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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Peter Radisson and "Mr. Gooseberry" again—Radisson v. Gillam— Back to France—A wife's influence—Paltry vessels—Radisson's diplomacy—Deserts to England—Shameful duplicity—"A hogshead of claret"—Adventurers appreciative—Twenty-five years of Radisson's life hitherto unknown—"In a low and mean condition"—The Company in Chancery—Lucky Radisson—A Company pensioner.

A mysterious interest gathers around two of the most industrious and, it must be added, most diplomatic and adroit of the agents of the Company, the two Frenchmen, Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart, afterwards the Sieur de Gro-seilliers. Acquainted with the far northern fur trade, their assistance was invaluable. We have seen in a former chapter that finding little encouragement either in New France or their mother country, they had transferred their services to England, and were largely instrumental in founding the Hudson's Bay Company.

In the first voyage of the adventurers to Hudson's Bay, it came about that while Groseilliers was lucky in being on the Nonsuch ketch, which made its way into the Bay, on the other hand, Radisson, to his great chagrin, was on board the companion ship, the Eaglet, which, after attempting an entrance and failing, returned to England.

It has been stated that during the time of his enforced idleness in London, while the party was building Charles Fort on Prince Rupert's River, Radisson was busy interesting the leading men of the city in the importance of the adventure. Immediately on the return of the company of the Nonsuch, steps were taken for the organization of the Hudson's Bay Company. This, as we have seen, took place in May, 1670, and in the same year Radisson and Groseilliers went out with Governor Bailey, and assisted in establishing trade on the shores of the Bay.

On their return, in the autumn of 1671, to London, the two adventurers spent the winter there, and, as the minutes of the Company show, received certain money payments for their maintenance. In October, 1673, the sloop Prince Rupert had arrived at Portsmouth from Hudson Bay, and there are evidences of friction between Radisson and Captain Gillam. Radisson is called on to be present at a meeting of the General Court of the Company held in October, and afterwards Gillam is authorized to advance the amounts necessary for his living expenses.

In the Company minutes of June 25th, 1674, is found the following entry:—"That there be allowed to Mr. Radisson 100 pounds per annum from the time of his last arrival in London, in consideration of services done by him, out of which to be deducted what hath been already paid him since that time, and if it shall please God to bless this Company with good success hereafter that they shall come to be in a prosperous condition they will then re-assume the consideration thereof."

During the next month a further sum was paid Radisson.

The restless Radisson could not, however, be satisfied. No doubt he felt his services to be of great value, and he now illustrated what was really the weakness of his whole life, a want of honest reliability. The Company had done as well for him as its infant resources would allow, but along with Groseilliers he deserted from London, and sought to return to the service of France under the distinguished Prime Minister Colbert.

The shrewd Colbert knew well Radisson's instability. This feature of his character had been further emphasized by another event in Radisson's life. He had married a daughter of Sir John Kirke, one of the Hudson's Bay Company promoters, and a member of the well-known family which had distinguished itself in the capture of Canada, nearly fifty years before. This English and domestic connection made Colbert suspicious of Radisson. However, he agreed to pay Radisson and Groseilliers the sum of their debts, amounting to 400l., and to give them lucrative employment. The condition of his further employment was that Radisson should bring his wife to France, but he was unable to get either his wife or her father to consent to this. The Kirke family, it must be remembered, were still owners of a claim amounting to 341,000l. against France, which had been left unsettled during the time of Champlain, when England restored Canada to France.

For seven years Radisson vacillated between the two countries. Under the French he went for one season on a voyage to the West Indies, and was even promised promotion in the French marine. At one time he applied again to the Hudson's Bay Company for employment, but was refused. The fixed determination of his wife not to leave England on the one hand, and the settled suspicion of the French Government on the other, continually thwarted him. At length, in 1681, Radisson and Groseilliers were sent by the French to Canada, to undertake a trading expedition to Hudson Bay. The lack of money, and also of full confidence, led to their venture being poorly provided for. In July, 1682, rendezvous was made at Ile Percee, in the lower St. Lawrence, by Radisson in a wretched old vessel of ten tons, and by Groseilliers in a rather better craft of fifteen tons burthen.

No better could be done, however, and so, after many mishaps, including serious mutinies, dangers of ice and flood, and hairbreadth escapes, the two vessels reached the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay. They determined to trade at this point. Groseilliers undertook to build a small fort on this river, and Radisson went inland on a canoe expedition to meet the natives. In this Radisson was fairly successful and gathered a good quantity of furs.

The French adventurers were soon surprised to find that an English party had taken possession of the mouth of the Nelson River, and were establishing a fort. Radisson opened communication with the English, and found them in charge of Governor Bridgar, but really led by young Gillam, son of the old captain of the Nonsuch. The versatile Frenchman soon met a fine field for his diplomatic arts. He professed great friendship for the new comers, exchanged frequent visits with them, and became acquainted with all their affairs. Finding the English short of provisions, he supplied their lack most generously, and offered to render them any service.

Governor Bridgar was entirely unable to cope with the wiles of Radisson. Matters were so arranged that Jean Baptiste Groseilliers, his nephew, was left in charge of the forts, to carry on the trade during the next winter, and with his brother-in-law, Groseilliers, and Governor Bridgar, somewhat of a voluntary prisoner, Radisson sailed away to Canada in Gillam's ship. On reaching Canada Governor De la Barre restored the ship to the English, and in it Bridgar and Gillam sailed to New England, whence in due time they departed for England. The whole affair has a Quixotic appearance, and it is not surprising that Radisson and Groseilliers were summoned to report themselves to Colbert in France and to receive his marked displeasure. Their adventure had, however, been so successful, and the prospects were so good, that the French Government determined to send them out again, in two ships, to reap the fruits of the winter's work of the younger Groseilliers.

Now occurred another of Radisson's escapades. The French expedition was ready to start in April. The day (24th) was fixed. Radisson asked for delay, pleading important private business in England. On May 10th he arrived in England, and we find him, without any compunction, entering into negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company, and as a result playing the traitor to his engagements in France, his native country.

The entry in the Company's minutes bearing on this affair is as follows :—

"May 12th, 1684.

"Sir James Hayes and Mr. Young, that Peter Esprit Radisson has arrived from France ; that he has offered to enter their service; that they took him to Windsor and presented him to His Royal Highness; that they had agreed to give him 50/. per annum, 200/. worth of stock, and 20/. to set him up to proceed to Port Nelson; and his brother (in-law) Groseilliers to have 20s. per week, if he come from France over to Britain and be true. Radisson took the oath of fidelity to the Company."

A few days later Radisson took the ship Happy Return to Hudson Bay. Sailing immediately to Hayes River, Radisson found that his nephew, J. Baptiste Groseilliers, had removed his post to an island in the river. On his being reached, Radisson explained to him the change that had taken place, and that he proposed to transfer everything, establishment and peltry, to the Hudson's Bay Company. Young Groseilliers, being loyal to France, objected to this, but Radisson stated that there was no option, and he would be compelled to submit* The whole quantity of furs transferred to Radisson by his nephew was 20,000—an enormous capture for the Hudson's Bay Company. In the autumn Radisson returned in the Hudson's Bay Company's ship, bringing the great store of booty.

At a meeting of the Committee of the Company (October 7th), "a packet was read from Pierre Radisson showing how he had brought his countrymen to submit to the English. He was thanked, and a gratuity of 100 guineas given him." It is also stated that "a promise having been made of 20s. per week to Groseilliers, and he not having come, the same is transferred to his son in the bay." The minute likewise tells us that "Sir William Young was given a present of seven musquash skins for being instrumental in inviting Radisson over from France." From this we infer that Sir William, who, as we shall afterwards see, was a great friend and promoter of Radisson, had been the active agent in inducing Radisson to leave the service of France and enter that of the English Company.

The Company further showed its appreciation of Radisson's service by voting him 100Z. to be given to four Frenchmen left behind in Hudson Bay. Jean Baptiste Groseilliers, nephew of Radisson, was also engaged by the Company for four years in the service at 100/. a year. Radisson seems to have had some dispute with the Company as to the salary at this time. On May 6th, 1685, his salary when out of England was raised to 100l a year, and 300l. to his wife in case of his death. Radisson refused to accept these terms. The Company for a time would not increase its offer, but the time for the ship to sail was drawing nigh, and the Committee gave way and added to the above amount 100/. of stock to be given to his wife. John Bridgar was appointed Governor at Port Nelson for three years, and Radisson superintendent of the trade there. Radisson was satisfied with the new terms, and that the Company was greatly impressed with the value of his services is seen in the following entry: "A hogshead of claret being ordered for Mr. Radisson, 'such as Mr, R. shall like.'"

In the year 1685-6 all hitherto printed accounts of Radisson leave our redoubtable explorer. We are, for the history up to this date, much indebted to the Prince Society of Boston for printing an interesting volume containing the Journals of Radisson, which are preserved in the British Museum in London and in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Dr. N. E. Dionne, the accomplished librarian of the Legislative Library, Quebec, has contributed to the proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada very appreciative articles entitled, "Chouart and Radisson." In these he has relied for the detail of facts of discovery almost entirely on the publication of the Prince Society. He has, however, added much genealogical and local Canadian material, which tends to make the history of these early explorers more interesting than it could otherwise be.

A resident of Manitoba, who has shown an interest in the legends and early history of Canada, Mr. L. A. Prudhomme, St. Boniface, Judge of the County, has written a small volume of sixty pages on the life of Radisson. Like the articles of Dr. Dionne, this volume depends entirely for its information on the publication of the Prince Society.

Readers of fiction are no doubt familiar with the appearance of Radisson in Gilbert Parker's novel, "The Trail of the Sword." It is unnecessary to state that there seems no historic warrant for the statement, "Once he attempted Count Frontenac's life. He sold a band of our traders to the Iroquois." The character, thoroughly repulsive in this work of fiction, does not look to be the real Radisson; and certainly as we survey the bloody scene, which must have been intended for a period subsequent to Frontenac's return to Canada in 1689, where Radisson fell done to death by the dagger and pistol of the mutineer Bucklaw and was buried in the hungry sea, we see what was purely imaginary. Of course, we do not for a moment criticize the art of the historic novelist, but simply state that the picture is not that of the real Radisson, and that we shall find Radisson alive a dozen or more years after the tragic end given him by the artist.

These three works, as well as the novel, agree in seeing in Radisson a man of remarkable character and great skill and adroitness.


The Prince Society volume states: "We again hear of Radisson in Hudson Bay in 1685, and this is his last appearance in public records as far as is known." The only other reference is made by Dionne and Prudhomme in stating that Charlevoix declares "that Radisson died in England."

Patient search in the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company in London has enabled the writer to trace the history of Radisson on for many years after the date given, and to unearth a number of very interesting particulars connected with him; indeed, to add some twenty-five years hitherto unknown to our century to his life, and to see him pass from view early in 1710.

In 1687, Radisson was still in the employ of the Company, and the Committee decided that he should be made a denizen or subject of England. He arrived from Hudson Bay in October of this year, appeared before the Hudson's Bay Company Committee, and was welcomed by its members. It was decided that 50/. be given as a gratuity to the adventurer till he should be again employed. On June 24th, 1688, Radisson again sailed in the ship for Hudson Bay, and during that year he was paid 100/. as 50 per cent. dividend on his 200/. worth of stock, and in the following year 50/. as 25 per cent. dividend on his stock. As the following year, 1690, was the time of the "great dividend," Radisson was again rejoiced by the amount of 150/. as his share of the profits.

The prosperity of the Company appears to have led to an era of extravagance, and to certain dissensions within the Company itself. The amounts paid Radisson were smaller in accordance with the straits in which the Company found itself arising from French rivalry on the Bay. In 1692 Sir William Young is seen strongly urging fuller consideration for Radisson, who was being paid at the reduced rate of 50/. a year.

In the Hudson's Bay Company letter-book of this period we find a most interesting memorial of Sir William Young's in behalf of Radisson, with answers by the Company, on the whole confirming our narrative, but stating a few divergent points.

We give the memorial in full.

Dated December 20th, 1692, being plea of William Young, in behalf of Pierre Esprit Radisson :—

"Radisson, born a Frenchman, educated from a child in Canada, spent youth hunting and commercing with the Indians adjacent to Hudson Bay, master of the language, customs, and trade.

"Radisson being at New England about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years past, met there with Colonel Nichols, Governor of New York, and was by him persuaded to go to England and proffer his services to King Charles the Second, in order to make a settlement of an English factory in that bay.

"At his arrival, the said King, giving credit to Radisson for that undertaking, granted to Prince Rupert, the Duke of Albemarle, and others, the same Charter we do still claim by, thereby constituting them the proprietors of the said bay, under which authority he, the said Radisson, went immediately and made an English settlement there according to his promises.

"On his return to England the King presented him with a medal and gold chain. When rejected by the Company, he was compelled to return to Canada, his only place of abode. Joined the French and led an expedition to Hudson Bay. With the aid of Indians destroyed Company's factory and planted a New England factory in Port Nelson River.

"During the winter Radisson did no violence to the English, but supplied them with victuals, powder, and shot when their ship was cast away. Refused a present from the Indians to destroy the English, and gave them a ship to convey them away. Afterwards settled the French factory higher up the same river, where his alliance with the Indians was too strong for New England or Old England, and immediately after he went to France. Mr. Young, member of the Hudson's Bay Company, with leave from Sir James Hayes, deputy-governor, tried to hire him back to Hudson's Bay Company's service with large promises. During negotiations, Radisson unexpectedly arrived in London. Company's ships were ready to sail. Had just time to kiss the King's hand at Windsor and that of the Duke of York, then governor. They commended him to the care and kindness of Sir James Hayes and the Hudson's Bay Company, and commanded that he should be made an English citizen, which was done in his absence.

"Before sending him, the Company gave him two original actions in Hudson's Bay Company stock, and 501. for subsistence money, with large promises of future rewards for expected service.

"Arriving at Port Nelson he put Company in entire possession of that river, brought away the French to England, and took all the beavers and furs they had traded and gave them to the Company without asking share of the profits, although they sold for 7,000/.

"He was kindly welcomed in England and again commended by the King. Committee presented him with 100 guineas, and entered in the books that he should have 50/. added to the former 501., until the King should find him a place, when the last 501. should cease. Had no place given him. Sir Edward Dering, deputy governor, influenced Committee to withdraw 50/., so he had only 50l. to maintain self, wife, and four or five children, and servants, 241. of this going for house-rent. When chief factor at Nelson, was tempted by servants to continue to cheat the Company, was beaten because he refused.
"Prays for payment of 100/. and arrears, because :

"1. All but Sir Edward Dering think it just and reasonable.
"2. No place was given in lieu of 50/.
"3. Of fidelity to the Company in many temptations.
"4. He never asked more than the Company chose to give.
"5. Imprisoned in bay in time of trade for not continuing to cheat the Company.
"6. The Company received from Port Nelson, after he gave it them, 100,000/. worth of furs, which is now believed would have been lost, with their whole interest in the bay, if he had not joined them when invited.
"7. The original actions and the 100/. revert to the Company at his death.
"8. Income inadequate to maintain wife and children in London.
"9. Debts great from necessity. Would be compelled to leave wife and children and shift for himself. "10. He cannot sell original actions, since they cease with his life.
"11. Of King Charles' many recommendations to kindness of Company.
"12. French have a price on his head as a traitor, so that he cannot safely go home.
"13. Mr. Young further pleads that as Mr. Radisson was the author of the Company's prosperity, so he (Mr. Young) was the first to persuade him to join their service. That he (Mr. Young) had been offered a reward for his services in persuading him, which he had utterly refused. But now that this reward be given in the form of maintenance for Radisson in his great necessity, &c." The Committee passes over the sketch of Radisson's life, which they do not gainsay.

In the second paragraph, they observe that Mr. Young stated their neglect to maintain Mr. Radisson without mentioning their reasons for so doing, which might have shown whether it was their unkindness or Radisson's desert.

They go on to take notice of the fact that about 1681 or 1682, Radisson and Groseilliers entered into another contract with the Company and received 20/. Soon afterwards they absconded, went to France, and thence to Canada. Next year they joined their countrymen in an expedition to Port Nelson, animated by the report of Mr. Abram to the Company that it was the best place for a factory. They took their two barks up as far as they durst for fear of the English. Then the French in the fall built a small hut, which Mr. Young says was too strong for either New England or Old England without guns or works—a place merely to sleep in, manned only with seven French.

This expedition, Mr. Young saith, was at first prejudicial to the Company, but afterward of great advantage, which he cannot apprehend.

In another place Mr. Young is pleased to state that the New England settlement was so strong that the Old could not destroy it. Old England settlement was only a house unfortified, which Bridgar built to keep the goods dry, because Gillam's boat arrived late.

"1. Mr. Young says all are in favour of Radisson but Sir Edward Dering, we have not met with any who are in favour but Mr. Young. Those who give gratuity should know why.
"2. That he had no place or honour given him is no reason for giving gratuity, there being no contract in the case.
"3. Never found him accused of cheating and purloining, but breach of contract with Company, after receiving their money, we do find him guilty of.
"4. Says he never did capitulate with the Company. Find he did (see minutes), May 6th, 1685.
"5. Cannot believe Radisson was beaten by the Company's servants. Greater increase of furs after he left, &c, &c, &c."

This memorial and its answer show the rather unreasonable position taken by the Company. In the time of its admiration for Radisson and of fat dividends, it had provided liberal things ; but when money became scarce, then it was disposed to make matters pleasing to itself, despite the claims of Radisson. In the year following the presenting of the memorial, it is stated in the minutes that "Radisson was represented to the Company as in a low and mean condition." At this time it was ordered that 50l be paid Radisson and to be repaid out of the next dividend.

The unreasonable position assumed by the Company, in withholding a part of the salary which they had promised in good faith, filled Radisson with a sense of injustice. No doubt guided by his friend, Sir William Young, who, on account of his persistence on behalf of the adventurer, was now dropped from the Committee of the Company, Radisson filed a bill in Chancery against the Company, and in July, 1694, notice of this was served upon the Committee.

Much consternation appears to have filled their minds, and the Deputy-Governor, Sir Samuel Clark, reported shortly after having used 200l. for secret service, the matter being seemingly connected with this case.

Notwithstanding the great influence of the Company, the justice of Radisson's claims prevailed, and the Court of Chancery ordered the payment of arrears in full. The Committee afterwards met Sir William Young and Richard Craddock, who upheld Radisson's claim. It is reported that they agreed to settle the matter by paying Radisson 150l., he giving a release, and that he should be paid, under seal, 100/. per annum for life, except in those years when the Company should make a dividend, and then but 50l. according to the original agreement. Radisson then received, as the minutes show, his salary regularly from this time. In 1698, the Company asked for the renewal by Parliament of its Charter. Radisson petitioned Parliament for consideration, asking that before the request made by the Company for the confirmation of the privileges sought were granted, a clause should be inserted protecting him in the regular payment of the amounts due to him from time to time by the Company.

At the time of his petition to Parliament he states that he has four young children, and has only the 100/. a year given by the Company to live on. In the year 1700 he was still struggling with his straitened circumstances, for in that year he applied to the Company to be appointed warehouse-keeper for the London promises, but his application was refused. His children, of whom he is said to have had nine, appear to have passed over to Canada and to have become a part of the Canadian people. His brother-in-law, Groseilliers, had also returned to his adopted Canada, but is stated to have died before 1698.

Regularly during the succeeding years the quarterly amount is voted to Radisson by the Company, until January 6th, 1710, when the last quota of 12l 10s. was ordered to be given. About this time, at the ripe ago of seventy-four, passed away Pierre Esprit Radisson, one of the most daring and ingenious men of his time. We know nothing of his death, except from the fact that his pension ceased to be paid.

Judge Prudhomme, to whose appreciative sketch of Radisson in French we have already referred, well summarizes his life. We translate :—

"What a strange existence was that of this man ! By turns discoverer, officer of marine, organizer and founder of the most commercial company which has existed in North America, his life presents an astonishing variety of human experiences.

"He may be seen passing alternately from the wigwams of the miserable savages to the court of the great Colbert; from managing chiefs of the tribes to addressing the most illustrious nobles of Great Britain.

"His courage was of a high order. He looked death in the face more than a hundred times without trepidation. He braved the tortures and the stake among the Iroquois, the treacherous stratagems of the savages of the West, the rigorous winters of the Hudson Bay, and the tropical heat of the Antilles.

"Of an adventurous nature, drawn irresistibly to regions unknown, carried on by the enthusiasm of his voyages, always ready to push out into new dangers, he could have been made by Fennimore Cooper one of the heroes of his most exciting romances.

"The picture of his life consequently presents many contrasts. The life of a brigand, which he led with a party of Iroquois, cannot be explained away.

"He was blamable in a like manner for having deserted the flag of France, his native country. The first time we might, perhaps, pardon him, for he was the victim of grave injustice on the part of the government of the colony.

"No excuse could justify his second desertion. He had none to offer, not one. He avowed very candidly that he sought the service of England because he preferred it to that of France.

"In marrying the daughter of Mr. John Kirke, he seems to have espoused also the nationality of her family. As for him, he would have needed to change the proverb, and, in the place of one who marries a husband takes his country.' to say, 'One who marries a wife takes her country.'

"The celebrated discover of the North-West, the illustrious Le Verendrye, has as much as Radisson, and even more than he, of just reason to complain of the ingratitude of France; yet how different was his conduct!

"Just as his persecutions have placed upon the head of the first a new halo of glory, so they have cast upon the brow of the second an ineffaceable stain.

"Souls truly noble do not seek in treason the recompense for the rights denied them."

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