Pierre-Esprit Radisson

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Pierre-Esprit Radisson
Pierre-Esprit Radisson.jpg
Born 1636
Avignon?, France
Died 1710 (aged 73–74)
London, England
Occupation explorer, fur trader
Arrival of Radisson in an Indian camp in 1660.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636–1710) was a French fur trader and explorer. He is often linked to his brother-in-law Médard des Groseilliers. The decision of Radisson and Groseilliers to enter the English service led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Early life[edit]

Born near Avignon in 1636[1] or 1640,[2] Pierre-Esprit Radisson came to New France as an immigrant with his French Catholic family at the age of 15 on 24 May 1651.[3] While out duck hunting (probably in 1651), the boy was captured by the Mohawk and adopted into their tribe. This was the custom for the Mohawk, who replaced people lost to disease and warfare and assimilated young captives from other tribes and European nations. Radisson learned their language and way of life and joined them in their wars. Years later while he was out hunting with a captive Algonquin and three Mohawk, Radisson and the Algonquin killed their captors and escaped. They were quickly hunted down; the Mohawk killed the Algonquin and subjected Radisson to ritual torture, but he was rescued by his native family.

Radisson later escaped to Fort Orange (present-day Albany, New York), then controlled by the Dutch, where he served as an interpreter. For some reason he was sent to Europe along with a French Jesuit priest. He returned to Trois-Rivières in New France in 1657[4] or 1654.[2] He found his half-sister had married Groseilliers. In 1657 he was at Sainte Marie among the Iroquois, a French Jesuit mission near what developed as Syracuse, New York. He returned to Quebec when the mission failed, being attacked by the Iroquois. He was then about 21 years of age.


The most important part of his life, from 1658 to 1683 was spent with Groseilliers as a fur trader. He and his brother-in-law proposed a new route into Western Canada by way of Hudson Bay, instead of the longer route through various river systems.[5] This system would come to be used by The Hudson's Bay Company. In 1669, while in the English service, he sailed along the coast from the Rupert River to the Nelson River both in Hudson Bay. By 1672, he had married a daughter of Sir John Kirke who had been involved in the 1628 capture of Quebec. When he returned to the French service his wife remained in England.

In the winter of 1683 he and Groseilliers went to France to deal with their legal problems. (They had seized two English parties in time of peace and paid Quebec tax on furs from Hudson Bay, which may not have been part of Canada.) Here they found themselves pawns in the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution. The English ambassador, Lord Preston, asked that they be punished. Compromise plans were made to send Radisson back to the Bay to pick up the remaining furs and divide the profits fairly. Lord Preston seduced Radisson back into the English service and Groseilliers returned to Quebec.

In 1684 he sailed for the Hayes River in the Happy Return, where he found Groseilliers' son Jean-Baptiste doing a brisk trade with the Indians. He talked Jean-Baptiste into the Hudson's Bay Company service and left for England in September, leaving John Abraham in charge of the fort. (Eight days later two ships belonging to Chesnaye arrived from Quebec. Although there was conflict, no blood was shed. The French wintered near the English and returned to Quebec with a moderate load of furs.)

In 1685 he was made 'Superintendent and Chief Director of the Trade at Port Nelson,' where he seems to have accomplished little. In 1687 he made serious charges against the superintendent of York Factory. The HBC rejected the charges and Radisson was removed. Thereafter he lived in England on an HBC pension which was irregularly paid. He died in 1710. In 1729 the company voted ten pounds to his third wife, "she being ill and in great want."

Radisson wrote his Voyages in 1668 or 1669 in England after a storm prevented him from joining the first expedition into Hudson Bay. The original has been lost but an English translation was found among the papers of Samuel Pepys and now resides in the Bodleian Library. It is known to be inaccurate in part.

Cultural references[edit]

The towns Radisson, Quebec; Radisson, Saskatchewan and Radisson, Wisconsin, as well as a street and Metro station in Montreal and the Radisson provincial electoral district in Manitoba, are named after him.

The Radisson Hotels group, starting with the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis in 1909, is also named after him.

Sinclair Lewis wrote several novels about Grand Republic, the seat of the fictitious Radisson County, Minnesota.

The Canadian Coast Guard also has a vessel named the CCGS Pierre Radisson.

Sterling North dramatized his life and adventures in his young adult novel Captured by the Mohawks.

Radisson was portrayed by Paul Muni in the 1941 film Hudson's Bay.

The CBC Television series Radisson (1957–1958) was based on the explorer's life.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morton, Arthur S. (1973) [1939]. A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71 (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 37. 
  2. ^ a b Nute, Grace Lee (1979) [1969]. "Radisson, Pierre-Esprit". In Hayne, David. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. II (1701–1740) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 
  3. ^ Radisson, Peter [sic] Esprit (1885) [c. 1668]. Voyages of Peter [sic] Esprit Radisson (Prince Society transcription from the original in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum ed.). Boston: John Wilson and Son. p. 1. 
  4. ^ Morton 1939, p. 38.
  5. ^ Friesen, Gerald (1987). The Canadian Prairies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 49. ISBN 0-8020-6648-8. 


  • Peter C. Newman, 'Empire of the Bay', 1998

External links[edit]