Journey to Red River 1821—Peter Rindisbacher

By William Benoit

Peter Rindisbacher was 15 years old when he immigrated to Selkirk’s Red River settlement in 1821. Already an accomplished artist when he arrived in North America, he produced a series of watercolours documenting the voyage to Rupert’s Land and life in the settlement. His watercolours from the Red River area are among the earliest images of western Canada. Peter Rindisbacher is considered the first pioneer artist of the Canadian and the American West.

Library and Archives Canada is possibly the largest holder of Rindisbacher’s works. Viewing the Rindisbacher watercolours in sequence allows Canadians to appreciate the difficulty of the journey to the Red River.

A watercolour on wove paper showing an anchored three-masted sailing ship surrounded by skiffs bringing passengers and loading supplies.

Departure from Dordrecht under Captain James Falbister, May 30, 1821. The English colonist transport ship Wellington of 415 tons. (MIKAN 2835769)

On May 30, 1821, Rindisbacher and his family left Dordrecht in the Netherlands with a contingent of mostly Swiss emigrants aboard the Lord Wellington, bound for York Factory, in what is now Manitoba, on Hudson Bay. During the sea voyage, Rindisbacher sketched icebergs, the Inuit and other ships. The route would take the settlers past the Orkney Islands and Greenland.

A watercolour on wove paper showing an anchored three-masted sailing ship surrounded by skiffs bringing passengers and loading supplies.

Departure from Dordrecht under Captain James Falbister, May 30, 1821. The English colonist transport ship Wellington of 415 tons (MIKAN 2835770)

A watercolour on wove paper showing large icebergs on the right, while a sailing ship is seen at the left at some distance

Discovery of the first ice in the neighbourhood of Greenland, June 26, 1821 (MIKAN 2835771)

A watercolour on wove paper showing a sailing ship anchored to a mass of ice. Many figures are standing on the ice at the left.

The colonists are on the ice within sight of a mass of ice of 5700 [metres], June 30, 1821 (MIKAN 2835773)

Along the way, the Lord Wellington met up with the Hudson’s Bay Company ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone and Commander William Edward Parry’s HMS Hecla and Fury on their search for the Northwest Passage.

A watercolour on wove paper showing five sailing ships (three with prominent Union Jack flags) meeting at a break in the ice. Many figures are either on the ships or walking between them. Birds are flying in the air.

Fortunate meeting of the Prince of Wales and Eddystone and the ships [HMS] Hecla and [HMS] Fury, under the command of Captain W.E. Parry, July 16, 1821. Lat. 61.20.N, Long. 66.30. W (MIKAN 2835775)

A watercolour on wove paper showing three large sailing ships from the starboard side in the middle ground. Inuit in canoes are alongside the ship at the centre and the one on the right. Shots can be seen being fired from one of the ships.

The Eskimos [Inuit] of Labrador force their way onto the ships, July 23, 1821 (MIKAN 2835777)

A watercolour on wove paper showing an Inuit family: a man, a woman carrying a child, and another child standing in the foreground with a dog. A body of water lies behind with some small islands.

An Eskimo [Inuit] family, drawn from nature (MIKAN 2835780)

A watercolour on wove paper showing three sailing ships at night. The ship at the left has struck an iceberg and is leaning toward its port side.

The ship Prince of Wales runs aground on an iceberg during the night of July 24, 1821. Lat. 61.42 N. Long. 65.12(?) W (MIKAN 2835778)

A watercolour on wove paper showing two sailing ships in the middle ground. The one on the right is partly obscured by an iceberg. Several figures stand on a mass of ice in the foreground.

Great danger of the Wellington being crushed by an iceberg at Lat. 61.42.N. July 25, 1821 (MIKAN 2835782)

The party arrived at York Factory on August 17. York Factory (1788–1957) was on the Hayes River about eight kilometres upstream from Hudson Bay. In Rindisbacher’s time, York Factory was an octagonal stone fort. Construction of the fort began in 1788. It was razed in 1831 and replaced by all wooden structures, as the stone fort could not withstand the freezing and thawing of the permafrost.

A watercolour on wove paper with a sailing ship in the middle ground heading towards a small port and a fort on land.

Great danger of the Wellington Anchorage after arrival at Fort York [York Factory], Hudson Bay, August 17, 1821, after a voyage of 79 days (MIKAN 2835783)

A watercolour on wove paper showing a Cree family: a man, woman, and two children. They are standing in the foreground on a small plateau, with water and land in the background.

Great danger of the Wellington A family of Cree hunters at York Fort [York Factory], drawn from nature (MIKAN 2835784)

The colonists travelled in York boats up the Hayes River via Norway House to Lake Winnipeg, and then to the mouth of the Red River and on to Fort Douglas (Winnipeg).

A watercolour on wove paper showing several boats leaving port in the middle ground. Behind them, on the embankment, sits a fort with a single, tall flagpole.

Departure of the second colonist transport from Fort York [York Factory] to Rockfort [Rock Depot], Sept. 6, 1821 (MIKAN 2835785)

A watercolour on wove paper showing several figures pulling or riding canoes up a shallow river.

Difficult voyage south on the Hill (?) [Hayes] River to Rock Fort [Rock Depot] in September 1821 (MIKAN 2835786)

A watercolour on wove paper showing a fort surrounded by tents near the shore. Several canoes line the shoreline and a Union Jack is flying on a tall flagpole.

Arrival and Stay at Rockfort [Rock Depot], September 21, 1821 (MIKAN 2835787)

The exact location of Rock Depot (1816–????) is uncertain. It was located on the Hayes River, possibly above Berwick Falls. A companion post—Gordon House (1794–1821)—was located below the falls.

A watercolour on wove paper showing a waterfall. To the right, are figures carrying canoes and gear to the water beyond the embankment that bisects the river.

Portage near Norway House [1821] (MIKAN 2835788)

A watercolour on wove paper showing four small sailing boats on a large expanse of water. A fortified settlement can be seen on the bank in the distance.

Arrival at Norway House on the great Lake Winipesi [Winnipeg], October 14, and departure thence, October 16, 1821 (MIKAN 2835789)

Norway House was a Hudson’s Bay Company post and a major supply depot. In Rindisbacher’s time, Norway House was located at Big Mossy Point (Warren Landing) on Lake Winnipeg. It was relocated to the Nelson River in 1826.

A watercolour on wove paper showing the bow of a wrecked boat onshore in the immediate foreground at the left. Several people are standing on the beach, working or conversing.

Shipwreck and halt on the great Winipesi Lake [Lake Winnipeg], October 23, 1821 (MIKAN 2835790)

A watercolour on wove paper showing the moonlit scene of an encampment along the shore. Groups of figures are gathered around fires near each tent. Their canoes sit in the water to the right.

Cold night camp on the inhospitable shores of Lake Winipesi [Winnipeg] in October 1821 (MIKAN 2835791)

A watercolour on wove paper showing a group of Aboriginal people on the shores welcoming travellers arriving in small sailing boats

Arrival at the mouth of the Red River in North America, 47 N., and welcome from the Sautaux [Saulteaux] Indians, November 1, 1821, after a river and sea voyage of 4836 miles (MIKAN 2835792)

A watercolour on wove paper showing a group of Aboriginal people accompanied by dogs in the foreground, with multiple activities taking place behind them: ice fishing, a load of wood being transported on a horse-drawn sled. On the embankment behind all these activities is a fort.

Winter fishing on ice of Assynoibain [Assiniboine] & Red River [1821] (MIKAN 2835803)

The colonists reached Fort Douglas in November, just before freeze-up. They found that no preparations had been made for their arrival and that they would have to survive on whatever they brought and what they could forage.

In the spring of 1826, the Rindisbachers left Red River and settled in the Gratiot’s Grove Settlement in northwest Illinois. Peter Rindisbacher died on August 12, 1834, in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 28.

27 thoughts on “Journey to Red River 1821—Peter Rindisbacher

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 1st, 2016 – Unwritten Histories

  2. Impressive story another, interesting dutch travel story which always makes me a little proud to read being a dutchman and a traveler as well. Thx for sharing really enjoyed reading this

  3. Peter Rindisbacher was a genius at 15 and nature took him back at 28! What he has left behind is remarkable. These pictures are so absorbing. I so wish I could experience the life in those pictures! May be see Peter water-coloring them. Thanks for sharing this. I am getting all poetic now.

  4. I love seeing stuff about Canada as someone born here and still living her. Living in the prairies a lot of us still remember a lot of the old history because unlike the rest of Canada we’ve been untouched in so many ways. Especially the old towns and villages.

    Thanks for posting!

    It’s not historical but on my blog I reblogged a photographers work of the Rocky Mountains, he had come each year as a pilgrim and stayed in the area and taken tons of photos.

  5. Thank u for sharing the historical glimpses: efforts done by the artist. Well done for reviving the pics and making the artist and his passionate works known to this era of readers🙂

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  7. Pingback: Journey to Red River 1821—Peter Rindisbacher – Thehighve.

  8. I feel I’m a failure already! Twenty eight years and his accomplishments and legacy speak for themselves! Twenty eight years and not even my capital city has heard of me….. Remarkable artist by all standards!

  9. Pingback: Journey to Red River 1821—Peter Rindisbacher – Curios Store

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