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Radisson, Pierre Esprit (1636/1640–1710)

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Sketch of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, undated.

Sketch of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, undated.

Pierre Esprit Radisson’s 1659 expedition to Lake Superior and beyond opened a door to the North American fur trade. Through it, he earned a reputation as a courageous explorer and a cunning merchant. In the 2010s he is remembered as one of the first Europeans to travel to what became the state of Minnesota.

Radisson was likely born in Avignon, France, between 1636 and 1640. Little is known about his early life. He arrived in New France, Canada, as a young man, around 1651.

Shortly after his arrival in New France, Radisson was captured and adopted by a group of Mohawk Indians. He gained a familiarity with Iroquois language and culture that served him well on his later voyages. He escaped the Mohawk in 1653 and traveled to Fort Orange in what is now Albany, New York.

After a short voyage to Europe, Radisson returned to Trois-Rivières, New France, in 1654. While there he first met his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers. Des Groseilliers explored the Great Lakes region from 1654 to 1656. He returned with many furs and the promise of future riches.

In August 1659, Radisson departed Trois-Rivières with Des Groseilliers. The duo set out for Lake Superior with thirty Frenchmen and a large company of Huron and Ottawa Indians. They took the Ottawa River to Lake Huron and were attacked by Iroquois along the way. Many of their French counterparts returned to New France out of fear. Radisson and Des Groseilliers continued to Chequamegon Bay in present-day Wisconsin, where they spent the winter.

In spring 1660, Radisson and his party explored Lake Superior and parts of what are now Wisconsin and Minnesota. He attended a Feast of the Dead at or near the present-day Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation that brought together Huron, Ottawa, and other Native people, including Ojibwe and Dakota.

After the feast, Radisson spent six weeks with the Dakota at a site to the southwest—probably near Lake Mille Lacs. He recorded his interactions in a journal, creating one of the first written accounts of Dakota customs. His notes describe a weeping ritual and the ceremonial use of pipes made out of sacred red pipestone, or calumet.

Radisson tried to improve relations between the Dakota and the Cree. Stability in the region was essential for future commerce. Throughout the expedition, he learned about local geography from the Native people he met and became intrigued by the potential of the Hudson Bay region for fur trading.

Radisson and Des Groseilliers returned to New France in 1660. They expected a grand welcome when they arrived in Montreal. Instead, they were arrested for unlicensed trading. The Company of New France seized most of their furs. A subsequent appeal in France was denied.

The disgruntled traders traveled to England in 1666 to attract investors for a Hudson Bay expedition. Prince Rupert of the Rhine financed an expedition in 1668 and provided them with two ships. Radisson’s ship, the Eaglet, was forced back to England by a storm. Des Groseilliers made the voyage to Hudson Bay and established Fort Charles on the Rupert River. He returned to England with a wealth of furs.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was chartered in 1670 by England’s King Charles II. The company employed Radisson and Des Groseilliers as guides to the Hudson Bay region until 1675. Des Groseilliers returned to New France in 1676.

In 1681 Radisson joined Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye on an expedition to take control of Port Nelson in the Hudson Bay region. They captured the area for France in 1682 and seized its English occupants. Radisson befriended the English on the Nelson River and gave them provisions.

Radisson returned to England rather than to New France. He ended his association with Des Groseilliers in 1684. Des Groseilliers refused to violate his French allegiance and returned to Trois-Rivières in 1698. Radisson went back to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company as superintendent of trade at Port Nelson. The company also employed his nephew Jean Baptiste Groseilliers.

Radisson was released from the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1687. He later took the company to English court for withheld wages and won his suit. He spent the rest of his life in London and died in 1710 at the age of seventy-four.

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Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Nute, Grace Lee. Caesars of the Wilderness. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1978.

Radisson, Pierre Esprit, and Arthur T. Adams, eds. The Explorations of Pierre Esprit Radisson. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1961.
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6913

Risjord, Norman K. Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

Waters, Thomas F. The Superior North Shore: A Natural History of Lake Superior’s Northern Lands and Waters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Warkentin, Germaine. “Discovering Radisson: A Renaissance Adventurer Between Two Worlds.” In Reading Beyond Worlds: Contexts for Native History, edited by Jennifer S.H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert, 43–70. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1996.

White, Bruce. “Encounters with Spirits: Ojibwa and Dakota Theories about the French and Their Merchandise.” Ethnohistory 41, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 369–405.

Related Images

Sketch of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, undated.
Sketch of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, undated.

Turning Point

In 1660, Radisson explores and trades in the lands around Lake Superior, opening the region to the French fur trade and becoming one of the first Europeans to visit the future state of Minnesota.

Chronology

1636–1640

Radisson is born in Avignon, France.

1651

Radisson arrives in New France, Canada.

c.1651

Radisson is captured by Mohawk Indians.

1653

Radisson escapes from the Mohawk.

1654

Radisson returns to Trois-Rivières, New France, and meets Des Groseilliers, his brother-in-law.

1659

Radisson and Des Groseilliers depart New France.

1660

Radisson and Des Groseilliers explore the Great Lakes region, wintering at Chequamegon Bay. A party led by Radisson travels into present-day Minnesota.

1666

Radisson travels to England with Des Groseilliers to attract investors for a Hudson Bay expedition.

1669

Radisson publishes an account of his voyages in North America.

1670

The newly chartered Hudson’s Bay Company hires Radisson to work as a guide.

1677

Radisson serves in the French navy against the Dutch.

1681

Radisson joins a French expedition to Port Nelson in the Hudson Bay region.

1684

Radisson ends his partnership with Des Groseilliers.

1687

The Hudson’s Bay Company officially releases Radisson from its service.

1710

Radisson dies in England at the age of seventy-four.