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The Boy Artist Of Red River

May 2024
11min read

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

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.

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.

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.

Peter lived there for three years and continued to paint, now using Winnebago, Sauk and Fox, and other tribes of that frontier area for his subjects. In 1829 he sold several paintings, including one of Keokuk, the celebrated Sauk and Fox chief, to Caleb Atwater, a United States commissioner who had come to Wisconsin to negotiate with various tribes at Prairie du Chien for the cession of rich mineral lands in the area. Atwater may have helped to introduce the artist’s work in the eastern United States, for another of the paintings he purchased from Rindisbacher, the Sac and Fox War Dance , was later published in Baltimore as a colored lithograph in the McKenney and Hall portfolio of portraits and views in the Indian Gallery at the Department of War in Washington; it became one of the most popular items in that collection.

That same year, 1829, Peter moved to St. Louis. In December a lithograph of one of his pictures, A Sioux Warrior Charging , appeared in a new periodical, the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine , issued in Baltimore. The artist by now had many admirers in the Midwest, and several of them wrote letters of congratulation to the magazine.

In subsequent issues nine more of his drawings appeared, as well as a letter from another of the artist’s friends, who praised his work and claimed that Rindisbacher’s sketches “from Hudson’s Bay to St. Louis, will no doubt, secure him a lasting reputation.”

In 1831 Peter opened a studio in St. Louis. He was now twenty-five years old and, hoping to make a living by his painting, advertised in the St. Louis Times on April 30 that he would execute “Miniature and Landscape Paintings on the most reasonable terms.” He added the warning that “his stay in this place is limited to the ensuing fall.” It is not known how well he did, though it is believed that his abilities as an artist now developed quickly and that during those last years of his life he turned out some of his finest water colors, particularly copies of scenes he had done earlier at Red River. With his sudden death in St. Louis in August, 1834, perhaps from cholera, there died the possibility of a second and even greater career, for it may be speculated that had he lived he might have joined the westward movement of Americans, just getting under way from St. Louis, and, like Catlin, Bodmer, and Alfred Jacob Miller, painted the Indians and mountain men of the great American West.

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