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No. 74


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Memorable Manitobans: Pierre-Esprit Radisson (c1640-1710)

Explorer, fur trader.

Born in France, he came to New France at an early age. In 1651 he was captured by Mohawk Indians and adopted into an Indian family. He escaped once, was tortured, and was saved from death by his adopted family, only to escape again. He became an interpreter and guide for the Jesuits before joining his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, in the fur trade. The two returned from Hudson Bay to New France laden with furs in 1660, only to have their cargo confiscated and themselves thrown into prison for trading without official permission. Not surprisingly, they turned to the English for support, first in New England and then in London.

In 1668 they headed for the Bay in English ships, returning with such an impressive load of beaver skins that Charles II chartered the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. The two men continued to work for the HBC until 1675, when they were persuaded to return to the French. Radisson spent several years in Africa in a disastrous naval campaign against the Dutch colonies, and in 1681 managed to become connected with an unofficial French fur-trading/military expedition to the Bay, which in 1682 virtually eliminated the English from the region. But he and his brother-in-law fell afoul of European dynastic politics, and Radisson returned to the employ of the HBC in 1684. He made his last voyage to Hudson Bay in the years 1685-87, returning to retire in a London suburb. Radisson was clearly a survivor. His changes of national allegiance demonstrate how tenuous such matters were in the seventeenth century.

His autobiographical account of his travels was published in 1885 as Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson, Being an Account of His Travels and Experiences among the North American Indians, from 1652 to 1684, Transcribed from Original Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum, edited by G. D. Skull.

More information:

Caesars of the Wilderness by Grace Nute (1943).

Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Dictionary of Canadian Biography II, 535-40.

Sources:

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Page revised: 20 April 2008

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