Road Trip Through History: Crow Wing State Park and the Red River Ox Cart Trail (with a brief aside on ghost towns)

My Own True Love and I almost didn’t stop at Crow Wing State Park. It was late on a dreary afternoon. We’d had a long history nerd day already. And it wasn’t entirely clear that there would be anything to see.

But all the (very vague) descriptions of the park said it was the site of an important pre-Civil war frontier town and a major stop on the Red River Ox Cart Trail. We had been tantalized by bits and pieces about the Red River Trail on historical markers ever since we crossed into Minnesota several days before. We decided we couldn’t pass up the chance to learn more.

It was a good choice.

It is true that Crow Wing State Park doesn’t have much to see as far as history-nerdery goes: a gentle trail with a series of interpretive signs (1) and an antebellum Greek Revival house in the throes of restoration. If you want a living history program to interpret the past for you, this is not the site for you. If you can make due with an interesting story and standing in the place where history happened, you will be just fine.

The park is located at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi rivers. It is also located at the confluence of two frontier stories: the rise and decline of the trading town of Crow Wing and the history of the Red River Ox Cart Trail. (2)

The American Fur Company (3) established a trading post in the region in 1823. When the fur trade declined in the 1840s, the town of Crow Wing became an outfitting center for the logging trade and an important stop on the Red River Ox Cart Trail.

The Red River Trail was a set of three overland trade routes that ran between Winnipeg in Canada and St Paul in Minnesota from the late 1830s through the early 1870s. Thousands of heavy two-wheeled wooden carts, made with spoked wheels that were designed to pass over rocky river beds and through soggy marches, carried Canadian furs south and supplies north. They traveled in caravans that often numbered more than a hundred vehicles. Each cart was pulled by a single ox. By tying each animal to the cart in front of it, a driver was able to handle as many as ten carts. By the 1850s, caravans of 500 carts arrived in St. Paul on a regular basis. It was smuggling on an large scale: an attempt to evade English laws that imposed heavy tariffs on imported goods from the United States and gave the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company a monopoly on trading in Canadian furs.

Crow Wing prospered alongside the illegal fur trade. It was a rowdy frontier town that served not only as a center of the fur trade but as the political headquarters for the powerful Ojibwe leader Hole-in-the-Day. Crow Wing reached its peak in the 1860s, with a population of about 800 and some thirty buildings. Two events led to the town’s demise. In 1868, the Ojibwe nation, members of which made up a substantial portion of the community, was relocated to the White Earth Reservation. In 1871, the Northern Pacific railroad bypassed Crow Wing in favor of nearby Brainerd.(4) By the end of the decade, Crow Wing was a ghost town.

And speaking of ghost towns:

To my surprise, ghost towns were a recurring theme of our trip. More than once we saw small exhibits dedicated to towns that had grown up to support the fur trade, the logging industry, or mining and withered away because industries closed, transportation routes changes, or county seats shifted. A chilling reminder of the impermanence of the things we build.

(1) Most of them in bad condition. A park employee told us with great excitement that new signs are on the way. I am pleased to report that the few new signs that were already in place are highly informative. Give it six months or a year.
(2) Apparently, the area was also the site of a significant battle in 1768 between the Sioux and the Chippewa, part of an ongoing war in which the Sioux struggled (unsuccessfully) to defend what is now Minnesota against the invading Chippewa/Ojibwe. Unfortunately, this is the sum total of what the park historical markers told me—and more than I knew going in.  One of the other things I learned over the course of our adventure is the depths of my ignorance about Native American history.  I plan to do something about that.
(3) Founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808 to challenge the dominance of the Canada-based Hudson’s Bay Company—a name you’ll see again in another paragraph or so.

(4)  The arrival of the railroad led to the demise of the Red River Trail as well


  1. Stephanie Publicker on October 8, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark is a terrific book about Astor’s attempt at a fur empire.

    • pamela on October 9, 2018 at 2:17 am

      Adding that one to the never-ending list. Thank you.

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