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|Occupation||Explorer, Fur Trader, Co-founder of Hudson's Bay Company|
Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636/1640-1710) was a French fur trader and explorer in New France. He is often linked to his brother-in-law Médard des Groseilliers. The decision of Radisson and Groseilliers to enter the English service led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company. His career was particularly notable for its repeated transitions between serving Britain and France. There is no image of him other than that provided in his writings and those of the people who encountered him in New France, in Paris on the fringes of the court, on remote Hudson Bay, and in late Stuart London. Radisson has been seen by the historian Germaine Warkentin primarily as a reporter of the historical events he witnessed, and in their view was not always a reliable one because he was undoubtedly devious. Radisson should be considered in multiple contexts; for his achievement as a narrator of his own life, the range of his explorations, his experiences among the Indigenous peoples, and his social formation, both as a man of the early modern period for whom personal honour was an important value and as a working trader participating in the mercantile projects of the era. Radisson's life and writings have been interpreted from many different perspectives, such as that of French Canadians, who until the twentieth century accepted the verdict of his French contemporaries that he was a traitor to France.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson's birthplace is unclear, but was likely in France's lower Rhône region near the town Avignon. A 1697 affidavit and a 1698 petition selfreport his ages as 61 and 62, respectively, suggesting birth in 1636. Yet a 1681 census in New France, Canada, reported his age as 41, suggesting birth in 1640, which coheres with baptismal records, from Carpentras, a city near Avignon, France, that concern Radisson's father, Pierre-Esprit Radisson Sr.
Radisson would trace his family, the Hayet-Radissons, to the town St. Malo, whereas records suggest either Paris or Avignon. According to Radisson, he emigrated from France to Canada on 24 May 1651. He may have arrived with his two sisters, Élisabeth and Françoise, and perhaps with his maternal half-sister Marguerite Hayet, who would eventually marry Radisson's eventual fur-trading partner Médard Chouat Des Groseilliers. By sometime in 1651, all three women were living together in Trois-Rivières.
In 1651 or 1652, hunting fowl near his Trois-Rivières home, a petty squabble separated Radisson from his hunting group. After discovering its several men killed by a Mohawk raiding party, he was captured by the Iroquois. Perhaps because of his youth, he received fairly mild treatment and, as he showed interest in Mohawk language and culture, was assimilated. In a Mohawk custom of adopting young captives, whether indigenous or European, to replace relatives lost to disease or warfare, Radisson joined a local Mohawk family near modernday Schenectady in New York state.
Not long after Radisson's integration, which took about six weeks, while out hunting with three Iroquois, he met an Algonquin man who convinced him to defect and return to Trois-Rivières. Together, they killed Radisson's Iroquois companions, travelled 14 days, and sighted the town, but then were captured by patrolling Iroquois. The Mohawks killed the Algonquin and subjected Radisson, along with some 20 prisoners, to ritual torture, although his adoptive, Mohawk family advocated for him and materially compensated the bereaved families to spare him execution and temper his torture.
As the Iroquois despised cowardice and punished it with death, Radisson's adoptive parents advised him to be brave and yet not too brave, since the Iroquois also sometimes ate the hearts of exceptionally brave men to acquire their courage. Radisson's fingernails were pulled out while he was forced to sing, one finger was cut to the bone, and he watched ten Huron Indians get tortured to death. The next day, an old man burned Radisson, tied to a scaffold, and a young man drove a red-hot dagger though his foot. After three days of similar, the Iroquois brought out Huron prisoners and, using tomahawks, bashed in the heads of some, whereas the rest were then adopted by Iroquois families.
Once eventually released, the overwhelmed Radisson found that, as he would recall, "all my paines and griefs ceased, not feeling the least paine. [My father] bids me be merry, makes me sing, to wich I consented with all my heart." He felt deep gratitude to his adoptive parents, whom he described as very loving, for saving his life. By Iroquois standards, Radisson's torture had been moderate, whereas Radisson himself recounts witnessing gruesome torture: "They burned a Frenchwoman; they pulled out her breasts, and took a child out of her belly, with they broyled [broiled] and made the mother eat it, so in short she died". Sometime after his own wounds healed, Radisson spent some five months of war-party expedition.
With other Mohawk warriors, Radisson traveled to a trading ship at Fort Orange, then controlled by the Dutch, in present-day Albany, New York. There, a governor recognized him as a Frenchman and offered to pay for his freedom. Radisson instead returned to the Iroquois village, but, regretting this, escaped on 29 October 1653, "at 8 of the clock in the morning". Again at Fort Orange, he met Jesuit priest Joseph Antoine Poncet, who made him "a great offer", whereby he returned to Holland in early 1654 under an agreement now unclear but perhaps involving missionary work.
Later that year, 1654, Radisson returned to Trois-Rivières. Over the next three years, he would embark on several missionary expeditions. His writings largely ignoring this period, little is known about his whereabouts during it, apart from information in a deed of sale that he signed in November 1655. In 1657, Radisson accompanied a joint Franco-Huron-Iroquois expedition into Onondaga Iroquois territory to aid a local Jesuit mission and promote further fur trading. In 1658, under rising tensions with local Iroquois, the French left, ending the expedition. Radisson soon returned to Québec.
Radisson's biggest impact in Canadian history came from 1658 to 1684, when he was an active coureur-des-bois, fur trader and explorer. In August of 1659, Radisson persuaded his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, to hire him for his journey around Lake Superior. The reason for the year-long trip was to collect furs, in order to participate in the ever-lucrative fur trade.
In the winter of 1659-1660, Radisson and Des Groseilliers lived just south of Lake Superior in what is now Wisconsin, associating with groups of Huron, Ottawa, Ojibwa and Sioux Indians. When Radisson arrived at an Ojibwa village on the shores of Lake Superior, where he spent much of the winter, he gave three types of presents to the men, women and children of the village. Radisson wrote that to the men he gave "...a kettle, two hatchets [tomahawks], and six knives and a blade for a sword", to the women "...2 and 20 awls, 50 needles, 2 graters [scrapers] of castors, 2 ivory combs and 2 wooden ones, with red painte [vermilion], 6 looking-glasses of tin", and to the children "...brasse rings, of small bells, and rasades [beads] of divers colors...". American historian Bruce White wrote that Radission and Des Groseilliers did not entirely understand Ojibwa society as the kettles were used more much by the women than by the men while the gift of paint and make-up for the women ignored the fact that Ojibwa men used make-up and painted their faces just as much as Ojibwa women did. Kettles played a prominent role in the Huron holiday of the Feast of the Dead, and Radisson appears to have believed that the Ojibwa men would appreciate the gift of a kettle for their own version of the Feast of the Dead. On the other hand, White noted that the two Frenchmen clearly understood some aspects of Ojibwa gender very well, as the gift of tomahawks for the men reflected that Ojibwa men were hunters and warriors while the gift of awls for the women reflected that Ojibwa women gathered rice, gardened, cooked, fished, built bark houses, and wove mats. Ojibwa women played important roles in the fur trade, and often used their sexuality as a way of establishing long-term relations, so to speak, with the French in order to ensure the continued supply of European goods and prevent the French from trading with other Indians. Radisson reported on visiting one Ojibwa village in the spring of 1660, there was a welcoming ceremony where: "The women throw themselves backward on the ground, thinking to give us tokens of friendship and wellcome [welcome]". Radisson was confused at first by what was meant by this gesture, but as the women started to engage in more overtly sexual behavior, he quickly realized what they were offering. Several tribal elders informed Radisson that they did not want him trading with their enemies, the Dakota [Sioux], and that he and Des Groseilliers were free to sleep with the unmarried women of the village just as long as they did not trade with the Dakota. As Radisson's account was written for an English audience, he left it rather vague about whether he and Des Groseilliers took up this offer or not.
The return of Radisson and Groseilliers to Québec on August 24, 1660 was received with joy by the merchants who were waiting on them, to return to Europe but was received with jealousy from the Governor. In 1659 Groseillier had gone to Governor Pierre de Voyer d'Argenson to demand the year-long permit to explore New France, and had it granted to him and his crew. Seeing the success of the trip and the number of furs they had brought back, d'Argenson levied high taxes on them, as they had been gone for a couple of days past their year-long permit. After a number of unsuccessful attempts in the courts to regain what had been confiscated from them by the Governor, Radisson and Groseillier decided to base themselves out of Boston in the British Thirteen Colonies for their next explorations.
Throughout their 1659-1660 voyage, the French explorers kept hearing of the "salt sea" as an area with an abundance of good furs. The "salt sea" they determined must be Hudson Bay and so looked for financing and sea-going ships for their new explorations. What was different between their approach to the trip was they would reach it from outside of the continent, instead of through a number of internal rivers. The first voyage to Hudson Bay was unsuccessful since the winter of that year came too early, and the rations on board wouldn't be sufficient for the winter. They were forced to make their way back to Boston but were promised two ships and crew for a second attempt the following year. This second attempt however never occurred since one of the ships was destroyed in a storm, though the two were invited to King Charles II's in 1665. There they passed the winter, and in the spring leave for New World with ship's crew that had been promised to them by Charles II. The vessel Eaglet, which was carrying Radisson to Hudson's Bay nearly sank in an Atlantic storm and was forced to turn back to Plymouth. In September 1668, Nonsuch landed in the Rupert River region on the shores of James Bay, where Des Groseilliers used his knowledge of frontier living to build dwellings for the crew in which to pass the winter. About 300 Cree Indians came up in the spring of 1669 to trade furs in exchange for European goods. Radisson sought the support of a royal patron to secure a crown monopoly on trade with in the Hudson's Bay region and found one in the form of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the king's first cousin and a war hero on the royalist side during the English Civil War. Prince Rupert was not considered to be a good businessman and was not of the king's closest friends, but as the only member of the royal family prepared to champion the Radisson-Des Groseilliers project of fur trading on the shores of Hudson's Bay, he was their only hope of getting a royal charter from Charles II. Radisson and des Groseilliers in their dealings in London to receive financing from the City of London had the advantages of being the only men who knew not only how to survive in the north, but also the local languages, customs, and geography.
In 1670, Radisson was back in England and on 2 May received a royal charter giving him and his partners the exclusive rights to the land surrounding Hudson Bay, ultimately founding the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The next few years are filled with a number of highly profitable trips between England and the Bay region. The founding of the HBC reconfigured Radisson's life, situating him henceforth in a European context where he had to struggle for survival among rival monarchs, competing courtiers, and the changing political and economic world in which they operated. King Charles II in his charter for the Hudson's Bay Company founded a proprietary colony named Rupert's Land declaring that the lands adjacent to Hudson's Bay or rivers flowing into Hudson's Bay now belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company. In theory, much of modern Canada now belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company as Rupert's Land was a vast region, but in practice, the company only had a few forts on the sea coasts of northern Ontario and northern Québec, to which were later added forts on the sea coast of northern Manitoba. It was not until the late 18th century that the Hudson's Bay Company showed any interest in moving inland and making good its claims to control Rubert's Land.
Both Radisson and Groseilliers operated within the HBC with the support of Prince Rupert and the Company's director Sir John Robinson. Radisson and Groseilliers were successful in having the HBC receive much capital from the City of London in order to fund its operations. In 1672, Radisson married Mary Kirke, the daughter of Sir John Kirke, one of the City investors in the HBC. As anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment increased in England following discontent expressed in events such as the Bawdy House Riots of 1668, both Prince Rupert and Sir John decreased their support for the men. Although Radisson's reasons for doing so are not fully clear, he finally left London in 1675 with Grosseiliers to reenter the service of France, leaving his wife behind in England.
After leaving Britain, Radisson found himself unpopular in the royal court. In 1677 he decided to join the navy and to fund Marshal of France, Jean II d'Estrées' expedition in the Franco-Dutch War to conquer the island of Tobago, winning the man's favor. Following his involvement in the war, he borrowed 100 Louis d'or from the Marshall in a failed attempt to pay to bring his wife back from Britain, and subsequently failed to regain a position in the Hudson's Bay Company, as a further result of anti-French prejudice.
In 1681 Radisson headed out to found a fort on the Nelson River under a French flag, albeit against the wishes of the French state. He did so as a means of capturing the market, fearing the construction of a British fort on the same river and thus further dominance of the bay by the Hudson's Bay Company. He recruited Grosseiliers the following year to build a more permanent base.
In the winter of 1683 he and Groseilliers went to France to deal with their legal problems. (They had seized two English parties in time of peace and paid Québec tax on furs from Hudson Bay from their Nelson River fort, which may not have been part of Canada.) Here they found themselves pawns in the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution. The English ambassador, Lord Preston, asked that they be punished. Compromise plans were made to send Radisson back to the Bay to pick up the remaining furs and divide the profits fairly. Lord Preston seduced Radisson back into the English service and Groseilliers returned to Québec.
In 1684 he sailed for the Hayes River in the vessel Happy Return, where he found Groseilliers' son Jean-Baptiste conducting a brisk trade with the Indians. He talked Jean-Baptiste into HBC service and left for England in September, leaving John Abraham in charge of the fort. (Eight days later two ships belonging to Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye arrived from Québec. Although there was conflict, no blood was shed. The French wintered near the English and returned to Québec with a moderate load of furs.)
In 1685 he was made "Superintendent and Chief Director of the Trade at Port Nelson", where he seems to have accomplished little. In 1687 he made serious charges against the superintendent of York Factory. The HBC rejected the charges and Radisson was removed. Thereafter he lived in England on an HBC pension which was irregularly paid. He died in 1710. In 1729 the company voted ten pounds to his third wife, "she being ill and in great want." Radisson's differences with various Hudson's Bay Company underlings in the 1680s suggests that he was not admired by the English seamen who had to work with him, because of their rooted detestation of the French.
Radisson wrote his Voyages in 1668 or 1669 in England after a storm prevented him from joining the first expedition into Hudson Bay. The original has been lost but an English translation was found among the papers of Samuel Pepys and now resides in the Bodleian Library. Its reliability as a historical source is contentious.
The towns Radisson, Quebec; Radisson, Saskatchewan and Radisson, Wisconsin, as well as a street and Metro station in Montreal and the Radisson provincial electoral district in Manitoba, are named after him.