by Edith Cody-Rice
Most of us recall studying or having heard mentioned Radisson and Groseilliers, if we studied Canadian history in high school: Radishes and Gooseberries as Anglophones called them. They were brothers-in-law and coureurs de bois: runners of the woods, or bush runners and were also instrumental in the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, their greatest and most underappreciated achievement. They have probably been pushed to the back of your mind, only reemerging should you stay at a Radisson hotel – named after Pierre Radisson,
I had just finished reading The Fur Trade in Canada, an academic classic by Harold Innis, written in 1929. This book is a must read for every Canadian; it provides insight into the formation of European society in Canada which was, essentially, established on the back of the fur trade. I happened upon Bush Runner in Mill Street Books, my favourite book store and bought it essentially to supplement my reading of Innis’ book. Published in 2019, in 2020 Bush Runner won the final RBC Taylor prize for literary non-fiction.
Bush Runner turned out to be a fascinating read, because Pierre Radisson’s life was extraordinary and spectacular. Born in France in about 1636, he was shipped to Canada to live with his older half sister in tiny Trois Rivieres in 1651. At that time, the French colonies in central Canada (Montreal, Trois Rivieres and Quebec) were privately controlled by the French Company of One Hundred Associates (Louis the XIV made it a royal province in 1663) and clung shakily to the shores of the St Lawrence. They were devoted exclusively to the fur trade and were subject to periodic violent attacks by the Iroquois. In fact, in 1652, Radisson was kidnapped on one of these raids, but his teenage good looks, personality and facility with languages endeared him to the Iroquois who adopted him into a wealthy and influential Mohawk family where he became a young Mohawk warrior. In spite of the fact that he loved his Mohawk parents, he escaped to back to New France where he, with his brother in law, later became a famed fur trader – trading for enough furs in one season to essentially save the nearly bankrupt New France.
Radisson appears to be a phenomenon himself, handsome and personable with a great facility for languages. He was fluent in French, English and several indigenous languages. He soaked up indigenous culture and was able to relate to various tribes in a way acceptable to their cultures. This acceptance was largely responsible for his success as a trader.
Tales of close calls, violence, treachery, theft and narrow escapes abound in Radisson’s life story which he recorded many years later. And along with the tale telling, he describes the sophisticated civilizations of the various indigenous peoples. They may have lived with stone age tools, which made the European manufactured goods so attractive, but their cultures were far from primitive. His respect for and insight into these cultures is illuminating.
Radisson travelled to the northern New York states (as they now are), the midwest of North America, New France, Hudson Bay, France, England and the Caribbean; endured tribal wars, treachery, theft, shipwreck, the plague in London, the great fire of London, the Catholic purges in 17th century England (he was Catholic) and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, which ejected his friend James II from the throne and effectively ended Radisson’s career.
Throughout Radisson’s life he traded loyalty to England, to France and back again in an effort to launch various schemes. He spent time at the court of Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England and inspired the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company. He and Groseilliers always realized the fur trading potential of trading posts in the bay and they established them for the Hudson Bay Company. The Company was granted a monopoly of all fur trade in the basin of rivers flowing into the bay, some stretching nearly to the Rockies.
In its early years, the Hudson Bay Company was spectacularly profitable, but the rigid English class system kept Radisson outside the circle of wealth. At the end of his life, Radisson lived in London with his third wife and several children and was reduced to suing the Hudson Bay Company for a middling pension (he won). He died at 74 in 1710. His widow outlived him by 20 years, living in great poverty.
This is a rollicking tale, which we have thanks to Mark Bourrie, an Ottawa journalist and lawyer, and to Radisson, who recorded his exploits for the newly minted Royal Society in England. Finally, Radisson’s tale survives thanks to Samuel Pepys the great English gossip and diarist, who snagged a copy of the manuscript when it was first printed.
The story will keep you riveted.
published by Biblioasis
314 pages, including endnotes.