Likely originating in both French and Scottish traditions, the Red River cart was constructed entirely of wood and was tied together with leather. It was easily repaired and was wonderfully adapted to prairie conditions; its two high, deeply dished wheels made it stable, and it could be drawn through mud and marsh. Wood and leather produced an ear-piercing squeal audible for kilometres. The cart was buoyant and could be floated across streams, yet it was strong enough to carry loads as heavy as 450 kg. Two shafts attached to the axle were strapped to a pony or ox.

The Red River cart was first used by the Métis to bring meat from the buffalo hunt and later in farm work. By the 1850s, organized brigades of carts were making the 885 km journey from Fort Garry, Winnipeg, to St Paul, Minnesota, and by the 1860s some 600 carts were making two round trips annually, carrying some 270-360 kg each. The most important long-distance cart road was the Carlton Trail from Fort Garry to Fort Ellice and Fort Carlton Saskatchewan River) and on to Fort Edmonton. For several years into the 1860s about 300 carts made one trip per season from the Red River Colony, carrying trade goods and furs.

The carts were gradually replaced by the steamboat and ultimately the railway.