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The Bull Teams

Water Works Wonders
A History of the White, Wilson, McMahon,
River Junction School Districts Page 9

Previous to the Canadian Pacific Railway, "bull teams" were used in the 1870's and early 1880's to transport goods from Fort Benton, Montana, into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Travel was only possible for eight months of the year, during which time the pasture cost nothing. The bulls, of course, were really oxen, but were invariable called "bulls". These cattle were broken in as steers four years old, and sometimes used three or four years, possibly more, and then sold for beef. In making up a team, the leaders were usually cattle that had some experience, having been so utilized for two or more years. It was quite an undertaking to yoke up an unbroken team, so that trains travelled in brigades, so as to have plenty of force available if trouble occurred, which it quite frequently did.

The teams of oxen were hitched in three wagons: lead, swing, and trail. Also a cart carrying a cooking outfit, blankets and a tent. As a rule the lead wagon carried about 60% of the load, the second about 25%, and the third about 15%. As much as 15 tons of freight were carried by the three. Two men were detailed to each team, for men were expensive and cattle were not, therefore, it was necessary to economize as much as possible on men.

The outfits travelled in brigades, consisting of several bull teams, usually five or six, and frequently seven or eight, and when they were strung out they were an imposing spectacle. Under unfavourable conditions it was necessary to unhook the swing and trail wagons, either separately or together.

On very steep hills two more of these teams would be coupled up. If a soft, marshy piece of ground was met with, or streams, and their soft margins needed to be crossed, the teams were taken over uncoupled from the wagons, then attached to the wagons from the far side by a long chain, and the wagons drawn through. These wagons were strongly built, on a broad gauge of five feet, and were all well covered in heavy canvas, with bows on the wagon box, so that all the goods were kept perfectly dry, no matter how bad the storm, and good shelter for the men could be obtained. When the bull trains travelled in brigades, there was as a rule, a wagon boss, who rode on horseback and directed the outfit in all its details The men as a rule, did their own cooking, not carrying a special man for the purpose, and their food consisted of fresh meat, beef, and game. The oxen all drew by a yoke, so in that respect, the first cost of harness was not great, and there was very little breakage except for an occasional ox bow, and very rarely, a yoke.

It is fairly well established that the last bull team to cross the plains from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod, a distance of 240 miles, was in the spring of 1885, the outfit being in charge of F. Burel, wagon boss for the I.G. Baker Company, who owned the train. These teams were utilized in the Fort Macleod region for freighting purposes until the transfer of the Baker interests to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1889, when the latter company disposed of them.

Acknowledgement: Historical Society of Alberta Newsletter, October, 1970

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Copyright 2000
Mary Tollestrup