Owen trading post and finally the town we now know, Stevensville.

On that day Jesuit Father Nicolas Point observed, “Everyone thought we would be able to find nothing better anywhere else.”

You are invited to attend the Founders Day Celebration on Saturday, September 24, on the grounds at St. Mary’s Mission, west end of 4th Street, Stevensville. The day will celebrate “170 Years of Community, the Oldest Community in Montana.”

The day will begin with a Flag Raising Ceremony at 11 a.m., followed by a reenactment of Indian tribes welcoming the Blackrobe Missionaries, announcement of Stevensville and Lone Rock Student Poster Contest winners, refreshments, coffee and conversation, and guided tours.

A barbecue lunch sponsored by the Knights of Columbus will be available from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Civic Club member Dale Burk, after looking over an old photograph of an early Founder’s Day celebration, thought it would be nice to have a replica of the small covered cart that appears in that early photograph.

Wanting something of an “authentic” replica, Burk took the photograph to Chris Weatherly of Bitterroot Woodwright. Weatherly is not only an excellent woodworker, he is also a history nut. Burk offered to pay for the materials if Weatherly would construct a version of the cart in the photograph for use in the Founders Day celebration. Weatherly took on the job.

It began, of course, with a little historical investigation. He learned that the carts were commonly used by trappers and pioneers working and settling in the frontier. He learned that the style was called a Red River cart and he eventually got hold of some blueprints for constructing one that were published by the Smithsonian Institution and went to work.

Wikipedia defines a Red River cart as “a two-wheeled vehicle made entirely of non-metallic materials, wood and buffalo hide.” Often drawn by oxen, though also by horses or mules, these carts were used throughout most of the 19th century in the fur trade and in westward expansion in Canada and the United States, in the area of the Red River and on the plains west of the Selkirk Settlement. The cart was a simple conveyance developed by Métis for use in their settlement on the Red River in what later became Manitoba.

According to the journal of North West Company fur-trader Alexander Henry (the younger), the carts made their first appearance in 1801 at Fort Pembina, just south of what is now the United States border. Derived either from the two-wheeled charette used in French Canada or from Scottish carts, it was adapted to use only local materials.”

The basic design of the cart actually goes back a lot further than 19th century America. It even goes back further than the French charettes or the Scottish cart. The earliest version was most likely invented over 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. But it was when the two-wheeled cart arrived in the river valleys north of the Black and Caspian Seas that it transformed the lives and the economy of the cattle and sheep herders who lived there.

In his book, “The Horse the Wheel and Language,” published by Princeton University Press, David Anthony shows how archeological digs across the Eurasian Steppes and the advances in archeo-linguistics has helped resolve old questions about the long sought and much disputed “homeland” of the Indo-European and Indo-Aryan peoples.

Anthony points to evidence of the domestication of the horse in the northern steppe by a people who spoke Proto-Indo-European. Horseback riding greatly increased the number of cattle or sheep that one person could handle. It was also a time and a culture in which one’s wealth could truly be determined by counting how many cows or sheep he owned. Although prospering, these activities were still mostly confined to the river bottoms and a small bit of the surrounding steppe lands for a few thousand years.

When the two-wheeled cart arrived around 3,200 BC, however, it set these cattle and sheep herders loose to graze the sea of open grasslands that surrounded them and initiated a movement of people and animals across the steppes where even larger herds could be supported by staying constantly on the move.

The enormous success of this type of mobile herding economy soon spelled the end of old style Neolithic farming communities throughout Old Europe. And it was a development that would soon change the face of Western civilization in the Near East as these Indo-European speakers moved in, riding a militarized version of the cart: the spoke wheeled, horse-drawn chariot.

With a military vanguard clearing the way, the new settlers followed up with their carts and their cattle and sheep and claimed the land for themselves. It was a pattern of conquering and settling that would spread in basically the same fashion from Anatolia to Greece, to Rome, to the rest of Europe and eventually to this continent.


Canadian folk song

Author unknown


The railhead was in Calgary

Back in those early days

And everyone a-going North

Had to find a different way

There were horses dragging travois

They had been there from the start

But my father went to Edmonton

In a Red River cart.




Rolling along the prairies

You great big wooden wheels

Stir the dust and fill the air

With screeching and with squeals

Oh, pitch and sway from side to side

The summer day is long

And make your way up North

Singing a Red River cart song



The only road the prairies knew

Was called the Calgary trail

For horses, mules and oxen

And the men who carried mail

For families from the East

Who came for a new start

And my father went to Edmonton

In a Red River cart



Those families filled the prairies

When the land was fresh and new

The sky went on forever

While the population grew

They built cities and farms

Those people did their part

And my father went to Edmonton

In a Red River cart

One Response to Making preparations… Red River cart to be featured at Founders’ Day
  1. Bill Rogers
    September 17, 2011 | 2:40 am

    It’s a pleasure to read such detailed stuff on local history. Be good to see the old photo that inspired the cart building. I hope the event goes well, and the weather stays fine…

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