History of the Woods Branch of the Red River Trails (1844-1870)


by John Crandall

This year(2019) marks the 175th anniversary of the Woods or Crow Wing Branch of the Red River Oxcart trail through Wadena County. Commencing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada the Red River trail squirreled its way down the Red River Valley and down the Minnesota River Valley to Mendota and later St. Paul, MN. Thus began a half century of commerce between the Selkirk colonies in Manitoba, Canada and St. Paul, MN

In 1812 Thomas Douglas, 5th Earle of Selkirk was granted literal thousands of square miles of land in Manitoba where the Assiniboin River and the Red River meet (Winnipeg) by the Hudson Bay Company(HBC), which had been founded in England in 1670. Portions of this land grant extended West and Southwest into what we know today as MN and ND. Selkirk dreamed of establishing an agricultural colony for Scottish settlers in the New World. But the Earle’s dreams would not continue peacefully. It only infuriated the Northwest Fur Company.

With the British traders entrenched in the region around Hudson Bay, the struggle for the soul of the interior of North America and the riches provided by the lucrative fur trade industry began.

The French traders and voyaguers began exploring the Great Lakes and west at the start of the 18th century, establishing many fur posts along the waterways that followed the future Canadian and American boundaries. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1673 ending the French and Indian War(1756-1763) France gave up over a century of control of Canada to England.

With the French relinquishing their claim to Canada exploration and trade began to expand into the interior of America. First, In 1784 came the reorganization of the Northwest Fur Company(NWC) which sought to challenge the monopoly the Hudson Bay Company had on the fur trade industry. Between 1783 and 1821 there was a immense increase in the amount of bloodshed and open hostility between the HBC and NWC only ending after the two companies merged in 1821. Secondly, came President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Even after the end of the American Revolution, with the Treaty of Paris 1783, the northern boundary of the newly formed American States was unclear. The British continued their incursions into the Red River Valley. It wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that America put a total end to the British occupancy of the United States. In order to stop British traders from enticing the Native Americans to continue trading with them, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun convinced Congress to build a contingency of forts along the Mississippi River and West to the Yellowstone River to protect American interest. In 1819 construction of Fort Snelling commenced.

During the first two decades of the 19th century the Red River colonist became more disgruntled with the Hudson Bay’s monopolistic control of trade. In addition, several years of grasshopper blights and the inability to obtain seed for planting prompted the residence of the Red River colonies to begin looking south to Fort Snelling. So, in 1821 the first group of Red River settlers migrated to Fort Snelling and were allowed to settle on the Fort Snelling military reservation. This was to be the first of numerous migrations that would use the Red River trails as an avenue for reaching and establishing trade with American traders at Mendota.

In 1823 Major Stephen Long reached the settlement of Pembina, in what is now ND, while on an explorative mission to determine where the 49th Parallel lay. Upon determining the boundary between Canada and U.S. it became clear that Pembina now resided on U.S. soil. So the tie that binds was broken between the Red River Colonies and Hudson Bay Company.

Throughout the first part of the 19th century little trade flowed south along the Red River and Minnesota River Valleys. The trickle of traffic that did traversed the Red River Trail during this time frame were seeking a safe haven from the horrific violence between HBC and NWFC. Once migration between Pembina and Fort Snelling began in full swing it would peak around 1826, but continued well into the 1830’s and 40’s.

When given their royal charter in 1670 the Hudson Bay Company was given total monopolistic control of all commerce occurring within their jurisdiction. As the population in the Red River Valley increased HBC began placing higher prices on their goods and less compensation for the furs traded. In time the Red River Colonist began to seek other sources for conducting trade. Upon arrival of the American Fur Company in the valley the Red River Colonies chance came. With the American Fur Company absorbing the holdings of the Columbia Fur Company in 1827 the American Fur Company acquired full control of the fur posts that the Columbia Fur Company had along the Minnesota and South Dakota border linking them to the Red River Valley

During the 1830’s with an increasing growth of settlers in the Red River region and increased production of furs and agricultural products the Hudson Bay Company could not keep pace with the economy. This overflow of productivity induced the Colony traders to seek closer connections to the traders located at Mendota.

With an ever present increase of settlers in and around Fort Snelling the American government became increasingly concerned. With negotiation of the Treaty of 1837 with the Dakota and Chippewa, large tracts of land were opened east of the Mississippi River for White settlement. With increasing concerns about the number of settlers homesteading on military land the Government in 1840 concluded a survey of their holdings around Fort Snelling. The results showed many Red River colonists residing on a military reservation. In the end the Federal Government expelled them from their homes and forcing them across the river to what was to become St. Paul, MN and eventually the commercial hub for Red River trade.

The Red River Oxcart trail began its journey south from Winnipeg linking with Pembina and then followed a network of trails south on both sides of the Red River and eventually crossing the continental divide at Lake Traverse. Upon arriving at Big Stone Lake the trail turned eastward and followed the Minnesota River into St. Paul.

The Valley of the Red River traversed by traders from Pembina to St. Paul was land that had been in contention between the Dakota and Chippewa for over a century. The incursion of the Ojibway into Minnesota and Dakota land began in the1700’s. By the early 1800’s the Sioux had been pushed south of the Minnesota River. Still after tragic losses the Dakota still claimed the Long Prairie and Sauk Valleys as their hunting grounds

With trade beginning to increase flowing between the Red River colonies and Mendota, MN this area became an area of concern for the Federal Government. In 1825 the Administration tried to workout a demarcation line between Dakota and Chippewa holdings. The line ran from St. Paul on the Minnesota River Northwesterly to present day Moorhead, MN. But to no avail.

As hostilities between the Chippewa and the Dakota fluctuated over the decades it became apparent to the Red River traders that alternate routes should be established in order to avoid conflicts. The middle route was established early in the 1840’s starting at Breckenridge, MN and heading eastward skirting the norther boundary of Dakota holdings in Minnesota and followed the Sauk Valley terminating at St. Cloud, MN on the Mississippi River. After fording the river the Middle trail followed the east bank into St. Paul.

Although easy to follow the Minnesota Valley trail and the Middle Branch of the Red River trail traversed land held by the Dakota. Most of the teamsters that handled the oxcarts were “Mixed Blood” or “Metis” with ancestral ties to the Ojibway who were long standing enemies of the Dakota. One such conflict occurred in 1844 when a group of Metis attacked a Dakota hunting party and killed them.

As news of the attack reached St. Paul a group of Red River traders who had arrived earlier became stranded in St. Paul. So in 1844 Peter Garrioch or William Halliet, depending upon which source your read, decided that they needed to find a safer route which would take them through Chippewa lands thus avoid any contact with the Dakota. Following the Mississippi River the party traveled northwest to the Village of Crow Wing situated on the Mississippi River and across from the mouth of the Crow Wing River. Here fording the Mississippi they began their trail following the Crow Wing River. Upon fording the Crow Wing River at the sight of what would become “Old Wadena” they followed the Leaf River west. The only real forested area of the Woods Branch was the region from Detroit Lakes, MN to Crow Wing Village.

Over the years some changes were made to the Woods Trail. In 1855 Congress passed an appropriation of $10,000 for building a military road from Fort Ripley, established in 1848, to improve travel conditions. The original survey of the route took place in 1858 and followed the Woods Branch all they way to Pembina, ND.

At a point know as Grand Marais, a swampy area some 8 miles east of “Old Wadena” completion of the road halted because the government had not appropriated enough funds for completion of the route.

In 1857 an economic panic hit the United States. To improve trade relations with the Red River Valley settlements a study of steamboat navigation on the Red River was taken. The study reported that the Red River could be open for steamboat navigation for 5 months. The result of this study prompted the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce to post a $1,000 bonus to any man who could get a steamboat on the Red River. Anson Northrup, proposed building a boat for such a purpose. In the fall of 1857 Northrup’s vessel the North Star made an extensive excursion up the Mississippi to Pokegama Falls,(near present day Grand Rapids, MN). Upon returning down the Mississippi River the North Star ended up being docked at Crow Wing Village. There Northrup began the construction of the steamer he would transport over land to the Red River. He loaded the machinery, cabin, furniture, and lumber to build the boat, on 34 teams and with sixty men started for Lafayette on the Red River. (“Opening of the Red River of the North to Commerce and Civilization” MN Historical Society collections, Vol III, 1898) The route Northrup used for transporting his boat was the Woods Branch of the Red River Oxcart Trail which took them right through “Old Wadena”. The “Anson Northrup” was launched in the Spring of 1858.

During the 1860’s commerce along the Woods Branch dwindled and when the Northern Pacific Railroad company extended it railway from Brainerd through Wadena County in 1871 the era of the oxcarts was dead.