- - Sunday, May 19, 2019


By Mark Bourrie

Biblioasis, $18.95, 320 pages

Pierre-Esprit Radisson, the 17th century French fur trader and explorer, is a largely forgotten historical figure. Yet, his name is tied to the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Co., and a successful hotel chain is named after him.

Author, historian and lawyer Mark Bourrie beautifully describes Radisson as the “Forrest Gump of his time” in his well-written book, “Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson.” The explorer seemed to be “everywhere,” and because he was able to read and write, “he managed to tell us about it.” His compelling and occasionally disturbing adventures involving murder and cannibalism fall under the category of “stories for storytelling’s sake.”

Radisson was born in either Paris or Avignon (where his parents lived) in 1636. He would arrive in New France at age 15. It was “one of the worst places for a young man with ambition” to end up, since it still wasn’t a colony — and the many riches found in the Canadian Shield took a back seat to the fur trade.

His life would take a dramatic turn when he was abducted by Mohawk warriors of the Iroquois confederacy. Mr. Bourrie examines Radisson’s time with the Mohawks, along with other indigenous tribes like the Huron, Cree and Onondaga.

He would be viewed as a “brave and capable young hunter with enough spunk to shoot back, even when there was no hope of escaping capture or death.” His face would be painted red, which he later found out “identified him as a candidate for adoption,” and his “self-pitying account of his abduction makes clear he was never treated with anything but kindness during his first days as a prisoner.”

Some of the more illuminating sections in “Bush Runner” focus on Radisson’s partnership with his brother-in-law, Medard des Groseilliers, in the fur trade.

The French fur trader, unlike his American and Canadian counterparts, “was not a trapper or a labourer.” Rather, he was a “broker whose skill lay in quickly learning the Indigenous languages.” The young men who lived within these Indigenous communities, “just as Radisson did with the Iroquois,” were well-paid, “but if they couldn’t quickly learn Huron or one of the Algonquin languages, they were demoted and pulled out of the field.”

In Radisson’s case, he “wasn’t part of the kind of fur trade that exists today. He wasn’t trying to gather furs to make coats for old ladies. He was, rather, a key part of a big-money urban fashion industry backed by wealthy, well-connected investors with contacts and partnerships throughout Christendom.” So, it’s fair to say “the entire enterprise was really all about the money” and the general public’s fascination with fashion items like beaver hats.

Hudson’s Bay Co., the old fur trade businesses which transformed into a prominent retail business company, plays a significant role, too.

Radisson and des Groseilliers claimed to have learned about a fur trade route at Lake Superior through the Sioux and Cree. This would have led to the 1660 trip to Hudson Bay, but Mr. Bourrie doubts it occurred.

The two men would have only had 10-12 weeks to “gather supplies, paddle to the north shore of Lake Superior, head up to Nipigon or one of the other rivers flowing from the north, cross the height of land and travel hundreds of miles down the huge rivers of the Hudson Bay basin, which were frozen well into May, then do the whole trip in reverse.” When you combine this impossible voyage with the fact he “skips over all the details of this supposed trip in his writing, probably because he didn’t know anything about the geography,” it makes you think twice.

Nevertheless, the French explorers found a way to Hudson Bay. Due to a collapse in the French fur market, and various Iroquois blockades of trade routes, the “two impatient, greedy men who wanted to take over the inland trade and do it as cheaply as possible” made a deal with the English crown. They thought it would bring them fame and great riches, but “England’s rigid class system and its vicious hatred of foreigners, especially Roman Catholics,” prevented this from happening.

Mr. Bourrie’s analysis of Radisson as an “eager hustler with no known scruples” seems to be on the mark. But those less-than-admirable traits helped create a prevailing mythology about his adventures. It also gave a Baron Munchausen-like quality to his stories that allowed him, in Gump-like fashion, to “Run Radisson Run” around the known world.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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