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RADISSON, PIERRE-ESPRIT, coureur de bois, explorer, fur trader, and author of travel accounts; b. c. 1636 in Paris, son of Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Madeleine Hénaut, widow of Sébastien Hayet; m. first in 1672 Mary Kirke in London, and they had at least one son and one daughter; m. secondly 3 March 1685 Margarett Charlote (Sharlott Margarett) Godet in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and they had at least three sons; m. thirdly Elizabeth ———, and they had at least three daughters; d. in London between 17 and 21 June 1710, on which day he was buried there in the parish of St Clement Danes.
Born in the 17th century, Pierre-Esprit Radisson was of humble origins. Thanks to the six lengthy accounts he wrote about his travels, in which he related his main achievements, it is possible to know about his career in great detail. There is also abundant documentation on the period between 1665 and 1687, when Radisson worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) – which he had helped to establish – and, to a lesser extent, on his commitments in France. His testimony was for a long time viewed with suspicion by Quebec historians because France considered him a traitor after he took over, on behalf of the English, the Nelson River trading post he had founded on Hudson Bay when he was in the service of France. For this reason the publication of Radisson’s accounts and extensive studies about him between 1885 and 1961 are mainly the work of American scholars. Since the 1990s, however, Radisson has been the subject of new research in Canada, and his accounts have been restored to favour.
Little is known about Radisson’s childhood and formative years, which he likely spent in Paris. His father was a cloth merchant of modest means who lived with his family in the parish of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. He died in 1641 at the age of 51, when Pierre-Esprit was still very young. His mother then became responsible for the welfare of Radisson and his three sisters. The following singular fact emerges from his family background: his half-sister Marguerite and his sister Françoise preceded him to New France, where he himself arrived in 1651, around the age of 15 or 16. His sister Élisabeth had also lived in the colony. Such a close relationship between a Parisian family and New France was exceptional at that time of very low female immigration. It would seem to imply that the Radisson family was part of a network of people connected with New France. Several clues indicate that Radisson came from a humble background and that, furthermore, he received no more schooling than his parents: the strong oral quality of his narratives, which do not include references to the classics taught to the elites; his anonymous arrival in New France; the presence of his sisters in Trois-Rivières, where they had much less opportunity than in France to marry well; and the lack of support he received in France when he later tried to make his career there. He was a common man who, through his intelligence, resourcefulness, and ambition, and with the help of a few key individuals, would greatly advance his social standing.
New France was in a state of crisis at that time. In 1649–50, the Iroquois had decimated their long-time enemies, the Hurons, who were the main allies and suppliers of furs to the French. They subsequently attacked all the indigenous partners of the Hurons, as well as the French [see Louis Ailleboust* de Coulonge et d’Argentenay]. Because its economy depended entirely on the fur trade, New France was extremely vulnerable to any threat to the supply of pelts. A reduction in the yield had an impact on all aspects of the functioning of the colony, both its internal administration and the annual supply of essential goods it received from France: iron, gunpowder, rifles, cloth, and various other provisions. It was in this context that Radisson and the man who married his half-sister Marguerite in 1653, Médard Chouart* Des Groseilliers, would play an important part in relaunching the fur trade.
The account of Radisson’s first expedition, which took place in 1652–53, relates the significant events of his youth: his capture by the Iroquois while hunting, his rapid adoption, his escape, his second capture and torture, followed by his integration into a Mohawk family of the Iroquois nation, with whom he spent some 20 months. Documents dating from this period and numerous studies devoted to the Iroquois confirm the authenticity of his account, one of the earliest about this indigenous group. In it Radisson presents a largely positive view of the people whose culture he adopted in the hope of saving his life and then integrating himself as well as possible: “I must confesse I loved those poore people entirly well.”
In his account, Radisson speaks of his regard for the parents who adopted him to replace their son Orinha, who had died in battle. They had intervened when Radisson was being tortured, to prevent his execution, for he was suspected of having killed three Iroquois while trying to escape. Although Radisson admits in his writing to having taken part in these murders, he of course denied them vehemently when facing the Iroquois. His parents had believed him. Radisson then relates how he learned to become a man, first as a hunter (“My exercise was allwayes a hunting”) and then by taking part in a small war expedition with nine other Iroquois, during which he captured prisoners, killed enemies, and ate human flesh. After that victorious journey, which lasted five to seven months, he became highly assimilated: “Albeit I came to this village and twice with feare and terror, the third time not withstanding with joy and contentment. As we came neare…, a multitud of people came to meet us with great exclamations,… for my sake biding me to be cheerfull and qualifying me dodcon, that is devil, being of great veneration in that country to those that shews any vallor.… The day following I received the sallery of my booty which was of porcelaine, necklaces, touns of heads, pendants and girdles.” Some 15 years after these events, this period continued to evoke strong emotions in him, which he conveyed skilfully and powerfully to the reader when he recorded the experience, an extraordinary one for a European.
At the end of the expedition, the Iroquois of his clan trusted him enough to ask him to accompany them to trade in the neighbouring Dutch village of Fort Orange (Albany, N.Y.). There Radisson reconnected with his European roots and, little by little, as he reflected on alarming comments made by the fort’s commander and the inhabitants of the village, he realized that even though he was well integrated, he was risking his life by staying with the Mohawks. A few days after returning to his adoptive family in the late autumn of 1653, he escaped via Fort Orange and took a boat to the Netherlands. From there he returned to New France the following year.
For the next few years Radisson almost disappears without a trace. It is known, however, that he did not accompany Des Groseilliers to Lakes Michigan and Superior in 1654–56, even though he described that journey in his third account, based on information supplied by his brother-in-law, for he himself writes that Des Groseilliers was at the time “with [an]other French.” In 1657 the Jesuits recruited Radisson, who was very well acquainted with Iroquois customs and language, to take part in a joint Iroquois–Huron–French expedition to unite the 50 or so French already settled at the centre of the Five Nations Confederacy [see Dekanahouideh*] with the Onondagas. Owing to the unexpected state of peace between the French and Iroquois in 1653, the Jesuits responded to the invitation from that nation, and three years later they established among them the Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha mission in the hope of turning their erstwhile enemies into allies. In his second account Radisson records various episodes of that expedition. He describes, among other things, the murder of ten Huron warriors by their Iroquois guides and the remarkable courage shown by the missionary Paul Ragueneau* on that occasion. Many passages also reveal the ambiguous relationship between Radisson and the Iroquois, which was thereafter tinged with both attraction and rejection.
The highlight of the account is the last section, in which Radisson describes the stratagem that allowed the French to escape a rumoured massacre at the hands of the Onondagas. During the winter of 1657–58 the Onondagas, under pressure from the Mohawks, who had never agreed to peace with the French, were preparing to resume hostilities. The French learned from informers that they “weare as many hoggs layed up to be fatted” in the country of the Iroquois, and it was only a matter of time before they would be taken prisoner, put to death, or used as hostages. Radisson then took part in organizing a lavish feast. It brought together a hundred or so Onondagas along with all the missionaries of the French fort of Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha. After their guests had gorged themselves and had fallen asleep, the French stole away, via Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River in spate, as far as Montreal, where they arrived safely on 3 April 1658. The Relations of the Jesuits and the letters of Marie de l’Incarnation Guyart*] corroborate Radisson’s account.
For the next 16 years Radisson and Des Groseilliers were exceptionally active. In August 1659 about 20 Chippewas reached Trois-Rivières by the “northern route,” which was longer and more arduous than the usual way that led from the Great Lakes to Montreal via the Ottawa River and the St Lawrence. The alternative route connected the tributaries of the Ottawa River to the Trois-Rivières (Saint-Maurice) waterway, by which one could reach Trois-Rivières, and to the Saguenay River to get to Tadoussac. It allowed the team to avoid Iroquois ambushes along the Ottawa River. Like many other nations, the Chippewas had opted to leave their ancestral territory of Sault Ste Marie, which was at the junction of Lakes Huron and Superior, to escape Iroquois attacks. They had previously provided a link between the Hurons and the Lake Superior nations, and had had little contact with the French. They intended to replace the Hurons as direct intermediaries in the fur trade between the native communities of the Great Lakes and the French. Radisson and Des Groseilliers would accompany them back to the western point of Lake Superior as they needed these indigenous guides to find the allied nations with which the French were accustomed to trading.
Before leaving on this trading expedition, Radisson and Des Groseilliers tried to obtain official permission from the governor, Pierre de Voyer d’Argenson, who exercised strict control over the fur trade to slow the decrease in revenue resulting from the loss of several sources of fur supplies and the increase in the number of inhabitants devoting themselves to the trade. They refused to await the return of two Jesuit priests as the governor had demanded. According to Radisson, Voyer d’Argenson sought to personally profit from the endeavour, but the brothers-in-law opposed his plan: “We made the Governor a slight answer, and tould him for our part we knewed what we weare, discoverers before governors.” Radisson and Des Groseilliers thus undertook the journey illegally.
The Chippewas made the effort to come into the colony because they were organizing the Feast of the Dead, a great indigenous gathering to bring together many nations that were refugees or were living to the south and west of Lake Superior. The purpose of the celebration was to maintain existing agreements, make new ones – notably with the Sioux, who tolerated the arrival of all the refugees on their territory – and, very likely, to restructure the fur trade after the dispersal of the Hurons. As hosts the Chippewas were obliged to distribute valuable gifts to those who took part. French goods, which were rare and prestigious, were called for; besides, the Chippewas would thereby be able to display their ability to replace the Hurons as suppliers of such articles. For their part, Radisson and Des Groseilliers went to the gathering not only to trade in a personal capacity, but also to deliver a new message of collaboration and relaunch the fur trade on a lasting basis. Although they did not have a mandate to do so, they would speak in the name of all the French as, in their opinion, it was vital to restore the trust of the indigenous people by reaffirming the French willingness to reach a compromise and support them militarily.
On the way to the feast Radisson and Des Groseilliers joined forces with a group of Ottawa allies, defeated some Iroquois posted on the Ottawa River, and re-established contact with some of the Cree whom Des Groseilliers had met during his previous journey. They reached Chequamegon Bay, at the extreme southwest of Lake Superior, after about 60 days’ travel. While the Chippewas returned to their territory, worried that the Sioux might have slaughtered their families during their absence, the two Frenchmen stayed where they were. If all went well, the Chippewas would come back and transport the goods to their lands. But if the Sioux had attacked them, the Chippewas intended to muster a large army and avenge the deaths of their families. Meanwhile, the two explorers built a small fort for their safety.
Twelve days after their departure the Chippewas returned to look for Radisson and Des Groseilliers, who did everything in their power to impress them. According to Radisson their fort caused a sensation: “They are astonied calling us every foot devils to have made such a machine.” The men’s hunting ability, which the indigenous people considered vital for survival, also surprised them: “They brought us victuals thinking we weare halfe starved but weare mightily mistaken, for we had more for them then they weare able to eate.” The two Frenchmen pretended to possess superior spiritual powers, the proof of which lay in their exclusive mastery of firearms (which were practically unknown in those regions) and in their knowledge of how iron goods were made. Through such claims they were able to command great respect from the indigenous people: “We told them that … we … tooke a boat and putt in to it our marchandises. This we brought farre into the bay, where we sunke them, bid[d]ing our devill not to lett them to be wett nor rustied, nor suffer them to be taken away … that we should retourne and take them out of his hands att which they weare astonished believing it to be true.” In actual fact, Radisson and Des Groseilliers had buried half their articles in order not to be encumbered and to avoid making the others too envious. They thus quickly gained the upper hand over the people of these regions, who had never seen white men, and apparently even over the Chippewas. “We weare Cesars, being no body to contradict us,” wrote Radisson. Two lasting advantages were to work in their favour: the iron objects they distributed with abundance and the 15 rifles and pistols they reserved for their own use. Having never had any contact with white men, the indigenous people spontaneously associated the strength of iron and the force of firearms with occult powers; it could only be because of special spiritual connections that these Frenchmen benefited from such capabilities.
The fourth account describes the numerous difficulties encountered by the European travellers when venturing so deeply into indigenous territory among nations with diverse customs at a time of acute tension. The climax of the account is without a doubt the Feast of the Dead in March 1660. Chippewa, Ottawa, Menominee, Cree, Eastern Sioux, and some ten other communities took part. In addition to the vivid descriptions, it includes the great speech delivered by Radisson and Des Groseilliers. In it they laid out for the first time details of the renewed alliance that the French would enter into with the indigenous people of the Pays d’en haut until the end of the French regime. This agreement – in contrast to the one previously advocated by the Jesuit missionaries, whose aim was to effect a profound change in indigenous culture – was based on a realistic vision of the partnership that experienced Frenchmen such as Radisson and Des Groseilliers thought possible to establish between New France and its indigenous allies in the long term. The two explorers were pragmatic; they perceived this new attitude to be necessary, even if they did not have a mandate to act as they did.
After the lengthy welcoming speech by the Sioux, who described the Frenchmen as “gods and masters of all things,” Radisson and Des Groseilliers proceeded to put on a dazzling show of strength. They discharged all their firearms into the air and then threw a large quantity of gunpowder into the fire. The following day they acted as spokesmen for all the French by giving five gifts – mostly articles made of iron – each of which conveyed a message in accordance with the indigenous form of diplomacy. They stated that they had come to this country to improve the lives of its inhabitants and not to kill them. They described the nations present as brothers and children. They complimented the Sioux on their bravery and told them that the French wanted to establish universal peace in the area. On the subject of the Cree, who were at war with the Sioux, Des Groseilliers reminded those in attendance that he had called them his adopted children during his previous expedition. Radisson would therefore seek out the Cree in order for the Sioux and Cree to make peace (but this was to be only temporary); the first to break the peace would be reduced to powder by the fire from the sky (firearms) of the French. If the nations did not agree to take part in the dance of unity planned for the Feast of the Dead, they would never see the French in their country again. The brothers-in-law then thanked the Sioux for letting them move around freely in their territory. Lastly, with the offer of a gift they asked the women to receive them hospitably when they entered their huts and give them something to eat. In essence the two orators had stated the French position that would, in 1701, be made official by the grand peace of Montreal [see Louis-Hector de Callière] and would remain in force until the end of the French regime. Presenting themselves as adoptive fathers of their allies, the French pledged to supply them with European goods, promote peace among them, arbitrate any potential conflicts, and do battle alongside them when necessary.
What was striking about this approach during the great indigenous gathering was the forceful manner in which Radisson and Des Groseilliers established their power and communicated their message. On a few other occasions the two did not hesitate to disrupt indigenous traditions to assert themselves. Towards the end of the winter of 1660, for example, when they met with Sioux emissaries who had invited them to the Feast of the Dead, they replaced the eagle feathers of that nation’s sacred peace pipe with iron arrowheads. The Sioux would eventually reject the alliance proposed by Radisson and Des Groseilliers, perhaps because of the substitution, which was no trivial matter as it could antagonize the spirits and cause great misfortune. The two Frenchmen also threw gunpowder into the fire instead of sacred tobacco, causing an explosion that terrified the Sioux. They played the same trick at the Feast of the Dead before hundreds, who were astounded by their powers. Each time, they specified that these powers were meant solely to protect their allies and to be shared with them through the fur trade. These dramatic tactics demonstrate the determination of the French to change the indigenous world, but in a less invasive manner than previously and by counting on recognition among the inhabitants of the tangible advantages of cooperation. Meanwhile, the stratagem also ensured some degree of safety for Radisson and Des Groseilliers in a very unstable environment. In the long run, however, it would not allow the brothers-in-law to gain complete control of the situation.
At the end of their eight-month sojourn in the region of Lake Superior, it was difficult for Radisson and Des Groseilliers to persuade their allies to travel with them and bring their furs as far as Montreal. The Sioux were the first to refuse to follow them. Because of bad omens and rumours about the presence of an Iroquois army on the Ottawa River [see Adam Dollard* Des Ormeaux], those who had initially agreed to the plan suggested postponing the trip by a year, a delay that the two Frenchmen considered unacceptable and dangerous. Exercising patience and through skilful debate, the two eventually managed to bring their partners around to their point of view, with the exception of the Cree, who turned back.
On 19 Aug. 1660 Radisson and Des Groseilliers, leading some 60 canoes filled with furs, reached Montreal. With the arrival of the cargo, joy spread throughout the colony, except in the heart of Governor Voyer d’Argenson, who had not authorized the men’s departure. Radisson, referring to their reception, wrote: “By our meanes was made the country to subsist, that without us had been I beleeve oftentimes quite undone and ruined. And the better to say at his last bidding no castors no ship, and what [were we?] to doe without necessary commodities?” Voyer d’Argenson imposed fines on them and levied the full tax of a quarter of their furs. Des Groseilliers felt that he was being unfairly treated since he and Radisson had risked their lives for the colony, so he sailed to France to plead his case before the king’s council, which agreed with him and partially compensated him over the winter of 1660–61. During that time Radisson remained in New France.
Insight into Radisson and Des Groseilliers’s subsequent peregrinations can be gained from a secret meeting with the Cree, which took place on the north shore of Lake Superior during the winter of 1659–60, after the Feast of the Dead. As hunters, the Cree were unhappy with their peripheral position in the network of indigenous fur traders compared with that of the trading nations, who supplied them with French goods. The Cree were aware that they supplied excellent furs to the Hurons, Ottawa, and Chippewas but felt they received very little in return. On this occasion the brothers-in-law obtained information about the territories of James Bay and Hudson Bay, which were frequented by the Cree in summer. Above all they learned that European ships (those of the Englishmen Henry Hudson*, Sir Thomas Button*, Luke Fox*, and Thomas James* between 1610 and 1632) had entered the “Sea of the North,” which the French of the colony had often heard about. Henceforth, Radisson and Des Groseilliers’s main objective was to reach Hudson Bay by sea to trade with the Cree there.
In the spring of 1661, before leaving France, Des Groseilliers joined forces with a merchant from La Rochelle to mount an expedition the following year from Percé, New France, to Hudson Bay. Meanwhile, the Jesuits, no doubt on the initiative of Paul Ragueneau, who knew Radisson well, suggested that he attempt to reach Hudson Bay via the interior. The Jesuits’ interest in this plan was apparently to increase and control the revenues of the colony as much as possible, since these sources partially financed their activities. Radisson, however, opted to remain with Des Groseilliers. In early summer 1662 the brothers-in-law travelled to Percé with ten men. Instead of finding the ship they had been expecting from La Rochelle, they were met by a Jesuit priest. He informed them that their expedition had been blocked and reproached them for harming the colony, for it appeared obvious that their aim was to avoid paying the rightful levy of a quarter of their beaver pelts, which would have been delivered straight to France. The tax in fact financed the administration of New France. Radisson and Des Groseilliers fought back and continued on their way in Acadia, where no Acadian was able to fund their project. They did, however, find some bold Boston merchants ready to back their enterprise and they followed them to New England.
Radisson’s fourth account ends with details of two unsuccessful attempts to reach Hudson Bay from Boston in 1663 and 1664, and the meeting with commissioners sent in 1664 by the king of England to investigate how well the sovereign’s authority was being respected in North America. Unofficially, the commission was also mandated to seize New Holland (N.Y.). It would seem that Radisson and Des Groseilliers facilitated the conquest in 1664 by informing the commissioners about the Dutch habit of transferring the maximum amount of gunpowder to Fort Orange in the autumn. They were at the very least in a position to tell them of the workings of the flourishing trade in furs between the Dutch and the Iroquois, which would explain why Commissioner George Cartwright made it his duty to bring the two Frenchmen to England. He promised them that they would be able to present their fur-trading plan to Charles II. The brothers-in-law seized the opportunity.
Radisson and Des Groseilliers arrived in London in December 1665, when the Great Plague was causing upheaval in the kingdom. Still, they met with powerful associates of the king, set out their plan, and received support. But because of naval warfare between the Netherlands and England, the expedition to Hudson Bay, which was planned for the summer of 1666, had to be cancelled. The following summer the war escalated when a Dutch fleet reached London’s port and set fire to ships. The planned voyage was aborted once more. Despite all this, the influential aristocrats and merchants who were part of the two men’s plan maintained their moral and financial support.
Eventually, in June 1668, Radisson and Des Groseilliers left London in two small ships – Radisson on the Eaglet and Des Groseilliers on the Nonsuch [see Zachariah Gillam*]. Radisson narrowly avoided being shipwrecked and had to turn back, but Des Groseilliers reached James Bay. During the winter he traded with the Cree, and in October 1669 the Nonsuch returned to London laden with furs, proving the viability of the Hudson Bay trade. A royal charter granting a trade monopoly in Hudson Bay to the governor and the Company of Adventurers of England – the Hudson’s Bay Company – was issued in May 1670.
It was fortunate that Radisson had had to return to London in 1668, for it was probably during that winter that he recorded the first four accounts of his expeditions. Although they are written in imperfect English that is riddled with Gallicisms, Radisson’s use of the language reveals that he had become well integrated among the English, just as he had among the Iroquois in 1652, when he learned their language and adopted their customs. Before examining the next stage of Radisson’s career in Europe, it is important to note the unique characteristics of his first four accounts. The narratives contain an exceptional amount of information on the daily life of a 17th-century man, presumably from the working class, who acted as a bridge between the French and indigenous cultures. Radisson describes how he travelled, hunted, fished, ate, waged war, amused himself, haggled, bartered, and bargained with his indigenous partners. He gives a clear and spontaneous account of his experience among them, informs his readership of the generally favourable opinion he formed of them, and writes about his private feelings. He thus reveals his personality and the impact on him of cultures radically different from his own. In so doing he lifts the veil on what hundreds of other coureurs de bois and voyageurs of the fur trade might have experienced in a similar context in the 17th century. He helps readers understand the labours, achievements, adjustments, joys, and sorrows of those anonymous individuals who left no written trace but who nevertheless played an important historical role in New France.
The voyageurs and coureurs de bois served as a catalyst in an alliance with the indigenous people that for them was not a contract with the French but a process of ongoing renewal achieved by bartering and the presentation of gifts and counter-gifts. By marrying indigenous women, starting families, and taking part in daily life alongside the allies to whom they supplied French goods, these voyageurs and coureurs de bois demonstrated their commitment to the relationship. Radisson’s role, however, surpassed that of most of the others because of the scale of his achievements and the lengthy testimony he left behind.
In writing the narratives, Radisson had two aims: he wanted to maintain the investors’ confidence in mounting another expedition to Hudson Bay in 1669 and, at the same time, he wished to improve his social standing. Among his supporters were several members of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (founded in 1660), including the secretary to Prince Rupert, Sir James Hayes, a key figure in the nascent enterprise. Radisson understood that these people attached great importance to verifiable facts and that since many were also entrepreneurs they wished, among other things, to collect information on new territories to be exploited. He therefore peppered his accounts with geographical and ethnographic information, and made every effort to report exactly what he had experienced. By showing that he was a reliable informant, as was every member of the elite, a shared assumption at that time in England, he hoped to promote his social advancement.
After his failed maritime expeditions of 1668 and 1669, for which he had succeeded in obtaining financing, Radisson joined Des Groseilliers in London in January 1670. Each in his own way had made a vital contribution to the development of the HBC until 1668–69. While Des Groseilliers was working mainly in Hudson Bay alongside the Cree, Radisson remained for the most part in London, where he selected goods to trade, organized voyages, and sorted furs to be sold. He travelled twice to James Bay, in the winter of 1670–71 and the winter of 1672–73. Earlier in 1672 he had married Mary Kirke, daughter of one of the Kirke* brothers. John Kirke, a shareholder and very active member of the company, would be knighted a few years later. The marriage proved that Radisson had adjusted well to his new environment.
In 1675 Radisson’s relationship with the HBC came to an end. Two years earlier Lord Shaftesbury, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, had taken control of the HBC. A fervent nationalist, he hated the French, and he hated the Jesuits even more. It so happened that in 1674 the Jesuit Charles Albanel* reached James Bay via the interior to persuade Des Groseilliers to work once more for France. Albanel was taken prisoner by the British, spent several months with Des Groseilliers, and returned to England with him on the same ship in September 1675. As soon as they disembarked in London, where Radisson was located, the suspicion of betrayal hung over the brothers-in-law, who may have been interested in Father Albanel’s offers from the French. Radisson and Des Groseilliers left England shortly afterwards for reasons that are unknown. The fact that Lord Shaftesbury strictly forbade his employees from engaging in the fur trade on their own account, of which the two were guilty, and that he clashed with Hayes, the main supporter of the two Frenchmen in the company, had perhaps motivated this decision to depart. It was heartbreaking, at least for Radisson, who left behind his wife and children.
In France, where Radisson and Des Groseilliers arrived at the end of 1675, King Louis XIV’s powerful minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, did not want to engage them since doing so might compromise relations with England. Furthermore, the issue of trade in Hudson Bay was far from essential for France, whose supply of beaver pelts had been steadily increasing since 1667. Colbert advised them to return to New France, where the trade in pelts was conducted, which they did in 1676. Des Groseilliers remained in the colony, but Radisson did not obtain what he wanted and sailed back to France the same year, hoping to make a career there. What followed was a period of uncertainty for him.
At first Radisson completed his education in the hope of being appointed an officer in the French navy. He then invested (very likely the sum of 2,000 livres, or about £200) in an expedition backed by King Louis XIV and Vice-Admiral Jean II d’Estrées against the Dutch possessions in the West Indies (1677–78). The fleet was led by the inexperienced Duc d’Estrées, a member of the high aristocracy. Several vessels were shipwrecked, including the one carrying Radisson, and he lost money in the venture. Radisson subsequently tried to persuade Colbert to finance an expedition to Hudson Bay to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Nelson River, far to the northwest of the English posts of James Bay. When Radisson and Des Groseilliers worked for the English, they had tried unsuccessfully to settle there after obtaining information from local indigenous people that this was the area with the greatest commercial potential. Furthermore, there were rumours that the HBC was preparing to make a new attempt.
Financed by the French authorities, Radisson travelled back and forth several times between England and France in 1679 and 1680 in an effort to discover the real intentions of the English. He also tried to bring his wife to France, which his father-in-law vehemently opposed. This refusal, for which Radisson did not know the exact reasons, posed a great problem for him: the absence was perceived in France as a sign that he wished to return to England, or that he wanted to convert to Protestantism, or that his wife refused to live in a Catholic country. In 1681 Colbert asked him to enter the service of businessman Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye, around whom merchants of New France had grouped to compete with the HBC on its own territory. Known as the Compagnie du Nord in 1682, the organization was already active on the rivers flowing into James Bay, thus threatening the business of the HBC, which considered itself the owner of the entire Hudson Bay watershed by virtue of its royal charter. This situation was a source of tension between New France, France, and England.
Radisson arrived in Quebec at the end of September 1681. Governor Frontenac Buade*] refused to authorize his voyage to the Nelson River since the plan conflicted with his own business dealings. In addition, the governor foresaw that such an expedition would pose problems for relations between France and England. Not to be outdone, La Chesnaye sent Radisson to spend the winter in Acadia. In the early summer of 1682 he provided him with a small, fully equipped boat at Percé, where a second boat, commanded by Des Groseilliers, joined him. The two men reached the mouth of the Hayes River, which bordered that of the Nelson River, aboard an unsound craft. They arrived at the same time as a group from Boston, led by Benjamin Gillam, and an HBC expedition that included the governor of the future trading post of the area, John Bridgar*, and Captain Zachariah Gillam. Only the HBC had the right to trade there by virtue of its charter. But Radisson and Des Groseilliers, who had dreamed of establishing a post there for more than 15 years, did not see things the way the HBC did.
The events that unfolded between the autumn of 1682 and the summer of 1683 are known thanks to Radisson’s fifth account in particular, which was written in French. It contains a wealth of detail, and the style is less spontaneous than that of his other narratives. The text testifies to the efforts he made to advance his social standing and the responsibilities he now had:
We discovered a tent on an island in the early morning of the 16th. I … posted myself with my men as if in an ambush, to attempt to surprise one of them, make him a prisoner, and find out what kind of people they might be.… When approaching even nearer to their post…, I recognized that it was the English.… They were not long in discovering us,… they began to shout … pronouncing some words in the wild men’s tongue that they were reading from a book.… I spoke to them in the language of the land and in French, but they did not understand me. But finally having asked them in English who they were … they answered me that they were English [from Boston], and had come there to engage in the beaver trade.
From then on Radisson increased the number of trips he made between his fort, that of the Bostonians, and that of the English, as well as the ruses he employed to neutralize his opponents. He claimed, for example, to possess forces superior to those on which he could actually count. Before the HBC group discovered the New England contingent, he organized a secret meeting between Zachariah Gillam and his son Benjamin with the aim of winning over Benjamin. He waited for a favourable moment to seize the Bostonian fort easily. He also captured Commander Bridgar and banked on the difficulty the English were having in obtaining supplies after the loss of one of their ships. In the middle of the winter of 1682–83, without having had to resort to violence, he was master of the fur trade.
Some accounts by other players on the scene and memoranda exchanged between France and England confirm the main facts reported by Radisson. However, it is difficult to know exactly how events transpired as all these people tried to exonerate themselves: the Bostonians did not have the right to trade in the area, the English suffered a crushing defeat as the Nelson River fur trade was under the influence of the French, and Radisson denied having usurped the rights of the English. These events indicate that Radisson and the 20 or so French who accompanied him had an almost unbeatable advantage given their extensive experience with winter conditions and indigenous people. These men knew the native language and customs. They were able to move about on the snow and hunt as they pleased. They were more independent, better informed, and in a better position to win over the Cree. Radisson acted as a subtle strategist here. Owing to this knowledge, by the end of the winter the French had undeniably gained the upper hand over their adversaries.
In the summer of 1683, however, a serious problem arose: three of their four boats were lost or damaged by the sudden rise of water levels. Radisson sent the HBC employees towards James Bay in one of the patched-up French vessels. Along with a few French, the Bostonians, and Bridgar, he headed for Percé aboard the Boston ship, while a handful of French remained to control the Nelson River post and continue trading under the command of Des Groseilliers’s son, Jean-Baptiste.
The furs from that expedition had to be sent via Percé to avoid paying the quarter tax. But the ruse was detected and in October 1683 the cargo was seized. The ship was then directed to Quebec City by emissaries of the new governor of the colony, Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre* de La Barre. He immediately sent the Boston prisoners home and obtained bills of exchange issued in the names of those who had financed the project, he himself among them. Only Radisson and Des Groseilliers’s salary was held back – the equivalent of the famous quarter tax – while King Louis XIV was deciding whether the tax would be levied. The brothers-in-law, seeing themselves as victims of injustice again, went to France to plead their case.
By the time Radisson and Des Groseilliers arrived in La Rochelle in December, Colbert had died. No one, therefore, was able to confirm that the two had acted on his orders. The traditional territory of the Cree, of which the HBC claimed ownership by virtue of its charter, had the status of an English colony; for this reason the company enjoyed the unqualified support of King Charles II, who, as soon as he was apprised of events, ordered that control of the fur trade on the Nelson River be restored. In April 1684 Louis XIV agreed to the demand to please the Duke of York, who was both heir to the English throne and governor of the HBC. He ceded Port Nelson to the English and then decreed that the quarter tax must be collected on the Hudson Bay furs. Radisson and Des Groseilliers thus found themselves without any remuneration. They had risked their lives for nothing.
The already complex situation took another abrupt turn when the HBC re-engaged Radisson. His initial allies and partners (such as the director general, James Hayes), who had taken back control of the company after it went into deficit near the end of the 1670s, now thought that Radisson could help them remedy the situation. In the spring of 1684 they sent a secret envoy, Gédéon Godet, to France to make Radisson an attractive offer: shares in the company (synonymous with social advancement), a good salary, a bonus to return, the dropping of all recriminations against him, and, given that he had become a widower, a new wife – Gédéon Godet’s daughter Charlote. In exchange Radisson had to go back to Hudson Bay immediately, retake Port Nelson for the English, persuade the French who had remained to switch allegiance and bring all the furs found there to London before winter. He agreed to take up the challenge. Despite Radisson’s encouragement, Des Groseilliers refused to risk returning to the service of the HBC. On 10 May 1684 in London Radisson met members of the company’s governing committee, among them Hayes and William Yonge, whom he trusted. As honourable men, all on both sides made a verbal agreement, and Radisson departed for Hudson Bay a week later aboard the Happy Return [see John Outlaw*].
As soon as he arrived, Radisson joined the French who had stayed behind and told them that he was once more working for the English. He also informed them that they could henceforth serve the HBC on favourable terms. The French understood that they had no choice in the matter. Radisson also came up with credible arguments to present to the indigenous people, such as the superior nature of the English goods, boats, and sailors. He had the furs hastily loaded onto the ship and returned to London before the winter. He was so proud of what he had accomplished that he hastened to announce the news to King Charles II and the Duke of York in person, before informing the governing committee of the HBC. The HBC had distanced itself from the duke, the future king, because he had converted to Catholicism – an intolerable situation for English Protestants. By going first to the king and his heir, Radisson further hardened his enemies against him. Nevertheless, he was appointed director of the fur trade on the Nelson River, which he established on a firm footing and ran from 1685 until the autumn of 1687. At that time his enemies, mainly the new governor of Port Nelson, Thomas Phipps*, and the governor of Fort York (York Factory, Man.), George Geyer*, who was designated his possible successor, obtained Radisson’s permanent withdrawal. These two men wanted full authority and went to war against Radisson, who the year before had enjoyed the backing of the governing committee and total control of the fur trade. A cousin of Phipps, a member of the committee, stood by the serious complaints the men made against Radisson.
Radisson’s exploits were not over yet, however. The Duke of York, who had become King James II of England in 1685, was the victim of a second English revolution and driven from the country in 1688. A Protestant king of the Netherlands, William III of Orange-Nassau, and an English Protestant queen, Mary II, replaced him the following year. The widespread movement that had begun ten years earlier to prevent an absolutist Catholic king from reigning over England had certainly harmed Radisson’s career, as he was an avowed supporter of the Duke of York. Neither was he helped by the political and military support given by France to James II, who tried in vain to regain his throne from his base in Ireland in 1689–90. Moreover, a French expedition from Montreal led by the Chevalier Troyes*, in which Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville et d’Ardillières took part, had captured all the HBC posts on James Bay in 1686. Personal conflicts, no doubt fuelled by opposing allegiances, poisoned his relations with certain influential members of the company, notably the deputy governor and the director general, Sir Edward Dering.
From 1692 Radisson persevered in his fight to obtain the fees to which he was entitled but which were being denied him, and to this end he took the HBC to the Court of Chancery. He was also persistent in claiming a share of the furs he had brought from Port Nelson in 1684, as agreed before his departure. In 1685 he had composed the sixth and final account of his travels, undoubtedly to defend his interests. It was written in French, like the fifth, and it described his expedition of 1684.
During these difficult years (1692–97) Radisson enjoyed the constant support of two members of the governing committee of the HBC – Richard Cradock and William Yonge, with whom he had negotiated his return to England. He also had the support of Governor John Churchill, the HBC’s successor to the Duke of York, who at the latter’s request had agreed to take Radisson under his wing. After an initial offer from the HBC in 1694, which he deemed insufficient, Radisson returned to court. His disputes came to an end when, in 1697, he obtained everything he demanded except for a share of the furs from 1684, which had been promised only verbally. Radisson then consented to back the company’s position in the ongoing litigation between France and England over the Hudson Bay project following the French conquests by Iberville and the English reconquests. He contended that the company had been the first to travel to the Nelson River with the intention of establishing a trading post, which gave it a legitimate right of ownership of the territory. In 1713 the matter would be settled to England’s advantage by the Treaty of Utrecht.
In the last years of his life Radisson lived in a well-to-do part of London and employed domestic servants as befitted his social status as a gentleman. But this standard of living does not seem to have been supported by his income, for upon his death in 1710 he left no estate and his death record described him as “a decay’d gentleman.”
Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Radisson’s strategic manœuvres and changes of allegiance are sometimes judged harshly. Although he remains a controversial figure, if we place his actions in the context of the 17th century and the distant lands where he made a name for himself, he is an impressive figure. The expanding colonial empires of France and England needed these types of tough, resolute men who habitually rebelled against the control of authorities. Radisson, like many adventurers, merchants, aristocrats, and highly placed administrators, often put his interests first. In regard to loyalty to his patrons – the high-ranking individuals who guaranteed protection and revenue to their clientele, according to the conditions and customs of that era – Radisson was not really a traitor by nature, as some detractors have claimed. He is not without fault in this regard, but in the HBC alone there were English employees who also worked for France or against the interests of the company, among them Captains Benjamin Gillam, John Outlaw, and John Abraham*, as well as the secretary, Onesiphorus Albin. It is especially important to stress Radisson’s very long collaboration with Des Groseilliers, whom he followed through thick and thin for 16 consecutive years. One must also remember his loyalty to the Duke of York, even during the controversial years before he was dismissed. Radisson was a complex, opportunistic, ambitious, clever, and versatile character, certainly one who is hard to fathom and who has the endless capacity to amaze us and arouse our interest.
All in all, Pierre-Esprit Radisson was gifted with an exceptional ability to adapt. He developed qualities and adopted types of behaviour that were appreciated in very different contexts – in France, in the Iroquois territories, in England, among the Chippewas, in New England, among the Cree, and, of course, in New France, where he played a major role during a critical period of its history. He was able to put this wealth of experience to good use by becoming an influential cultural intermediary in the fur trade, as much in the field in America as with European entrepreneurs and aristocrats, company founders, and empire builders. He covered great distances, sailed the southern seas and the icy waters of the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay, ran countless rapids in a birch-bark canoe, was a pioneer in exploring the west of Lake Superior, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean 23 times. He was a good organizer and leader of men, and fulfilled every mandate he was given. In England, which was his chosen country, he enjoyed strong support for a number of years and was very successful, notably as co-founder of the HBC. Even in the most difficult years, there were always a few who supported him. In France his path was more laborious; he was occasionally hired by leaders who were hesitant to put their trust in him and back his projects, and he would in the end be no more than a pawn on the chessboard of the expanding empire. Radisson had an undeniable gift for learning languages; he was fluent in, or knew a smattering of, several. Although one cannot speak of a true literary talent, he was a good storyteller, and the great value of his narratives lies in the abundance, accuracy, and sensitivity of the information they contain, much of it the sole record of its kind. His place in history rests largely on the six invaluable accounts he left as his legacy.
Despite extensive research no primary-source records could be found to provide information about Pierre-Esprit Radisson’s birth or his first and third marriages.
A copy of the manuscript of Radisson’s two final travel accounts, Relations des voyages du sieur Pierre Esprit Radisson, escuyer, au nord de l’Amerique es années 1682, 1683, et 1684 (Londres, 1685), is held at the Royal Coll. Trust in England. This document is the most faithful to Radisson’s intent because it is a copy of the version signed by him and given to King James II, and it reflects his final corrections.
Radisson wrote his first four narratives in English. They were translated into French by Berthe Fouchier-Axelsen based on the first edition of the original English manuscript, edited by G. D. Scull: Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson: being an account of his travels and experiences among the North American Indians, from 1652 to 1684 … (Boston, 1885; repr., New York, 1943). The translations were published, along with the original French version of two other accounts, under the title Les aventures extraordinaires d’un coureur des bois: récits de voyages au pays des Indiens d’Amérique ([Québec], 1999). The French version of the last two accounts (as preserved by the Royal Coll. Trust), their English translation, and the original English text of the first four narratives appear in Germaine Warkentin’s critical edition, Pierre-Esprit Radisson: the collected writings (2v., Toronto, 2012–14). This edition of the first four narratives is based on a new examination of the original manuscripts. In the French version of the biography, the quotations from the first four accounts are taken from Fouchier-Axelsen’s work, while the quotations from the two other accounts are from Warkentin’s publication. In the English version the quotations come exclusively from Warkentin’s work.
The author’s phd thesis, “Les Quatre Couleurs de Radisson: explorer aujourd’hui le XVIIe siècle,” deposited at the Univ. Laval in 1998, constitutes the basis of his biography of Radisson published in Sillery (Quebec) in 2001 under the title Pierre-Esprit Radisson: aventurier et commerçant. This work provides the complete list of sources and studies the author relied on during his research.
Bibliothèque et Arch. Nationales du Québec, Centre d’arch. de Québec, ZF1-S3, SB, vol.7; ZF1-S20, SSF3; ZF1-S24, SG3; Centre d’arch. de Trois-Rivières, CN401-S132. Findmypast, “Westminster baptisms”; “Westminster burials”; “Westminster marriages”: www.findmypast.co.uk (consulted 17 July 2019). Library and Arch. Can. (Ottawa), R11577-4-2. National Arch. (London), PROB 11/516/339. Gilles Havard, L’Amérique fantôme: les aventuriers francophones du Nouveau Monde ([Montréal], 2019); Empire et métissages: Indiens et Français dans le pays d’en haut, 1660–1715 (Sillery et Paris, 2003).
© 1969–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Martin Fournier, “RADISSON, PIERRE-ESPRIT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/radisson_pierre_esprit_2E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Martin Fournier|
|Title of Article:||RADISSON, PIERRE-ESPRIT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1969|
|Year of revision:||2020|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|