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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636 - 1710)
Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers (1618 - 1696?)

Bordering on the mythical, a myth entertained by Radisson himself, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers were peerless 17th century explorers and voyagers. Having neither the social standing nor the financial clout to be recognized, Radisson and Des Groseilliers attempted to get both by changing their national allegiance on more than one occasion. They were thought of by some as heroes, by others as traitors. Disobedient to authority but excellent traders and allies of Native peoples, they personified the image of "coureurs des bois".

Radisson arrived in New France with his parents in 1651. At 16, he was captured by Mohawk warriors during a hunting party in the Trois-Rivières area. An Iroquois woman, following custom towards young people, saved him from torture by taking him under her roof. He managed to escape, passed through New England, back to Europe, and returned to Trois-Rivières three years later. After his time with the Iroquois, Radisson was familiar with the language, the customs, the mores and the territory of the Five Nations as well as the route they took to New England.

Drawing: Pierre Esprit Radisson

Des Groseilliers arrived in Canada around 1641 and spent some time in Huronia before 1646, possibly as a soldier. Sometime after 1651, he married Marguerite Hayet, Radisson's half-sister. In 1654, with another Frenchman, he accompanied the Ottawa people to the west of Lake Huron. They returned in 1656, having seen other lakes as large as Lake Huron and other peoples from the west and the north. Des Groseilliers and his companion were accompanied on their return by 50 First Nations canoes, filled with furs that whetted the merchants' appetites.

In 1659, Des Groseilliers and Radisson set up a trading post at Chagouamigon, southwest of Lake Superior. From there, they explored the headwaters of the Mississippi. They also explored the Pigeon and Gooseberry rivers (the latter from groseillier, "gooseberry bush" in French).

Radisson and Des Groseilliers were part of a grand portage taken by the Assiniboine and the Kilistinono (Cree) who, arriving from the north with beautiful furs, explained that the former group had come from the western sea and the latter from the northern sea. Therefore, though Des Groseilliers and Radisson did not get to Hudson Bay on this voyage, they understood that they were not far from it, adding the information provided by the Cree to that of Native people who had come down the drainage basin from James Bay to Trois-Rivières in 1657-1658. Des Groseilliers and Radisson recognized the importance of reaching Hudson Bay -- New France could avoid both the Iroquois attacks in the south and competing with the Dutch for trade.

"Five dayes after we came to a place where there was a company of Christinos that weare in their Cottages. They weare transported for joy to see us come backe. They made much of us and called us men indeed, to performe our promisse to come and see them againe. [...]"

(Scull [1885], 193)

"We putt a great many rind about our fort, and broake all the boats that we could have, for the frost would have broaken them or wild men had stolen them away. That rind was tyed all in length to putt the fire in it, to frighten the more these people, for they could not approach it wthout being discovered. If they venture att ye going out we putt the fire to all the torches, shewing them how we would have defended ourselves. We weare Cesars, being nobody to contradict us."

(Scull [1885], 198)

Not only did Radisson and Des Groseilliers fail to convince the traders of New France to invest in an expedition to Hudson Bay, the new governor general also seized most of the furs the two explorers had returned with and he fined them. (Colbert had forbidden trading west of Montreal because men were needed in the colony. This restriction spawned illegal traders -- the coureurs de bois.) This when, according to some, Radisson and Des Groseilliers' furs saved the economy of New France.

The information provided by the explorers did spur governor d'Argenson to send the Jesuits Druillettes and Dablon to Hudson Bay via the Saguenay in 1661. The Native peoples, however, stopped them from passing the watershed with threats of roving Iroquois and forest fires. After several unsuccessful appeals to the French authorities and attempts to create a trading company, Radisson and Des Groseilliers left in secret, in 1662, and arrived in New England, where they started careers in the pay of the English. As the historian Marcel Trudel wrote, "Ainsi, à cause de l'indifférence des autorités à l'égard d'un immense projet, les deux hommes que l'expérience des Grands Lacs et des nations amérindiennes rendait aptes à ouvrir l'accès d'un riche réservoir pelletier encore inoccupé par l'Européen, vont assurer à l'Angleterre, dans une région qu'elle avait délaissée, un triomphe décisif sur l'économie de la Nouvelle-France." ["Thus, due to the indifference of the authorities towards a huge project, the two men, whose experience in the Great Lakes and with the Indian nations made them likely to gain access to a rich reservoir of pelts which had not yet been touched by Europeans, assure England, in a region it had abandoned, a decisive triumph over the economy of New France."] (Trudel 1983, II: 237)

After a first voyage from England to Hudson's Bay in 1668, the two explorers persuaded a group of English merchants to invest. These merchants, on May 2, 1670, received the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. After having experienced problems with the new company, Radisson and Des Groseilliers allowed themselves to be convinced by the Jesuit Father Albanel to return to Canada, in 1674, but the conditions offered to them by the French traders, the high dues on furs as well as the political quarrels between France and England regarding Hudson's Bay posts again exasperated the two explorers. In 1684, by which time Colbert had reversed his policy and legalized interior trade, Des Groseilliers went to Trois-Rivières, whereas Radisson returned to Hudson Bay, took the furs he had traded for the French and went to England to sell them. Radisson took a wife and stayed in that country, never having made a fortune and reviled by the Hudson's Bay Company and by the French Crown, both of which were wary of him. He died in 1710.

A long manuscript describing his experiences and his explorations that Radisson wrote in 1669 to attract English investors sometimes smacks of legend. Because of their difficulties with authorities and the greatness of their experiences, Radisson and Des Groseilliers were not only intrepid explorers of Lake Superior but also became the founders of the most ancient commercial company still in existence in Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company.

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