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The Cart and the Cairn: Re-Enacting the Arrival of the Mennonites

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Cart And Cairn Crop
Ernest Braun and Terry Doerksen at the Shantz cairn on October 8. Ernest N. Braun

A re-enactment of the 1870s Mennonite arrival in Manitoba took place on the morning of October 8. For the occasion, Terry Doerksen of Winnipeg hitched up his 18-month-old ox to a replica Red River cart at the Mennonite Landing site, located southwest of Niverville where the Rat River flows into the Red.

Doerksen then drove the cart to the Shantz immigration sheds, two miles south of Highway 311 at Niverville, following a route that took him along Sixth Avenue South.

The trek was the first part of a longer two-day drive from the Landing into the East Reserve, in commemoration of the experience of the Mennonites who made that exact journey in 1875. It was undertaken on the Thanksgiving weekend, honouring the experience of both the Mennonites and the Métis, who not only brought the Mennonites to the immigration sheds but also often escorted them to selected village sites.

The idea arose in part from Doerksen’s cousin Phil, a retired electrician who built a true replica of the unique Red River carts used by the Métis to haul freight and people after 1802. When the Mennonites arrived at the mouth of the Rat River aboard the International in 1874–1876, Métis men with their Red River carts freighted the luggage and those who couldn’t walk from the Landing to a group of immigration sheds about eight kilometres east.

A year or two ago, under the expert instruction of Armand and Kelly Jerome, Métis cart-builders in Oakbank, Phil learned the mechanics of the trade and then built his own cart while the province was under COVID restrictions.

This is the same cart used by Doerksen to make his run over the Thanksgiving weekend, outfitted with a Mennonite church pew for a seat and flying the Manitoba provincial flag.

Doerksen arrived with his wife Patty, along with his cousin Phil and his wife Carol, at the Landing on the evening of Thursday, October 7, with a motor home and long cattle trailer which housed the ox and dismantled cart.

They assembled the cart before dark, allowed the ox to graze, and made their final arrangements to begin the following morning.

Early on Friday, additional support arrived in the form of friends who helped the trek get started. Terry invited Ernest Braun to sit on the cart with him as it departed the Landing, the first time since at least 1878 that Mennonites had travelled from the Landing by a Red River ox cart.

After 1878, the railway through Niverville made the ox cart route from the Landing redundant.

The group left the Landing at about 7:45 a.m., arriving about three hours later at a cairn that marks the original location of the Shantz immigration sheds. Braun, spokesperson for the Mennonite Landing Site Association, led the ox the last few hundred yards and stopped beside the cairn, recently furnished with a new plaque by the EastMenn Historical Committee.

Here people took turns posing with the ox, the cart, and the cairn.

After an hour-long rest, Doerksen continued east along Road 39N, also known as Hespeler Road, but scaled down the length of the journey when the ox became increasingly recalcitrant.

They overnighted near Highway 59 to give the ox some downtime, then proceeded east again on Saturday morning towards New Bothwell. Although the original had plan had been to journey all the way to Blumenort, they decided to stop in view of the rain.

Even having stopped short of their ultimate destination, they considered their goals to have been achieved: to re-enact the journey from the Landing to the immigration sheds, and in doing so honour the Métis role, express thanksgiving for the land and opportunity received at the expense of the Indigenous peoples, continue on into the East Reserve as had their ancestors, and gain valuable experience in ox-driven travel in a cart made entirely of wood.

For Doerksen, it was an adventure—and a rare glimpse into the past. This was Doerksen’s first sustained trek via cart, but it will serve as training for a much longer run he plans to undertake next year: journeying along the Crow Wing trail all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota.

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