Manitoba History: Ethnic Filtering in Nelson River Historiography

by Terence Moore
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Cree people of the Hudson Bay Lowland played a decisive role in the contest among Quebec, London and Boston trade rivals at the mouth of the Nelson River in 1682–1683, as Pierre-Esprit Radisson showed in a vivid narrative he wrote at the time. Historians who told the story in the 20th century, however, told a story about Europeans and left out the Lowland Cree. Now that Radisson’s narrative is being widely circulated in the recently published Collected Writings, the role of the Lowland Cree can be better appreciated.

In August of 1682, four ships of heavily-armed traders converged at the mouth of the Nelson River on the western Hudson Bay coast. One came from Boston and one from the Hudson’s Bay Company in London. The other two, commanded by brothers-in-law Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, both experienced fur traders, came from Quebec. The winter freeze-up soon stranded all the European visitors on the shore. In alliance with the local Lowland Cree, Radisson and Groseilliers assumed command over the London and Boston groups, seized their belongings, and burned their forts. They seized the Boston ship and sailed it back to Quebec the following summer, bringing the Boston captain and the Hudson’s Bay Company governor as their prisoners.

Radisson told this story in a narrative he wrote a year or so later for the English king, James II. In abundant detail, he described the Lowland Cree’s role in these events. In the 20th-century retelling of these events, however, the Lowland Cree virtually disappeared. The story of the Port Nelson contest—with the Cree taken out—was told by J. B. Tyrrell (1931), Grace Lee Nute (1943), E. E. Rich (1960), Peter C. Newman (1985), and others. These historians and storytellers performed selective ethnic filtering; they told a story of the Hudson Bay Lowlands but left out the Lowland Cree.

Radisson’s original version, in which the Lowland Cree play a large role, has regained prominence recently. Both in Radisson’s original French and in a new English translation, his narrative appears in Warkentin’s two-volume Pierre-Esprit Radisson: The Collected Writings (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012 and 2014). In addition, the scribal copy in Radisson’s original French prepared for the Hudson’s Bay Company was posted online in 2014 by the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives section of the Archives of Manitoba. It can be found at

Since about 1990, historians of Western Canada’s fur trade era have been drawing attention to information about Native people that had been lying unexamined in archival sources. Victor Lytwyn in Muskekowuckathinuwick: Original People of the Great Swampy Land (University of Manitoba Press, 2002) reviewed archival records describing the Lowland Cree in the period of first contact with European traders in the 17th century. With a similar approach, Radisson’s Port Nelson narratives can be studied for the precious information they provide about the Lowland Cree of the Hayes River and about the large role they played in the contest among groups of European traders at Port Nelson.

By forming an alliance with Radisson, the studies reveal, the Hayes River Cree helped assure his victory over the other European parties. Radisson thought his own cleverness produced the alliance, unaware that the Cree chief, fleeing for his life after killing a member of another Cree clan, was desperate for an ally.

Radisson’s narrative for King James II, shown here in a scribal copy in the original French prepared for the Hudson’s Bay Company, described events at the mouth of the Nelson River in 1682–1683.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Radisson’s version

As Radisson tells the story, he in the St. Pierre (50 tons with a crew of 12) met Groseilliers in the Ste. Anne (30 tons with a crew of 15) on 2 September, at their agreed rendezvous point, the mouth of the Hayes River, adjacent to the mouth of the Nelson. The next day, Radisson, Groseilliers’ son Jean-Baptiste Chouart and a third man armed themselves with muskets and pistols and paddled up the Hayes in a birchbark canoe in search of native people who might trade. At first they found no one. Similarly, 70 year earlier, Thomas Button, who wintered with his crew at the mouth of the Nelson River in 1612–1613, had found plenty of game but apparently no people. After paddling for eight days, Radisson spotted a Cree deer hunter and conversed briefly with him across the water. The next morning, nine canoes carrying 27 Lowland Cree arrived and exchanged greetings with Radisson. He greeted the Cree people politely, taking precautions against an attack. Before coming ashore, the Cree chief told his companions, as Radisson paraphrases:

“Youth, you no longer have anything to fear. The sun has become favourable to us. Our enemies will fear us, because here you see the man for whom we have been asking since our fathers were born.”

During a morning of speeches and exchange of presents, the chief adopted Radisson as his son. He provided three canoes to bring beaver pelts and robes with Radisson down to the trading post Groseilliers was building at the mouth of the Hayes River.

At mid-September 1682, Radisson sent his nephew, Jean-Baptiste Chouart, and another man back up the Hayes River to spend the winter with the Lowland Cree and to encourage them to come and trade. Having spent approximately five fall and winter months among the Lowland Cree, Chouart and his companion returned to the Hayes River trading post in early April 1683. Many of the Cree people Radisson had met the previous autumn arrived two days later with supplies. Radisson renewed his alliance with this Hayes River group

A few days later, another group of Cree arrived. Radisson had previously worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, trading with the Cree at forts in James Bay, which lay 800 kilometres southeast of Port Nelson. He calls this second group “our former allies.”

According to Radisson, both groups of Cree were eager to make war on the English. Writing this document to ingratiate himself with the English king and win a position with the HBC, Radisson tells at length how he enjoined the Cree not to attack the English. About mid-April, just before the ice on the rivers turned too soft for travel, Chouart was sent back to the Hayes River Cree in order to reassure them that Radisson and his companions “had succeeded with our enemies.”

As the Europeans were loading the surviving ships to sail away from Port Nelson, Radisson saw smoke across the river. Crossing to investigate, he found the Hayes River chief, his adoptive father, whom he had not seen since September. They exchanged warm greetings. Radisson sent him to the Hayes River post promising a welcoming cannon shot and gifts of biscuits and tobacco.

Soon after, a child appeared at the Hayes River post and asked to see Radisson. It was the son of Radisson’s adoptive father with tears in his eyes. His playmates had told him he and his family would all be killed to avenge the chief’s murder of a man. The chief came and explained through bitter tears that he had killed a man of the Marten clan who wanted to carry off the chief’s wife. He was fleeing from the avengers the previous autumn when he stumbled upon Radisson.

To make peace between his adoptive father and the Marten clan, Radisson sent messengers to the Martens, offering gifts and inviting them to a feast. He hauled out of storage the gifts for the Martens: a musket, two large cauldrons, three jackets, four sword blades, four small knives, six scrapers, six dozen knives, ten axes, ten fathoms of tobacco, two blankets for women, three caps and some powder and shot.

As the messengers departed on their mission, Radisson and the rest sailed away before knowing the conclusion of this dispute.

Radisson, Groseilliers and the rest of the Quebecers, with Boston captain Benjamin Gillam and HBC governor John Bridgar as their prisoners, sailed to Quebec in the Boston ship Bachelor’s Delight. The HBC frigate Prince Rupert had sunk the previous autumn in the estuary of the Nelson, with the loss of its captain and several sailors. Ice borne on the spring flood of the Hayes had severely damaged the two Quebec ships. The other survivors of the HBC and Boston crews were sent in the rotten and leaky Ste. Anne to seek shelter at the HBC posts in James Bay.

First contact

Several important conclusions can be drawn from Radisson’s narrative. In his account of meeting the Lowland Cree party in September, he reports that he asked which one was the chief. The one he addressed hung his head down and another told him that one was the chief. Before coming ashore, the chief had told his paddlers: “Here you see the man for whom we have been asking since our fathers were born.” These details suggest that the two men did not know each other. Radisson did not know which one was the chief and the chief took Radisson for a long-awaited messianic saviour.

This moment should be seen as the first contact between those two individuals. Consequently, it should also be seen as the first contact between natives and Europeans in that part of the Hudson Bay lowland. One member of the Cree party used a piece of iron to cut the tobacco Radisson offered him. Radisson took it from him and tossed it contemptuously into the fire, then offered small knives to the Cree. This shows that the Hayes River Cree had European trade goods but no knives. They may not have traded at the HBC posts on James Bay, but they had acquired trade goods, perhaps through intermediaries.

The following April, Radisson describes the arrival of a group of Lowland Cree he calls “our former allies,” apparently referring to Lowland Cree he had met years earlier at an HBC post in James Bay when he was working for the English. He clearly distinguishes that group from “my father the wild man,”—the same Hayes River chief he had met in September and who reappeared in the summer near the mouth of the Hayes River. He does not group the Hayes River chief with “our former allies.” This further suggests that the September encounter was a first contact, not a renewal of old acquaintance.

Moreover, the narrative shows that Radisson gained important advantages by forming an alliance with the Lowland Cree. The alliance gave Radisson and his companions a source of foodstuffs, as was seen when “our former allies” arrived at the Hayes fort in the spring bringing supplies. The alliance assured trade opportunities; he could be sure of bringing a cargo of beaver pelts on his return to Quebec. Finally, the alliance secured him reserve troops eager to join him in making war on the English, if it turned out that he was unable to impose his will on them with his own forces. In all these ways, the alliance with the Lowland Cree gave Radisson a decisive advantage over the Boston group and the HBC group, enabling his victory.

The narrative shows that Radisson did not at first understand why the Cree chief was eager for an alliance with him. When Radisson reports his first encounter with the Hayes River chief, he is clearly pleased with his own cleverness. “I spoke to him according to the mentality of these people,” Radisson writes, “to whom, in order to make oneself respected, it is necessary to boast that one has courage, that one is powerful and in a position to help them and protect them against their enemies.” He paddled back down the Hayes River after the encounter gloating over the success of his mission.

He did not then know that the chief who had just adopted him as a son was fleeing for his life from a blood feud and was desperate for an ally who could protect him. The next summer, when Radisson and the other Europeans were loading their ships to sail away, the chief saw that he was losing his protector. The chief and his whole family were likely to be killed for murdering a member of the Marten clan. The chief’s desperation had driven him into the alliance with Radisson. Explaining their position to Radisson, the chief and his son’s tears testify to their distress.

Radisson’s narrative highlighted the role played by the Lowland Cree to a greater extent than other versions of events.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

The narrative and related documents show that the European traders were much concerned to distinguish which ones were pirates and which were officially sponsored traders. In Radisson’s first encounter with the Boston group, he asked who had given them permission to come to the Nelson River and engage in the beaver trade. They replied that they had no commission. Radisson told them he had been sent by the French trading company. He claimed falsely that reinforcements were about to join him. He told the New Englanders they should load their goods back on their ship and clear out.

The Boston captain, Benjamin Gillam, stayed at the Hayes River post during the winter, accepting an invitation he could not refuse. He found that Radisson had fewer men than he previously claimed. He spoke ill of Radisson behind his back, calling him a pirate and saying he would trade with the native people in the spring in spite of Radisson.

The events at Port Nelson ignited a dispute between the French and English governments. They exchanged angry missives over their competing claims to the land and trading rights. Both governments considered they could claim a piece of ground if no other Christian monarch’s subjects got there first. As a practical matter, however, neither king had armed forces anywhere in Hudson Bay nor had they any capacity to defend their subjects or enforce their laws there. The Lowland Cree, the only people who lived there, had no previous connection to France or to England. They were in a position to grant trading privileges to either group and they did so. Out of personal loyalty to Radisson, the Lowland Cree would not trade with the London and Boston gangs, who sailed away empty-handed, charter or no charter. The charters and trading rights issued in London and Paris were important to lawyers and diplomats in those cities. At the mouth of the Nelson River, as winter closed in upon them, however, pirates and respectable traders were indistinguishable. Survival skills and alliance with the Lowland Cree mattered. Charters issued in distant European cities did not.

For the Lowland Cree, French and English were two competing sets of traders who could be played one against the other to raise prices. It made little difference that one group might have a charter from the English king Charles II and the other might have a connection with the French king Louis XIV.

In this sense, it can be useful to see the local contest among French and English traders through the eyes of the Lowland Cree—to see the pretensions of the Europeans in a North American context.

Leaving out the Cree

These conclusions, based on Radisson’s narrative, add up to a story very different from the one historians were telling in the twentieth century. In Caesars of the Wilderness (Appleton-Century, 1943), Grace Lee Nute recounts the Port Nelson incident and brings the Lowland Cree into the story just long enough to report: “Well up the river, Radisson encountered Indians, impressed their simple minds by means of his thorough knowledge of Indian psychology, and made very satisfactory arrangements with them for future trade with them, their relatives, their friends, and their allies.”

Her reference to the “simple minds” of the Lowland Cree partly echoes Radisson’s allusion to “the mentality of these people” in his report of the encounter. Radisson explains his meaning: one has to boast of one’s courage and power, show native people that one is acting in their interests and also offer them gifts. In his dealings with the Boston and London parties at Port Nelson, Radisson acts on these same principles, boasting of his power, claiming to act in their interests and offering tokens of friendship. He may, indeed, have thought that the Lowland Cree were simple-minded and easily fooled by his big talk. Evidently, he thought the same of the Europeans he met.

Grace Lee Nute’s work reflects vast research in Quebec, British and French archives, which gave her thorough knowledge of the purposes and mentalities of the Europeans with whom Radisson and Groseilliers were in contact. Her work is a biography of Radisson and Groseilliers. It was never conceived as a description of the Lowland Cree and their first contacts with Europeans. A fresh look at the documents is needed to bring those elements to light.

E. E. Rich was writing a history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, not a history of Canada, when he told the story of the Nelson River contest and left out the parts about the Lowland Cree. He was immersed in HBC archives. Historians piecing together the history of this country, however, need not follow his footsteps. The Lowland Cree played a large role in events at the mouth of the Nelson River and that role is abundantly described in Radisson’s narrative.

Peter C. Newman, in Company of Adventurers, faithfully followed Nute and Rich in taking Radisson up the Hayes River to meet the Cree and then dismissing the Cree from the story. “Eight days upriver, Radisson found an Indian encampment [actually a travelling party of Cree] and concluded an informal treaty that he later claimed gave New France exclusive trading rights in the area,” Newman reported. He omitted the Cree from the ensuing events. This shows that ethnic filtering in Canadian historical writing—the removal of native people from the story of their own country—was still being practised in 1985, when Newman’s book was published.

Radisson’s motives

Radisson’s narrative may not be the whole truth. His account was circulated privately, not exposed to comment from other eye-witnesses. He wrote it to refute the complaints of those he had humiliated and abused at Port Nelson, and to restore his good name with England’s rulers (the House of Stuart) and with the masters of the HBC. Therefore, his abundant details about the character defects of Governor John Bridgar and about his own kindness to the HBC governor should be taken with a grain of salt.

His details about the Lowland Cree allow him to show off his skill at dealing with native people. It is puzzling that he reports his adoption by the Hayes River Cree chief but fails to report the name of that chief. He gives what he says are the Cree names for the Hayes and Nelson Rivers; he gives the family name of the man the chief killed, yet he fails to share the chief’s name. This raises the question as to how close he was to his adoptive father.

Despite that inconsistency and the self-serving motives behind the document, Radisson’s narrative of the 1682–1683 Port Nelson events is a rich and invaluable source of information about the Lowland Cree and their relations with the early fur traders. Its wide dissemination now helps bring the Lowland Cree back into the story and back into the historian’s field of vision.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020