It was the 19th century in what would become Minnesota. The region was part of the frontier, an unbounded wilderness of wooded savannah, conifer forests and tall grass prairies.
For those traveling through the region, overland paths provided the only means of transportation. They were rough going, maneuvering through marshy lowlands, thick tangles of willow brush, and woods that were nearly impenetrable. Few of these roads existed, yet those that did were well known by travelers trekking through the wilderness to government outposts, Native American villages, and white settlements.
The most well-known were the Red River Ox Cart Trails, the main travel routes through the region which were often graced with two-wheeled ox carts, Indian ponies and dog teams. The trails were primarily used to haul furs from St. Paul to Pembina, but other travelers used them as well.
Contrary to popular belief, the trails were not part of any permanent pathway that was carved through the land, but rather a set of smaller pathways that ran like veins through the heartland of the North Country.
One of the smaller trails that were part of the Red River Trails was the Henderson to Pembina trail. It led from Fort Hill in Henderson in a northwesterly direction, skirted the edge of the Big Woods by Lake Addie and Lake Marion in McLeod County, then ran along the edge of the northern forest before heading across the open plains to Pembina along the North Dakota/Canada border.
The trail was not without obstacles or danger. In the summer months it was dangerous to stray from the path. Dense foliage in the wooded areas, as well as thick, tall growing prairie grass made it difficult to keep one’s bearings if they were not familiar with the surrounding countryside.
In addition, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the trail led through the heart of Dakota land where, according to a source, instances between travelers and Dakota sometimes resulted in quarrels. For this reason, travelers on the trail typically traveled in large bands, and at times with a military escort. At night when travelers set up camp, the carts were often drawn into a circle with the camp in the center.
Conditions on the route were not always favorable. Winter meant the trail would be drifted over in places and could easily be lost from view, in spring the trail was often muddy, and in summer they were dusty.
Though conditions were not always satisfactory, the sights and the sounds must have been something to marvel at. In the early years, herds of buffalo could often be seen grazing in the distance, and the sound of insects in the tall grass prairie must have been serene in its own way.
The Red River Trails were considered the highways of the time, but by the 1860s their use was beginning to decline. Railroads were being built in the state, as well as several government roads that were built through the countryside, some of which were built on top of or beside the old trails.
Today, remnants of the old Red River Trails are nearly non-existent. Though some of our backroads, and even major highways, travel through the same corridors, there are no real traces of the old trails left.