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.
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.
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.
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.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). 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. 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. 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.