Red River Ox Cart Trail

Tour curated by: Reggie McLeod for the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership (Copyright 2017, Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership)

Introduction

This tour tells the story of how one of the oldest transportation routes in our region shaped the development of the city, state and nation. Much of the story involves the culture, history and contributions of the Métis people — a culture created by descendants of European traders and indigenous North American women — who were instrumental in the growth of the trail and this region. It focuses on a 20-mile segment of the trail along the east bank of the Mississippi River, from the Rum River at Anoka to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

This segment was part of a large network of ox cart trails centered on what is now Pembina, North Dakota, near the where the borders of North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada come together. The trails extended north to what is now Winnipeg, west into the plains and 420 miles southeast of Pembina to the riverboat landings in St. Paul. It took an ox cart caravan averaging about 15 miles a day about four weeks to travel between Pembina and St. Paul. Métis carters brought buffalo hides and other furs, pemmican, tallow, moccasins and other handmade items to St. Paul. They returned with groceries, tobacco, liquor and manufactured goods. Their carts were made entirely of wood and rawhide — without metal parts — so that worn or broken parts could be replaced on the trail. Usually each cart was pulled by one ox and could carry 800 to 1,000 pounds of cargo.

Métis began using the carts and trails in the early 1800s. After the Civil War, ox carts were gradually replaced by railroads, but in many cases the roads remained.

Our segment is part of the trail’s most easterly route. It was called the “Woods Trail,” and became the most heavily traveled route to St. Paul around 1844. Moving southeast from Pembina, the trail met the Mississippi River at the Crow Wing River — near today’s Brainerd — then continued south along the Mississippi’s east bank to the new settlement of St. Paul.

On 19th century maps, the road from Anoka to St. Paul was usually labeled the “Red River Road,” even though it was next to the Mississippi. The route followed what is now Main Street in downtown Anoka, East River Road, Coon Rapids Boulevard, Marshall Street Northeast and Main Street Northeast to Main Street Southeast, in Minneapolis, which is sometimes called St. Anthony Main.

If you’re bicycling or walking this tour, you can follow the Mississippi River Trail, which follows the same transportation corridor as the Ox Cart Trail.

Acknowledgements
This project was funded with the generous support of the Minnesota Cultural and Historical Legacy Fund and the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.

Kathleen Boe, executive director of the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, developed the grants and oversaw the development of the entire project.

Our narrators — Jacob Croonenburghs, John Driscoll, Amanda Norman and Michael Rainville — enriched the story of the Red River Ox Cart Trail with their fine readings and by bringing the Ox Cart Trail’s story into the present by sharing their family histories.

Linda Mack, Mary Maquire and David Wiggins helped to shape the original project. Pat Nunnally, Penny Peterson and Katie Haun-Schuring served as peer reviewers. Choreographer and performer Jane Peck shared valuable information about the Twin Cities’ French-American community. Ethnologist Jennifer Stampe helped research and write the tour. Molly McGuire also helped with research. Carson Backhus helped to write the grant request. Numerous people at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Anoka County Historical Society helped us with our research and shared valuable insights.

Richard Kronick went beyond the call of duty by reviewing our work, offering advice, taking the initiative to research aspects of the story and finally assembling the many pieces of the Ox Cart Trail project into a coherent presentation on the Minneapolis Historical web server.

Reggie McLeod worked on this project as a historian, writer and editor.

Locations for Tour

A caravan of ox carts and their drivers was a noisy spectacle. Because these ingenious wood carts had no metal parts, their ungreased wooden wheels squealed as they rubbed against wooden axles. In her memoir Mary Woodbury Caswell, who lived on the…

In 1849, when E. S. Seymour arrived near the mouth of the Rum River while traveling north on the trail, he paid the ferrymen three shillings to cross and recalled: “Here was a small log-cabin occupied by two bachelors, who kept the ferry: they had…

The first bridge here was built for a new military road from Fort Ripley (north of today’s Little Falls) to Point Douglas, where the St. Croix River joins the Mississippi, near Prescott, Wis. On old maps, the military road was often called the Red…

The Red River Ox Cart Trail crossed the Rum River at two places before a bridge was built at Main Street. One spot was at the Rum River South County Park, across the river from old state hospital. There is an Ox Cart Trail interpretive sign on the…

The three-mile stretch of Coon Rapids Boulevard from Pheasant Ridge Drive Northwest to Egret Boulevard Northwest follows the exact route of the Ox Cart Trail. The Red River Ox Cart Trail began as a foot path used by indigenous people to travel…

The curved segments of Ashton Avenue Northeast, along the east edge of Ruth Circle Park, and Liberty Street Northeast matches a segment of the Ox Cart Trail, though the trail generally follows East River Road in this area. The Ox Cart Trail was not…

John Banfill operated a busy hotel, tavern, store and post office from this building when the trail passed by here. In 1851 he started the town of Manomin, named for the Ojibwe word for wild rice. It later became Fridley. The Banfill House was built…

From just north of I-694 south to 42nd Avenue Northeast, the Ox Cart Trail route passed through the middle of where the BNSF Railroad yards are now. The Ox Cart Trail was choosen to serve as the military road in the 1850s. Shortly after that, the…

Traffic on the Red River Ox Cart Trail waned when the railroad reached the Red River in 1871, but the route and its carts remained important symbols of the state’s pioneer spirit. For Minnesota’s centennial, in 1958, Delmar Hagen recreated an ox…

The trail passed through the middle of Marshall Terrace Park between the Mississippi River and Marshall Street. The park is named for William R. Marshall, an early settler and land surveyor who platted much of the land in this neighborhood and south…

This branch of the Hennepin County Library, as well as this neighborhood, is named for Pierre Bottineau, a Métis trader. This building was once the carriage house and millwright shed of the Grain Belt Brewery. But long before it stood here,…

In the 19th century, most Métis people were Catholic. St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the territorial parish, was founded in 1849. The first of a succession of buildings on this site was dedicated in 1852 on land provided by Pierre Bottineau.…

The Godfrey House, on Chute Square, was built in 1848 or 1849, making it the oldest remaining house in Minneapolis, according to the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board. It originally stood near the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, during the…

The Upton, Martin, and Morrison buildings, on Main Street between Central and Third avenues southeast, give a sense of what St. Anthony looked like while the trail was in use. The Upton building was built in 1855 by Rufus Porter Upton and his brother…

Bibliography Source and/or location: UMN = University of Minnesota Libraries, HCL= Hennepin County Library, GBks = Google Books, PDF = downloaded (JS has copy), DBx = uploaded to Dropbox Unpublished primary sources Anoka County Plat Map,…