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.
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 —Mark Labine, 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.