Allegiances were not among his strongest traits. In today’s world he might be recognized as the first great Canadian entrepreneur. He was named “a person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian Government”. 1 His remarkable achievements exploring New France, in the mid 1600s led to the growth and development of the fur trade. He was a co-founder and received the charter for the Hudson Bay Company from the King of England, Charles II in 1670. These were great accomplishments.
These titles belong to Pierre Esprit Radisson. He was born in France about 1640, the third child of Pierre Esprit Radisson, my ninth great grandfather and Madeleine Henault. At a young age, Pierre arrived in New France in 1651. His sisters, Francoise, Elizabeth and step-sister, Marguerite had settled in Trois Rivieres in 1646.
I am proud to call him my eighth Great Uncle.
Radisson’s life was tumultuous. Early on he was captured by Indians and lived with them for two years. He escaped and was again captured. During captivity he learned their language and the skills required to survive in the woods.
His family thought they would never see him again.
Much has been written about Radisson and his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart Des Groseilliers and their explorations of the Great Lakes and later, the far north where they were trading furs.
Very little is known about his personal life. He spent time in Three Rivers, his “home base” when he was not on one of his four lengthy journeys.
From writings about Radisson it appears he married three times and fathered nine children.
Throughout his fur trading days, his various alliances with the French, the English and Indian tribes were a cause for concern.
He had one allegiance. Do what was in his own best interest.
In researching and preparing for this story about this famous explorer there were many areas of interest. Two stood out. The first was his manuscript, the second his relationship with the Hudson Bay Company.
His manuscript entitled “Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson is in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum in London, England.2
The manuscript is written in English and is considered the first descriptive document of explorations beyond the St. Lawrence River. He wrote about the four journeys taken with his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart Des Groseilliers.
For two hundred years his writing had not been seen. They were brought to light in 1885.
Archivists and Paleographers examined the manuscripts to establish their authenticity and to determine if Radisson was the author. The quality of the paper was examined, the handwriting was compared and scrutinzed to determine if the documents were written by one person or several. After considerable debate they were found to be the writings of Radisson, in his rather fractured English.3
Below is an excerpt from the manuscript that gives the reader some insight into the manner these daring adventurous men were treated by the authorities.
“The Governor was greatly displeased at the disobedience of Radisson and his brother-in-law in going on their last voyage without his permission. On their return, the narrative states, “he made my brother prisoner for not having obeyed his orders; he fines us L. 4,000 to make a fort at the three rivers, telling us for all manner of satisfaction that he would give us leave to put our coat of armes upon it; and moreover L. 6,000 for the country, saying that wee should not take it so strangely and so bad, being wee were inhabitants and did intend to finish our days in the same country with our relations and friends…. Seeing ourselves so wronged, my brother did resolve to go and demand justice in France. “Failing to get restitution, they resolved to go over to the English. They went early in 1665 to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, and from thence to New England, where they engaged an English or New England ship for a trading adventure into Hudson’s Straits in 61 deg. north.”4
In the mid 1600’s in New France, the fur trade was a highly competitive business and both the French, and the English were vying for furs. Alliances were formed. It is with these alliances that Radisson had difficulty, especially after the French confiscated their furs and Des Groseilliers was imprisoned for a time. The men were fined by the French Governor. They decided to seek assistance from the British. They experienced success and were able to pursue their dream of reaching Hudson Bay.
In the manuscript excerpt below Radisson’s negotiating skills were of great importance in the success of their endeavours.
“To Des Groseilliers and Radisson must be given the credit of originating the idea of forming a settlement at Hudson’s Bay, out of which grew the profitable organization of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They obtained through the English Ambassador to France an interview with Prince Rupert, and laid before him their plans, which had been before presented to the leading merchants of Canada and the French Court. Prince Rupert at once foresaw the value of such an enterprise, and aided them in procuring the required assistance from several noblemen and gentlemen, to fit out in 1667 two ships from London, the “Eagle,”…., and the “Nonsuch,” ketch, ….”.5
With the financial assistance of Prince Rupert, the cousin of Charles II, King of England. They were given ships and supplies for the voyage. The first ship “Nonsuch”, with Des Groseilliers’ on board completed the voyage, while Radisson’s ship was not as fortunate. He was unable to reach Hudson Bay. The first ship returned laden with furs. This was a major success for both Radisson and DesGroseilliers. The accomplishment led to what was later known as the establishment by the British as Rupert’s Land. A large area where these fur traders could hunt for the much-desired beaver pelts.
Charles II of England granted a charter to the Hudson Bay Company May 2nd, 1670 and Radisson and DesGroseilliers were named co-founders. 5
This year (2020) the Company is celebrating their 350th year.
The persistence and bravado of these two explorers were recognized long after their demise. Their names live on through the manuscripts and this famous company.
Pierre Esprit Radisson, my eighth great uncle’s contribution to the development of our country was worthy of the title bestowed upon him as a National Historic Significant figure.
2.https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/12836/14054 Who Was the Scribe of the Radisson Manuscript?, GERMAINE WARKENTIN
3. www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6913/pg6913-images.html The Project Gutenberg EBook of Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson by Peter Esprit Radisson
introduction by Gideon D. Scull, London England, Boston, The Prince Society, 1885, n
5. https://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/courses/lawdemo/DOCS/RC1670.htm The Royal Chyarter for incorporating The Hudson’s Bay Company, A.D. 1670.
https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/12836/14054 Who Was the Scribe of the Radisson Manuscript?, GERMAINE WARKENTIN
Videos – The Business of Fur- Radisson and Des Groseilliers, The Business of Fur- The Fashion of Fur, The Business of Fur -New Lands for Trade, The Business of Fur- Hudson’s Bay Company Beginning
www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6913/pg6913-images.html The Project Gutenberg EBook of Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson by Peter Esprit Radisson
introduction by Gideon D. Scull, London England, Boston, The Prince Society, 1885,
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