The Boy Artist Of Red River


All might have been well save for two things. The 116,000 square miles granted to Selkirk by the Hudson’s Ray Company (which governed the region by royal charter) was the home and hunting grounds of many bands of Indians and families of French-speaking hall bloods, known as Métis, who got on well with fur traders but would be wary of, and even hostile to, people who settled on the land and drove away the game. And to make matters more ominous, within the territory of the giant lay several strong posts of the North West Fur Company, the bitter and powerful Montreal-based rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Nor’-Westers’ posts were essentially food-supplying centers for their own traders and canoemcn who gathered furs farther north and west in the Canadian wilds. Un the plains near Red River, Métis and friendly Indians hunted buffalo, bringing in the meat to the forts, where it was pounded and formed into packs of nourishing pemmican for the North West Fur Company men. An agricultural settlement placed by their rivals in their midst, the North West Company partners could see, might prove to be a disruptive threat to their own affairs.

Soon after Selkirk’s colony was launched, the threat materialixed. In 1811 an advance party of laborers was sent from England to Hudson Bay, and in August of 1812, under Selkirk’s agent Miles Macdonell, they readied Red River to set up the colony. At once Macdonell began to act in a highhanded manner toward the Noi Westers and Métis and at a “seizin’ of the land” ceremony proclaimed himself governor of Assiniboia, the name he gave to the territory of the grant. More settlers arrived from Scotland later that fall, and a third group in 1813.

The tempers of the already resentful Métis flared higher as they watched surveyors lay out farms for the newcomers on land they considered their own. The colonists proved to be poor farmers, and in 1814, when starvation faced them, Macdonell began to requisition and then forcibly to seixe supplies of pemmican and other food belonging to the North West Company. Petty fighting soon erupted into a savage war between Macdonell, his colonists, and the Hudson’s Hay Company on one side and the Métis and the North West Company on the other.

The conflict raged with increasing seriousness year after year. Men were ambushed in the wilds and killed; posts were captured, ransacked, and burned; in a battle fought on Red River twenty-three persons died, including the Hudson’s Bay Company’s governor in chief of Rupert’s Land; and prominent leaders on both sides, including Lord Selkirk himself, were arrested and brought to trial. In the course of the struggle the trade of both fur companies was thrown into turmoil, and Lord Selkirk’s colony was brought several times to the brink of collapse. Twice the Metis evicted the settlers, though each time they came back. In 1817 Selkirk recruited one hundred members of the disbanded de Meuron regiment, Swiss mercenaries who had fought for the British in Canada in the War of 1812, and took them to the Red River as armed colonists to fight the AIetis. Finally, by 1821, hostilities ended, and the two fur companies merged, the Hudson’s Bay Company remaining dominant in the Red River area and taking over the former North West Company posts. Selkirk, who had almost become deranged during the bitter fighting, had died in 1820, but the Red River colony, shaken and far from stable, was still in existence. At that point a Selkirk agent, painting deceptively rosy pictures of the state of the settlement, managed to recruit a new group of colonists, this time in Switzerland. Hoping to provide fellow countrymen for the de Meuron veterans who were still at the colony, he enlisted fifty-seven families, promising eacli one a hundred acres of land for which they could pay with five hundred bushels of wheat after they had been at Red River for five years. Among the recruits was the Rindisbacher family of Upper Emmenthal—father Peter, then forty-one, his wife, and six children, including the fifteen-year-old budding artist.

The new settlers went down the Rhine in barges and at Dordrecht, Holland, boarded the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Lord Willington . The group, numbering 165 persons, was an unlikely one to be setting off for a colony in the wilds of the Canadian interior. Most of them were city dwellers rather than farmers, and their skills were those of professional people and artisans—clockmakers, musicians, apothecaries, dentists, and schoolmasters. The voyage across the North Atlantic and through Hudson Strait to Hudson Bay took them eleven weeks; six children were born aboard ship. During the long crossing young Peter busied himself making sketches of icebergs, Eskimos in kayaks, and other scenes of the Arctic.

The group landed on August 17, 1821, at York Factory, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s big coastal depot on the western shore of the bay. Although the immigrants remained there only a short time, Peter continued to find new and wondrous subjects to depict, including colorfully garbed Cree Indians.