By Lansing Shepard
The names are like historical markers in the tale of America's westward expansion: the Cumberland Road, the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail. These passages of pioneers and commerce have become the stuff of legend.
But the Red River Trail? Who remembers its place in history? Indeed, how many people know of it at all?
Photo Gallery of Retracing the Red River Trail
I quickly check my map as I ease my car into morning traffic on state Highway 10 north of St. Cloud. I'm heading north to Crow Wing State Park to see a remnant of that very trail and to learn more about its history. The park encompasses the site of the now vanished village of Crow Wing, an important transfer point for the trains of crude, wooden oxcarts that plied this 19th century trade route.
Fact is, the Red River Trail, really a network of trails, barely made it beyond a footnote in the history of western expansion. Yet, between 1820 and 1872, before the arrival of railroads, these trails were the main connection between St. Paul and the Canadian frontier settlements south of Lake Winnipeg. The rough, rutted trails stretched some 400 miles across western Minnesota to Pembina, N.D., then on to the sprawling Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), Manitoba.
Piled high with hides and bison meat on their southward journey, the two-wheel carts pulled by horses or oxen often formed trains numbering in the hundreds. The screeching of wooden wheels turning on ungreased wooden axles could be heard for miles. Returning north, the carts carried cloth, food, ammunition, and other manufactured goods to the settlements clustered along the lower Red River.
The heavily traveled trails quickly vanished under the waves of settlement and development that followed the railroads. Plowed up by farmers or reclaimed by nature, those tracks that remained became incorporated into the state's system of roads. Indeed, this stretch of Highway 10 to Crow Wing State Park closely follows a leg of that old oxcart track.
I've set out to explore the section known as the Woods Trail for the miles of dense forest on its eastern end. This hellish trek ran from the village of Crow Wing northwest to today's city of Detroit Lakes and up the Red River valley to what is today Pembina. Of all the trails that can be traveled today, this one reputedly has more miles that recall the look and feel of the 19th century. "The trail network developed over time," park manager Paul Roth tells me after I arrive at Crow Wing State Park. "In 1844 this was the last of them to be created, and it was the only one that was blazed from south to north. All the rest came from the north, from Pembina and the Canadian settlements."
Settlers and free traders (those not working for the Hudson's Bay Company) initiated the trade, lured by access to southern markets and to the rest of the world via the Mississippi at St. Paul. Their settlements included Swiss, German, and Scottish highlander farmers imported by Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, to create an agricultural colony. Also among their numbers were retired Hudson's Bay Company employees, their Ojibwe and Cree wives and children, and a large community of métis (descendents of early French voyageurs and their Indian wives) at Pembina. Generally speaking, these métis supplied and drove the carts, while the Fort Garry crowd did the trading.
In early 1844, following a fatal skirmish with métis hunters, the Dakota Indians -- who were already upset by métis depredations on the Great Plains bison -- retaliated by shutting down all trails passing through their land. This left a party of Fort Garry traders, their carts, and goods stranded in St. Paul. With winter approaching, they decided to make a try for home by punching out a new route through territory controlled by friendlier Ojibwe people.
Led by a young free trader named Peter Garrioch, the party headed north up the Mississippi River to the village of Crow Wing, a major Ojibwe trading center. There they hoped to find someone to guide them the rest of the way, but they found no one to do so. Garrioch and his party decided to go it alone.
They traveled northwest along the Crow Wing River, then overland to the Leaf Hills and north to Detroit Lake. From there, they struck a wandering course across the Red River valley to Pembina. Journal descriptions suggest southbound cart drivers modified the route the following year to shorten the distance from Pembina to Detroit Lake.
Because of its relative safety and its shorter length, the new trail quickly became one of the trade's preferred routes, and Crow Wing became the principal transshipment point.
"The carts would cross a narrow spot on the Mississippi just north of town [Crow Wing]," says Roth. "A ferry would shuttle the cargo across for something like 25 cents."
Roth directs me to a meadow along a bend of the Mississippi River. Here the village had stood, a cluster of now vanished houses, churches, hotels, whiskey shops, and other buildings. A lone timber-frame house in need of repairs commands a bit of high ground. Modest by today's standards, it belonged to Clement Beaulieu, a wealthy fur trader and community leader.
During the 1860s, at the height of the oxcart trade, Crow Wing's population ballooned to more than 600. But in the 1870s, expanding railroad lines and burgeoning steamboat traffic on the Red River usurped the oxcart trail commerce -- the village of Crow Wing dried up when the Northern Pacific Railroad elected to cross the Mississippi River at Brainerd, and Red River trails all but disappeared shortly thereafter.
I set out across the meadow and soon spot two rutted tracks winding through the grass. Following them for about half a mile, I come to a slight cut in the bank. A sign informs me this was the crossing. It's a sharp 10-foot drop down to the water. Muscling an oxcart up such a steep incline must have been a struggle. I can imagine the bedlam of 200 carts, oxen, horses, people, and other livestock making the climb.
Garrioch said the trek west of Crow Wing was a hard fight through fallen timber, swamp, and brush, "almost intolerable. . .the face of the country before us would be enough to discourage any person not accustomed to crosses and difficulties." A traveler, Russell Blakeley, crossing the same way some 15 years later termed it a "villainous morass." Garrioch's party took 21 days to reach what is the present-day town of Ottertail. Hewing to the route as closely as present state and county roads will allow, I drive the 80 miles in a couple of hours.
From Ottertail I push on northwest through the Leaf Hills to Detroit Lake -- known by the oxcart drivers as "Lake 44," for the year the Garrioch party opened the trail. The halfway point between Pembina and Crow Wing, it often served as a rest stop. I head for Oak Lake, about four miles north, once the junction with a well-used connecting trail. Standing on the high ground, I can imagine an approaching train of southbound carts. In the March 28, 1860, Nor'Wester, a Winnipeg newspaper, a traveler described the sight: "the line extending far over the plain, the spare cattle following, and horses galloping about with very Cossack-looking prickers after them, and the train curving its way, like a great snake, coming along very slowly, and then when it got near enough, to hear the carts which, at a distance, sounded not unmusical, and then the lowing of the cattle, and the songs and voices of the men, until they got too near, and then it was bedlam again."
I move on up Highway 59 and then west into the Red River valley through Fertile. Today industrial farming dominates here: vast fields of sugar beets, corn, and beans. When oxcarts plied this route, during wet years this open flatland could seem to be one continuous mire.
"Every brook was a river, every swamp a lake, the road a swamp," wrote Robert Clouston, a clerk for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1859. "A cold steam rose from the soaked earth, our spirits were damped, the jaded horses plodded heavily on." Beyond Fertile, I follow a gravel road. According to my maps, I should be right on top of the old trail. For the next three miles, I'm surrounded by grasslands punctuated by isolated copses of aspen. This is the southern edge of the tallgrass aspen parkland. I find my way to Pembina Trail Preserve Scientific and Natural Area. Old survey maps show the trail running up the side of the preserve. This virgin prairie shelters prairie chickens and other species that lived here those many years ago. Thousands of sandhill cranes stage here during fall and spring migration.
I push on north to an important ford on the Red Lake River called the Old Crossing. Now Old Crossing Treaty State Wayside, it is a grassy park under towering trees on a wide, sweeping bend of the river. Here, in 1863, then-senator Alexander Ramsey and a small contingent of soldiers persuaded the leaders of the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Ojibwe to cede some 3 million acres of their lands. A statue of an anonymous Ojibwe stands above a plaque that summarizes the event.
I continue north to Pembina Wildlife Management Area. Here begins what is arguably the longest and least altered corridor anywhere along the old Red River Trail. Officially I'm on County 10, but a street sign tells me I'm on Pembina Trail NW. The trail, now a string of county roads, runs for most of its length atop the McCauleyville beach ridge, a principal strandline of Glacial Lake Agassiz.
For the next 40 miles, I drive through a landscape that appears little changed from what I imagine it was 140 years ago. There are miles of grass on either side of me and a sandy road beneath my tires, a pasture here, a gravel pit there, but few buildings. I feel very alone and small under a vast sky.
Robert Clouston noted that here "the fine gravel ridges, [run] in the main north and south with a growth of aspen, willow and balsam poplar flanking them. . . . [d]ucks and prairie chickens constantly flying up, good encampments anywhere to right or left of track, safety from prairie fires, which cannot run in such a country, and the best of pasturage."
The sun is behind me, lighting up the aspen that stand in startling sharpness against the black sky ahead. There's a storm brewing in Manitoba. Traveling a few miles west of here 164 years ago, Peter Garrioch and his party nearly lost their lives. Reaching open prairie in mid-November, they found themselves engulfed in snow. Fighting cold, blizzards, and deepening drifts, they began losing their animals to starvation. Far from timber, the men wound up burning the sides of their carts for fuel. A passing party of Ojibwe gave them food, saving them from starvation.
Outside of Hallock, Highway 75 closely parallels the old track of the oxcarts. But you'd never know it, for all around the past has disappeared under vast agricultural fields. Nearly 300 miles and more than a century separates this landscape from Crow Wing village and the trail blazers.