Immigrants from Europe began their voyage to Canada by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Depending on the weather it took nearly two weeks by steamship and much longer on sailing ships. Either way was not a pleasant trip. Many people had to sell everything they owned in order to purchase tickets to come to Canada. The boats were overcrowded and dirty. People were seasick and many became ill from diseases which spread quickly among the passengers.



broken wagons There weren't many roads, just trails. The First Nations people had hunting trails that followed the herds of bison. Fur traders with Red River carts used these hunting trails on their way to forts and trading posts where they traded furs for supplies they needed. The trails were narrow and rough with stones and deep holes. Settlers used the same trails with their wagons. Difficulties included steep hills and getting stuck in the mud. Wagons were unloaded and pulled out of the mud. Because of the deep ruts, stones and holes wagons broke down on the trails.
river crossing
fording a river in high water
Another obstacle encountered on the overland trails was crossing rivers. At places where rivers were shallow enough to cross, people could "ford" the river. Settlers also attempted to float their wagons across rivers. There were locations where local settlers installed and operated ferries or built crude bridges and charged a toll for crossing.
clipartpal public domain
The most common way to get from one place to another was on foot. People who did not own a horse walked everywhere. Those who were fortunate enough to have a horse could ride horseback. People were used to walking - walking to school, to church and to the neighbours. Children walked several miles to school.

People walked to town for supplies and returned with heavy loads which they carried on their backs. If someone had to walk a great distance, they packed food and water. Along the trails there were stopping houses where travellers could rest overnight. They slept in the barn or on the floor in a settler's home.

Horseback was quicker to travel greater distances. Horses carried supplies in saddle bags. Mail was delivered on horseback.


The Red River cart was made of wood and had two large wheels. Wooden pegs and strips of buffalo hide held the parts together. Strips of rawhide were wrapped around the wooden wheels. The carts squeaked loudly and could be heard for miles. The cart was usually pulled by oxen, so it was also called an ox cart.

oxen and cart

photos of a Red River cart
more about the Red River cart


covered wagon Contestoga wagons were strong heavy wagons made of wood and iron, pulled by teams of horses, oxen or mules. Six or more teams were needed for hauling heavy loads. To protect the cargo, the wagon was covered with a tarp. These large wagons delivered freight (supplies).

Smaller "covered wagons" were used by settlers to haul all their belongings to their new home. The wagon held supplies they needed - tools, food, clothing and furniture.

more about covered wagons
Horse-drawn wagons were for carrying supplies and for hauling grain, garden produce, farm animals, wood, lumber, coal, etc. Grain was bagged so if the wagon got stuck in the mud the bags were unloaded and the wagon could be pulled out.

Settlers living a great distance from the nearest town would make the trip once or twice a year to load up the wagon with enough supplies that would have to last for several months. Some wagons had two rows of seats making it more convenient for a family when they went to church, to town or to their neighbours.

Wagons were also used to haul supplies in the winter. The wheels were replaced with sleigh runners. In the summer a wagon could be converted to a hay wagon for hauling large loads of hay.


STAGE COACH A ride in a stagecoach was very uncomfortable. People were tossed from side to side on the rough roads. Stagecoaches hauled passengers, their luggage, mail and some cargo. People sat on hard wooden benches which were so close together that there was very little legroom. The luggage and mail was placed in the back of the coach and cargo was on the roof. The three benches were meant to seat nine people. There were times when there were more than nine passengers. Some passengers kept luggage on their laps. The windows did not block the wind, dust, rain or snow. When a stagecoach approached a large mud hole or a steep hill, people got out and walked.

En route a stage coach would make rest stops at stations. Passengers could get out and stretch. Horses and drivers were switched. Food was provided at some stops. Overnight rest stops often meant sleeping on the floor. After railroads were built, stagecoaches were still used to reach communities where the railroad did not go.


There were many styles and sizes of buggies. Most popular was the four-wheeled buggy, which was pulled by one horse. Buggies were preferred for short trips -- to school, to town or to church. Buggies were light enough that if they got stuck in the mud, a horse could usually pull them out. The buggy had large narrow metal rimmed wheels or hard rubber tires on the rims. Fancier buggies had cushioned seats, foot rests, arm or elbow rests, metal steps and floor mats.

A country doctor travelled in a Doctor's Buggy to visit patients. The doctor's bag was kept in a space under the seat or behind the seat.



In November of 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed all the way to British Columbia and Canada was linked from east to west. Train stations, villages and towns sprang up along the railroad lines. Trains carried large loads of heavy goods. Immigants and settlers travelled west by train, which was faster than by horse-drawn wagons.

The trains were often overcrowded. Train cars were cold in the winter. Colonist cars contained benches, wood bunks and a tiny kitchen for cooking. Immigrants usually rode in colonist cars as far as they could and then completed the rest of the journey to their homesteads by wagons or carts pulled by horses or oxen. Some immigrants remained in the villages and towns.




In the winter horse-drawn sleighs were used to carry people, supplies and mail. Some wagons were converted to sleighs for the winter. People bundled up and heated bricks or stones kept their feet warm. Crossing frozen lakes in winter shortened travel time.
A cutter is a light sleigh with one seat usually pulled by one horse.


Travel was difficult in deep snow. Aboriginal peoples (First Nations and Métis) involved in the fur trade used showshoes and sledges or toboggans for winter. The sledges were flat and lightweight. Snowshoes and sledges were also used by settlers living in wooded areas. They trapped for meat and sold or traded furs.

A load of supplies or firewood was hauled on a flat sledge pulled by oxen or horses. The sledge glided over the snow. Sledges were also used in the summer for pulling heavy loads (rocks, tree stumps, barrels of water). Homesteaders had sledges called "stoneboats" to haul stones and rocks from fields when they were clearing the land. A sledge could be pulled over the ground, grass, ice and snow so it was used all year round.
a sledge loaded with logs


Cart trails made by Red River carts crisscrossed the prairies. When a trail came to a river the preferred place to cross was a ford -- where water was shallow enough for people and animals to cross the river. Their belongings were soaked if the water level was high. It was dangerous to cross when the water was high (after a heavy rainfall or in the spring when ice was breaking up). Red River carts could float across when the wheels were removed.
painting of crossing at Red River Settlement 1872
larger image
Red River Settlement and Fort Garry, Manitoba
Red River carts, ferry, flatboat and pontoon bridge

The earliest settlements were built along rivers. Explorers, fur traders and settlers used the rivers for transport. Canoes were common for travel on the waterways. Local people built ferries at busy river crossings.


As large numbers of settlers and immigrants headed West, the ferries were a means for crossing rivers if the river could not be forded. Rafts made of of logs were the first ferries. The ferries were large enough to transport a couple of Red River carts. Crossing by ferry took a lot of time and there was the danger of being swept away by strong currents or of the ferry tipping over. Later there were horse-powered ferries and cable ferries. The cables were prone to breaking. Ferries could not carry a large amount of supplies.

Flatboats, York boats, steamboats and other types of boats hauled heavy loads of freight. Food and smaller items were transported in sacks, crates, pails and barrels. Items shipped included bags of flour, barrels of pork, guns and ammunition, harware, manufactured goods, stoves, pianos, organs, furniture, blankets, clothing, dress goods, horses and farm animals.


Flat boats were large barges made for hauling animals, wagons and freight. They were steered by oars, poles and sweeps (large oars).

This type of boat came in all sizes depending on what it was used for. Small flatboats were for short trips and for navigating creeks and small rivers. Larger flat boats 17 metres (55 ft.) long and 5 metres (16 ft. )wide were for longer trips and were used by farmers and traders to haul produce and goods. The flat boat was also used by settlers to transport animals, wagons, furniture and their belongings.

Large flatboats navigated big rivers transporting freight. They floated with the current and carried a crew and a pilot to steer past rocks, river banks and rapids. The large sweeps helped to steer the boats. The crew also loaded and unloaded the cargo. Most of the flatboats were taken apart when they reached their destination. The lumber was used for building.

This flatboat was like a raft with walls. Long sweeps were used to steer the boat.

York Boats transported freight for the Hudson's Bay Company until steamers took over. Boats were long (12 metres long, 30-40 ft.) with flat bottoms and pointed bow and stern. It required a crew of 6,8 or more men to operate the long oars. Sails were used when the wind conditions were right.

The boats carried immigrants from York factory in northern Manitoba to the Red River Settlement.

postcard peel library alberta


Steamboats navigated lakes and large rivers. Shallow water, sandbars and ice damage in the spring were problems for steamboats. People and supplies were transported to settlements along rivers and lakes. Some steamboats had berths for sleeping.


Canoes were used by Aboriginal peoples, fur traders and explorers. Larger canoes hauled freight and supplies to trading posts located along rivers. Large canoes were almost eight metres in length and required five to seven paddlers.

People settling near rivers and lakes also used canoes and dugouts. They travelled on water to get supplies. This was faster than going overland on a rough winding trail.

dugout (canoe) from a hollowed tree trunk

birchbark canoe

| Early days - an introduction | Coming to Canada | Building a home |
| Survival - food & clothing | School, general store, blacksmith |
| Inside a settler's home | Transportation | Fun & games | Pioneer communities |
| Links | Canada | Web Pages for Students|

J. Giannetta
grade 2-3 teacher (retired)
1999 (updated May 2017)

graphics - credits
graphics used on this page from:
broken wagons on trail (public domain) from
fording a river (public domain) from
horse with saddle (public domain)
stagecoach from
buggy, train (baggage), sledge, flatboat, dugout canoe from
cutter, steamboat (public domain) from
toboggan from
painting of the Red River Settlement 1872 (public-domain) from e-book
bark canoe from

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