As It Happens

Hudson Bay founder Pierre-Esprit Radisson was 'Forrest Gump' of his time

Pierre-Esprit Radisson played a vital role in the creation of the Hudson Bay Company but according to author Mark Bourrie, the 17th century explorer was more hustler than hero.

Author Mark Bourrie wrote a RBC Taylor Prize short-listed book about the 17th century fur trader

'Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson' by Mark Bourrie is shortlisted for The RBC Taylor Prize. (Biblioasis)

He was the first European to explore the upper Mississippi, played a vital in the creation of the Hudson Bay Company — and is the namesake for a global hotel chain. But Pierre-Esprit Radisson may be best described as one of the biggest hustlers in Canadian history.

While pursuing his dream of creating an arctic fur trade, Pierre-Esprit Radisson made seven trips across the Atlantic Ocean in an era when few people travelled. His adventures began in New France in the 1600s — but they took him all over the world. 

Mark Bourrie chronicles Radisson's life and expeditions in the new book Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize. He joined As It Happens host Carol Off in the As It Happens studio to talk about Radisson's remarkable history. 

Pierre-Esprit Radisson, you describe him as many things but one [of] the amusing lines you have is "he was the Forrest Gump of his time." How did you come to conclude that?

I think that was almost the first conclusion I made about him because when I read about him and I read that he had been adopted by the Iroquois when he was a prisoner as a child, I thought, that's kind of neat. And then he goes to England, and he's in the Great Plague ... and the Great Fire. Oh my gosh.  

And then I read about him going on this expedition to the Caribbean and getting wiped out with all these other sailors and left on a rock tropical island … it keeps going and going. Not only is he in all these places where things happen, he's with all the people who were making things happen at that time in Europe and in North America. 

Oil painting of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636 - 1710) and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers (1618 - 1710) by American artist Frederic Remington. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

And he meets people that clearly wanted him dead or should have wanted him dead. Everyone from pirates, to warriors, to kings who had people beheaded for much less.

Yeah, he died in bed. He died an old man. And I don't think anybody back in his time, if they were taking bets, would have put any money on him not ending up at the bottom of the sea or at the end of something sharp. 

This story, you've just mentioned it, where he is adopted by Mohawks after he is captured [as] a teenager in New France, we're talking about mid 1600s here. What happened to him with that family?

The last place you want to be as a European person in the world in 1650 is in New France. It's a disaster and it's on the losing end of a war against the Iroquois who've basically blown away all of France's allies in the Great Lakes Basin. 

They dropped this 15-year-old kid into the middle of it. His parents ship him out to a sister … and he gets picked up by the Iroquois as he's out just hunting, walking along the river … Now normally that's the end of the story, [but] he's the first French person who is adopted by the Iroquois after being taken prisoner. Everybody else had either been given back or had died in the Iroquois country, had been killed.

One of the first things he does is he starts cooking for the guys who captured him ... and they like it. Then he starts paddling and they obviously like that. And they realize that this guy, he's not afraid, and he's got a lot going for him. And so they decide he would actually make a good Mohawk. 

Author Mark Bourrie is shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, a Canadian non-fiction literary prize awarded in March. (Submitted by Mark Bourrie)

But that's not enough, because this is another mouth to feed, isn't it? Like many people in the region, they're just dealing with food supply. And yet there is a particular couple who take him. 

The couple that adopt him are rich and they're powerful. The woman is a clan mother. The man is a war chief. They've got the wherewithal to kit him out in European clothes that they buy from Dutch traders … They give him a little gun. He's treated like a prince

They love him. And one of the neat things that comes across in Radisson's own writing is that love is the only love that he really talks about in the course of his life. How much that went right to the core of him.

They treated him very well and he betrayed them. Can tell us about that?

Yeah. Well, first of all he betrays them one time in a way that I don't want to spoil for readers ... and he goes back and they still forgive him.

Then he really shows that he is part of that society after that point … But then, when he goes to the Dutch trading post [and] …. he gets talked into believing that he's in personal trouble — the French are going to come and get him for being a traitor. And that's why he leaves them. I don't think it's a dissatisfaction with the culture that he was in or his situation with the family.

He really liked his life with that Mohawk community, didn't he … How different was he from other Europeans in his relationship?

Radisson comes across to me as the only French writer [at that time] who actually likes them, and doesn't look at them as people to exploit or people to save or transform ... He never talks about the Mohawks as being different from him in a racial way or cultural way. He just says that they do things this way … and he doesn't struggle against it. 

And when he does go back to the French, and eventually meets up with Mohawks ...  he's always asking Mohawks, "How's my family? How's my mother? How's my father?" … He never goes back to live with them, but he certainly tries to keep that connection alive.

A map of Hudson Bay from 1660. (Submitted by Mark Bourrie)

But Radisson is no sweetheart, is he?  He is befriending Indigenous people, he learns their languages, but he [and his trading partner Médard Chouart des Groseilliers] are after something … what are the two of them trying to pursue? 

They're after lint ... the lint from the beaver hide. The underlying hair makes a fabulous lint and if you press it …  you can make felt and you can form that into a hat. These kids were in the lint business and it was crazy valuable.

So Radisson comes up with this idea, instead of going to Quebec City and up the St. Lawrence … we'll just sail in the back door at Hudson Bay, set-up on the shore, have the Cree people come to us … Put the stuff on a ship and send it back. It's a genius idea. The whole Hudson Bay Company was founded on that little idea ... But [Radisson] crushes people and he betrays people.

As much as anybody, Radisson is the founder of the Hudson Bay Company. What is it that he thought he could accomplish?

Radisson didn't see himself as an investor because he wasn't of the class of people that were allowed to be investors

He was willing to let all these various dukes ... really famous people of their time, ancestors or Winston Churchill, ancestors of the queen ... basically make most of the money, as long as he got lots himself.

What the Hudson Bay Company was was a bunch of people who went into a coffee shop once a year, ponied up their investment to buy all these tools and things to trade with [Indigenous peoples]. People like Radisson who took it over to North America. 

The fur trade was always really built on the sweat equity of Indigenous people. And then the ship would come back … and then all these people would go back to the coffee shop and divide up the profits. That was it.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson (Submitted by Mark Bourrie/Biblioasis)

It's always worth repeating the effect that Europeans had on Indigenous people, the diseases that they brought, the weapons ... that turned war into a completely different activity in North America. Was Radisson aware of the effect that the Europeans were having on these people?

I don't think he really saw it the way we see it ... I think he mostly saw it as going to visit people and they wanted guns and axes and pots and pans and needles and a whole bunch of things that were really useful. 

I don't think he was himself as undermining them as people … But of course he is part of this collision between two societies and these Indigenous groups had been devastated one time after another.

Did he get any kind of recognition for his efforts? … Was he celebrated for what he did?

No, no. He had to sue to get his pension. He was forgotten ... His writings survived because Samuel Pepys stole them. He stashed them with his papers, and then in the 1880s somebody was going to make wallpaper out of them and they saw this incredible story.

[Radisson's] English writings were first published about 130 years ago in the United States. At that time Minneapolis was forming and they were looking for a founder, and they said "Oh, that's our founder, Radisson." So historians of Minnesota embraced Radisson, and then somebody named a hotel after the founder.

Radisson was regarded as a heroic character, and certainly romanticized. How do you see him?

With these so-called explorers, their real skill is survivability and the ability to ingratiate themselves with people who do all the work.

They're basically business people ... They're very brave people, really interesting people. But to say that there's some sort of greatness to them, no. Not more than anyone else who's sort of sticking their neck out. 

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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