Pierre-Esprit Radisson: 'A wilderness hero for our time'

At a time when most Europeans died within a day's journey from where they were born, Pierre-Esprit Radisson criss-crossed the Atlantic 10 times, was adopted into an Iroquois family, and was kidnapped by pirates. Historian Mark Bourrie documents the explorer’s adventure-filled life and counters stereotypes about the entire colonial epoch — especially Iroquois society — in his book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson.

Historian Mark Bourrie tells the story of the explorer’s adventure-filled life in his book, 'Bush Runner'

Oil painting of Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers by American artist Frederic Remington. 'Our image [of fur traders] is of hardy voyageurs paddling gigantic birchbark canoes across the open waters ... In fact, in the seventeenth century it was the Indigenous people who did almost all the work,' writes Mark Bourrie. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

** This episode was originally broadcast on June 7, 2019.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson was at the wrong place at the right time throughout his adventure-filled life, according to historian Mark Bourrie.

At a time when most Europeans died within a day's journey from where they were born, Radisson criss-crossed the Atlantic 10 times, was adopted into an Iroquois family, had audiences with kings, learned six languages, and was kidnapped by pirates. 

"He's the Forrest Gump of his time. He's everywhere," Bourrie writes in his book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson.

Radisson was an explorer who pushed boundaries, inspiring Bourrie to do the same. He characterizes his biography of Pierre-Esprit Radisson as "a rebuttal to the Jesuit Relations idea of the Iroquois people as enemies, of them as savages."

The Jesuits, seeking to convert the Indigenous peoples they encountered, saw them as inferior, as did many other European chroniclers of the 1600s.

"They [the Jesuits] don't like them," Bourrie says.

"They don't like the way they live. They don't like their laws. They don't like their social customs. They don't like the way their economic system works. And the whole idea is to change them." 

Radisson left us with the story of a remarkable man, a very free man in a time when they were rare.- Bush Runner

But Radisson was different. 

Perhaps that difference stems from the incident that changed the course of Radisson's life — and to one degree or another, the colonial period itself: while out on a hunting expedition as a teenager in the spring of 1652, Radisson went off on his own, only to discover that an Iroquois war party had killed his two companions. 

"Some of the Iroquois tackled Radisson and dragged him into the woods, shoving him to the ground next to the heads of his friends. But the Iroquois did not hurt Radisson," Bourrie writes.

Then the Iroquois did something that Bourrie believes may be unique in New France: they adopted him into their society. 

Radisson soon learns their customs, their language and their values. 

"Radisson likes them. Radisson likes them a lot. And he loves the family that adopted him," Bourrie says.

Radisson, however, was no hero. He abandoned his family. He ate human flesh — the circumstances were dire — but his recounting of the experience shocked Charles II, and anyone else who heard it. 

He was at best, an eager hustler with no known scruples.- Bush Runner

He betrayed his Iroquois village and family, whom he left for the Dutch and later left them for the British — all in the pursuit of attaining the commensurate social prestige and wealth, both of which always eluded him, as did credit for being a founder of the Hudson's Bay Company. 

Radisson was far from perfect. But the adventures and misadventures which defined his life, and his openness to ways of being other than what he'd inherited, offer insights and lessons for us now. 

"I've given Canada a wilderness hero. There are lots and lots of other wilderness heroes. But this is a wilderness hero for our time, I think," says Bourrie.

"I really liked him. I'm going to miss him when I move on to other things."

Mark Bourrie holds a PhD in history and has been a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1994. He has won several major media awards, including a National Magazine Award, and has been nominated for several others. He is the author of 11 books, including Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (Biblioasis).

** This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now