- Historic Sites
The Boy Artist Of Red River
Between the ages of fifteen and twenty, young Peter Rindisbacher captured on canvas the lives of Indians and white pioneers on the Manitoba—Minnesota frontier
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
When it came time to depart for Red River, the colonists boarded big York boats, which took them up the Hayes and Hill rivers to Lake Winnipeg. It was a long, gruelling trip through the wilds. In many places the rivers were so shallow at that time of year that the colonists had to get out and walk along the shore while the crews poled, pushed, or pulled the craft along the stony bottom. The discomforts mounted when the group entered stormy Lake Winnipeg. During the hazardous crossing of that body of water one of the York boats was wrecked. By November 1, when the travellers reached the mouth of Red River at the southern end of the lake, one man had drowned and six children had died. Peter Rindisbacher recorded many of the scenes en route; and at Red River, where the settlers were welcomed by a band of Chippewa Indians, he began to paint the first of his numerous water-color views of native life in that part of the continent.
The settlers endured a difficult winter, depending on fish that they caught through holes cut in the river ice, on meat brought in by hunting bands of Indians, and on meager rations of roots and wheat given them by thz fur company. By spring Sir George Simpson, the Hudson’s Bay Company s governor, who visited the colony, described it as “the most distressing scene of starvation that can well be conceived.”
Despite their hardships, however, the settlers managed to keep up their spirits and with the coming of good weather began to erect homes on the lands allotted to them near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. There, for almost five years, the Rindisbacher family tried to make a go of it. The violence of the immediate past had ended, but there were constant frustrations and disillusionments. Again and again the colonists faced famine. There were crop failures and short crops, grasshoppers and ruinous prairie fires. Whenever meat was needed, it seemed that buffalo were scarce or nonexistent on the nearby plains.
During this time, as Peter grew to manhood, he continued to sketch and paint, drawing principally on the colorful groups of Chippewa, Cree, Assiniboine, and eastern Sioux who brought to the fur posts pelts, meat, and pemmican in trade for white men’s goods. Young Rindisbacher visited the settlements of bark-covered lodges of the woodland-dwelling Chippewa and the buflalo-skin tipis of the Crée and Assiniboine of the plains; he was the first known to depict the interior of a Plains Indian tipi. He saw the Indians fishing, hunting, and engaging in drunken orgies on the ferocious trade alcohol the fur men gave them. At the same time he caught the full flavor of the entire Red River country of the period, recording, along with Indian life, views of the Métis and British traders around the posts and of the Swiss and Scottish settlers of the colony. The details of his paintings were often so accurate and complete that today historians and students of Indian life and of the fur trade study them carefully.
Rindisbacher apparently made many of his first sketches with pencil and pen and then copied them, again and again, in water color, usually making certain changes in each copy. His father may have given him instruction in anatomy, for many of his best pictures portray men and animals in violent action. Most characteristic of his paintings, perhaps, are the rounded, three-dimensional effects of his figures; had they been done in recent times, it might be thought that the artist had employed an airbrush.
Peter’s drawings soon brought him a degree of celebrity in the colony. The fur traders, who gave him a job as a clerk, asked “the boy artist,” as they called him, for copies of his paintings, and eventually he began to sell them to augment his family’s small income. At least five water colors, including two Eskimo paintings that he had done during the trip to Hudson Bay, were acquired by John West, the Church of England clergyman at Red River. Others were bought by the governor of the colony, the sheriff, and various officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The drawings were carried by fur men to York Factory and eventually came to the attention of Hudson’s Bay Company officers in England. William Smith, the company’s secretary in London, purchased some of his works, and about 1825 a set of six Views in Hudson’s Bay were published as colored lithographs in the English capital. They were issued as the work of H. Jones, an English artist, but were undoubtedly copied by Jones from Rindisbacher originals. The views are similar to known Rindisbacher paintings and show the governor of the Red River colony, Captain Andrew Bulger, meeting with Indians and travelling in a canoe in summer and in a dog-drawn cariole in winter. The principal difference is that Jones substituted the face of a new governor, Robert Parker Pelly, for that of Bulger, who had retired.
The winter of 1825-26 was a disastrous one for the Red River colony. Severe snowstorms blanketed the region, and hunters were unable to secure buffalo meat. People ate their horses and dogs, and many families perished from starvation or exposure. The storms were followed by spring floods and heavy rains that washed away houses and fields. Many of the settlers, including the Rindisbachers, had had enough of it and, abandoning the settlement, moved south into the United States. Ironically, there were good crops in 1826 in the Red River valley, and from that summer on the colony began to thrive. But most of the Swiss had departed. The Rindisbachers and several other families crossed the Sioux country of Minnesota and settled near Henry Gratiot’s lead-mining and smelting works in south-western Wisconsin.