The French explorer and soldier of fortune Pierre-Esprit Radisson (ca. 1636-1710) is the most romantic and least known of all the famous explorers of the Canadian North and West. He was one of the originators of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson was born in France, but virtually no information survives concerning his early life. When still quite young, he somehow made his way to New France, where his half sister Marguerite lived. After her husband's death at the hands of the Iroquois, Marguerite married again. Her second husband, Medard Chouart Des Groseilliers, was to share much of the adventurous life of Radisson.
From his own sketchy account of his career, it appears that Radisson was captured by the Iroquois in the early 1650s, was adopted by an Indian family, and spent some 2 years traveling and hunting with his captors. He escaped in 1654, sailed to Amsterdam, and arrived back in Three Rivers late the same year. Apparently, Radisson remained in New France for the next 4 years, except for one more trip made to the Iroquois territory near Albany.
Radisson's first trip west was undertaken with his brother-in-law in 1659. They wintered southwest of Lake Superior in Sioux country. It was probably during this trip that the two men first heard of Hudson Bay and the treasure of beaver to be found in that area. In the spring Radisson and Des Groseilliers returned to Montreal laden with furs, most of which were promptly confiscated by corrupt officials. From this point on, patriotism played little part in the adventures of Radisson.
From 1662 to 1664 the two men operated from New England and tried—unsuccessfully—to reach Hudson Bay by sea. In 1664 they were persuaded to go to London. Their ship was captured by the Dutch, with whom England was then at war. After being put ashore in Spain, the two eventually turned up in London in time to witness the great fire and the ravages of the Black Death. They were able to interest some English merchants in the exploitation of the fur trade around Hudson Bay, with the assistance of a successful trip there by Des Groseilliers. Radisson remained in London and composed his Voyages. On May 2, 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was formally chartered and began its long and generally prosperous career. For the next 15 years, Radisson and his brother-in-law served the company either in the bay or in the capital.
In 1675 the two adventurers left the company, for reasons that are not at all clear, and resumed their French allegiance. It was not a rewarding transfer. Des Groseilliers settled in Three Rivers, and Radisson entered the service of the French navy and went campaigning in the Caribbean. He was back at Hudson Bay again in 1681 and was rejoined there by Des Groseilliers. They were successful in contending with the English for control of the territory around the Nelson River and in their trading ventures. But once again, they felt that rewards were unsatisfactory in the employ of the French. When his brother-in-law returned to Canada, Radisson turned up in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company once more, in 1684.
The company sent him back to the bay, where he succeeded in persuading the French at Ft. Nelson (which he had established) to abandon their allegiance and all their furs. Radisson made his last trip to Hudson Bay in late 1685 and remained there for 2 years, but he was unable to work in harmony with the other officers of the company. He returned to England and finally settled near London. Radisson married three times during his peripatetic life and was survived by several children.
The only reliable—and engaging—study of Radisson in English is in Grace Lee Nute, Caesars of the Wilderness (1943).
Nute, Grace Lee, Caesars of the wilderness: Medard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, 1618-1710, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1978, 1943. □