The Boy Artist Of Red River


On August 12, 1834, a twenty-eight-year-old Swiss-born youth named Peter Rindisbacher, who was just beginning to attract international attention with his colorful and realistic drawings of Indian life along the mid-western United States and central Canadian frontiers, died in St. Louis. In a brief obituary the Missouri Republican noted his passing: “Mr. Rindisbacher had talents which gave every assurance of future celebrity. … He possessed a keen sensibility and the most delicate perception of the beautiful.”


In a way those talents were extraordinary: many of the paintings and drawings of Indians and Canadian fur posts and frontier life for which he was becoming known at the time of his death were done when lie was between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Although Rindisbacher died while his powers as an artist were still maturing, he was a close observer of life and an expert draftsman, and his paintings, as works of art, have a vitality and richness of detail that inevitably excite those who see them. To the historian, moreover, his drawings arc an invaluable record of a time and place pictured by no one else. As accurate and graphic portrayals ol the life ot Indians and border whites on the northern plains in the early years of the nineteenth century, they rank, historically and etlmologically, with the works ot the better-publicized artists of Indian life, George Cailin and Karl Bodmer (see “Karl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West” in the April, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE ), whom Rindisbacher preceded in approximately the same part of the continent by a decade.

Like Catlin and Bodmer, Rindisbacher was an eyewitness ol’ almost all he depicted. On the Red River of the North in the vicinity of present-day Winnipeg, in Wisconsin, and along the upper Mississippi River, he knew Cree, Chippewa, Assiniboinc, Sioux, Winnebago, and Sank and Fox Indians, as well as liait bloods and white fur traders, and he observed their ways of wilderness life at first hand. But unlike the other two artists, he had not travelled deliberately into the Indian country to observe and paint native ways, instead, he had been an actor in one of tlie strangest dramas of settlement in the history of the West.

Rindisbacher was horn in the canton of Kern on April 12, 1806, the second son of a veterinary surgeon. From his earliest years he loved to draw, and Riled his school copybooks with pictures. His father encouraged his interest and sent him, at the age of twelve, on a vacation trip to the Bernese Alps with a painter, Jacob S. Weibel, who gave him the only serious art instruction he was ever to receive.

In 1821 a recruiting agent for Lord Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, appeared in the neighborhood of the Rindisbacher home in Switzerland seeking colonists for Selkirk’s struggling Red River colony, south of Lake Winnipeg in what is now Manitoba. Although the agent pictured the colony as happy and prosperous, it was anything but that. Selkirk had founded it in iSn after having purchased from the Hudsons Bay Company, of which he was a major stockholder, a grant of some 116,000 square miles extending southward from Lake Winnipeg into the present-day states of North Dakota and Minnesota. In exchange Selkirk had paid the fur company a token sum of ten shillings and had promised to settle a thousand families on the grant within ten years.

The project was designed to fulfill aims of both Selkirk and the big British fur company. For some years the fortunes of the company had been declining. Dividends had fallen steadily and since i8o() had not even been declared; the company’s stock had dropped from £250 to £50. Numerous operational changes and economies had been ordered, and in the field in Clanada it was hoped that the traders and their employees would learn to live oil the country and become less dependent on costly supplies sent them from England. The Red River was in the wilderness, far west of Canada’s most advanced settlements. But it was strategically situated near the routes that many of the fur brigades followed in going between the posts on Hudson Bay and the fur-gathering country to the west and north; and an industrious agricultural colony settled on the fertile land along the river could provide a cheap supply of food for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s men in the interior of the continent. Selkirk, on the other hand, had long been concerned over the hardships of impoverished peasants in Ireland and Scotland, particularly in the Scottish Highlands, where numerous crofters had been evicted from their homes to provide larger sheep runs for the big landowners, and he hit on emigration as the answer to their plight and the Red River in British America as the place for them to go.