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The Life of Radisson 

Chapter One

Radisson's Capture by the Iroquois

During the spring of 1652, Radisson and two friends went hunting for fowl about one mile west of Trois-Riviere (Three Rivers), the fartherest west settlement in New France at the time. With the mighty St. Lawrence River to their south, only the budding outpost Ville Marie on the island of Mount Royal was farther west perched at the lip of the frontier, which would eventually become the city of Montreal. Like all pioneers at the time they knew the Iroquois Indians were close by. The Iroquois were so skilled at warfare that few Frenchmen ever ventured outside of Three Rivers for fear of being killed or captured, but that didn't stop the young hunters from leaving the confines of their walled settlement to walk along the river and hunt.

"No matter what, we have to stuck together," he said to his friends. Well-armed, they entered the thick forest along the St. Lawrence River. About a mile from home they encountered a Frenchman who kept cattle.

"Could you tell us a safe way to get to good hunting grounds from here?" he asked. The farmer was surprised to see three sixteen-year-olds so far from safety.

"By no means should you go to the foot of the mountains because that's usually where the Indians are," he replied, shaking his head their foohardiness. Mention of the enemy so nearby made them prime their pistols and move ahead cautiously. They had good reason to be weary of the Iroquois in the area as there was a full-on war raging between the five nations of the Iroquois and the Algonquins, which included the Huron Indians. They fought over control of the new and growing fur trade. Lucrative trade with the Europeans meant acquisition of practical implements and tools such as hammer and nails and pots and axes, which made life easier. The fierce Iroquois had decimated the Hurons so that very few from the once strong nation were left alive.

The three of them went forward and found a clearing. Radisson pointed. Shots rang out and they shot enough birds to satisfy Radisson's friends.

"That's plenty. It's more than enough," said one on them.

"No, no. Let's get some more. It isn't enough," said Radisson, strong-willed and daring.

"We thought this might happen Pierre. You are never satisfied."

"Or is it because you're both cowards and are still little boys who can't face danger?"

"We're not children but we're not going further. You're crazy if you do." His friends left him to return to Three Rivers but Radisson kept following the river west to find more game to shoot. He found more fowl and was able to shoot more but still the young Radisson went forward looking for more food. He walked to Lake St. Peter, which was nine miles from Three Rivers. Here he shot more fowl and finally considered it enough food to bring back to his family to eat, but with so much booty he decided to leave half of it in the hollow of a tree to protect it from eagles and other wild game and would return the next day. He returned to Three Rivers the same way he had come because it was safe carrying three geese, ten ducks, one crane and some teals.

He soon arrived to where he had separated from his friends and rested there for a moment because of his heavy load. As Radisson was lying on the ground he thought he heard some sounds in the woods, which caused him to double check his pistol. Finding that his pistol girdle was wet, he discharged shot and reloaded it. Thinking it might be a deer, he went about 30 paces into the woods to find out what the noise was but didn't find anything. When he returned to his booty he took another brook where he found more birds to shoot, but just as he prepared to kill more game he discovered the bodies of his two friends lying on the ground dead. They had been killed. Both his friends were stripped naked and their hair was standing up. One was shot three times and had two hatchet blows on the head; the other one was stabbed with a sword and smitten with a hatchet.

Alarmed and nervous, Radisson didn't know if the enemy was still close by watching him or not, so he move toward the water's edge and looked closely around for Iroquois. There he saw twenty or thirty heads in the tall grass in the direction he was going. Just as he was trying to figure out how he could step around them, barking dogs suddenly surrounded him. He shot his pistols but was thrown to the ground by several Iroquois that had suddenly surrounded him. First they took his gun and then hit him in head, rendering him semi-conscious.

Stunned by the blow to the head, the Indians consulted with each other and then decided to cut off the heads of Radisson's two friends and then they escorted Radisson, who was conscious but dazed, by the hair to the canoes docked on the river. The Indians' canoes were about four miles from where they were in the forest. There they erected a camp where they built a cottage and a fire to cook their meat, which was rancid and stunk. The Iroquois forced him to sit beside the fire, stripped him naked and tied him with rope around the middle where he remained in the same position all night.


In the morning the Iroquois gathered around Radisson and laughed at his white skin, which they regarded as sickly and ugly. But all the laughter stopped when a scout that was on point by the St. Lawrence River indicated that the French and their allies the Algonquin Indians were coming. During this time the Algonquin Indians, which included the mighty Hurons[1], were allies of the French against the Iroquois during this time that became know in history as the Iroquois Wars. The Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk were all part of the Iroquois nation, who fought the Europeans to expand their territory and control the fur trade with the Europeans.

They put out the fire and took the most advantageous positions along the river to defend their camp, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Radisson, who was guarded by about 50 men, was given his clothes back. While the Indians relit the fire to boil their meat and mix it with a yellowish meale (corn), some of them combed his hair and greased it. Radisson was to learn later that it was to keep the mosquitoes off of him. They also painted his face with a powder mixed with water to create red paint, a vermillion color that covered the pale unhealthy white skin that the Indians disliked so much. Once this was done, they gave Radisson some half-boiled, smelly meat that he forced himself to eat so he wouldn't be disrespectful. The meale that they had put on the rancid meat to cover the scum on it had been ground into a powder between two rocks and was tossed into burning sand. He was barely able to eat it.

After his first day in captivity, they untied Radisson and forced him to sleep between them under the stars. Having slept well and awakened at the break of day, he could remember his dream that he was with the Jesuits in Quebec drinking beer, which gave him hope that he would be free some time in the future. He knew that the Dutch people lived among the Iroquois in a place called Menada (Manhattan) and in Fort Orange (Albany) where, without doubt, he could drink beer. Radisson's dream gave him hope so depite being so altered, with paint on his face and grease in his hair and rancid meat undigested in his stomach, he resolved to endure what was before him because he believed that he would soon be drinking beer with the Dutch and the Jesuits.

The Iroquois, valuing valor and endurance above all other virtues, began treating him better that day by giving him meat not infested with worms. Before they left camp, they removed the flesh from the heads of his friends so there was only skin and hair left on the skulls. This was to preserve the heads. The flesh was put in a little pan and burnt with some grease and then laid out on hot stones to dry out.

With each man having his own canoe, Radisson counted thirty-seven canoes at the river when they left the camp. He was tied to a bar in one of the canoes and they pushed off west along the river. Leaving, all the Iroquois let out shouts and shot their guns that the Dutch had given them in trade. They all sang songs but after this they all paddled in a comfortable silence along the water. During this first day of travel, Radisson vacillated between hope and despair, all the while believing he was going to be killed at any moment. 

At sunset they came to a big camp on Richelieu Isles where there were plenty of wild game, including elk and beavers and fowl. Joinging more of their tribe, there were about 250 warriors all together now.

"Chagon," they said to him, trying to cheer him up. Radisson, having studied the Huron language when he was in Three Rivers so he could become a fur trader, figured the word meant to be merry so he smiled and did his best to be cheerful. The young Iroquois men responded by combing his hair and greasing his head and painting his face red again. They tied a red leather cord in his hair, pulling his hair back off his forehead and treated him with more kindness. This was when Radisson realized that the Mohawks, the most feared and warlike of the Iroquois nation, had kidnapped him.

The next day the men busied themselves with shooting wild game, where they remained three days, soon growing more and more familiar with Radisson and leaving only one or two warriors to watch him. They took delight in his efforts to learn new words of their language, being very earnest that he pronounced the words clearly and correctly. They gave him his own stash of salt for his meat that he kept with him for the rest of his voyage. For those three days they feasted and sang songs. Each day some men in canoes left the camp to, he assumed, make war against the Algonquin and acquire more booty.


Chapter Two

How Radisson Earned Respect

The fourth day Radisson's "brother," he who had captured him, untied him and let him paddle in his own canoe. Hid fellow travelers watched him sweat and struggle as he paddled, so they gave him instruction on how to paddle with better technique. Side by side the Mohawks and Radisson moved along the St. Lawrence River to Richelieu River where they met a new gang of Iroquois living in small wood cottages. When they approached the Iroquois whooped and hollered and made signs of kindness to one another. They made Radisson stand up in his canoe and follow their lead by yelling and gesturing politely. Once at the camp there was one man who wanted to do mischief to Radisson but his brother prevented it. Keeping his eye on this young man, when they ate later Radisson boiled some meat, adding salt and flour, and then gave the young man this choice piece. Thereafter the young man left him alone.

It was at this camp that the men took an interest in teaching Radisson how to sing, a logical step from all the whooping and shouting he had been doing. Since he knew some of the Huron language already, he didn't find it too difficult. And he was a man who could carry a tune in French, so he could follow their songs well enough to be appreciated. He offered to sing a song in French to them and they all respectfully listened in deep silence and were very much moved by it. For the next two days they did not rest much due to the mirth and dancing and singing and feasting. They had put Radisson's friends' heads on the end of sticks and stuck them into the ground so that they danced around the heads.

Again many left in different directions in their canoes after the two-party. When traveling on the water a canoe encountered them and a woman grabbed hold of Radisson's hair, showing great kindness. She combed his hair with her fingers and tied a bracelet around his wrist and sang to him. He hoped that she would proceed their way but her group was heading in a different direction. It was the first time an Indian woman had shown him such kindness.

Radisson and his brother reached another camp surrounded by a thick forest. There they built a fire and provided what was necessary to cook their food. It was here that they cut Radisson's hair off the front crown of his head with a sharpened shell, and then they tied his greased hair up with a red leather string. They painted more paint on his face but this time it was both red and black, and then put a "looking glass" into his hand and he was able to see himself reinvented. Viewing himself all smeared with red and black with locks tied up with a piece of leather, he could not help but admire his new look.

The next morning he awoke early so he nudged his brother who in turn woke up the rest of them, but they all turned over and continued to sleep in. Radisson got up on his own and went for a walk along the river unguarded, and for the first time seriously considered escaping. But he was worried that he would be caught again since there were so many Iroquois around, and if he was he was sure that they would treat him harshly. Besides, when he thought it through, he realized that a part of him had a desire to see their country.

One of the Mohawk men spotted him alone along the river.

"Hey come here Frenchman," he called, without concern or anger. This gave him confidence that the Mohawks had accepted him. He gave Radisson a dish full of meat, which he ate like a bear. One of them noticed that he didn't have a knife so he was given his own. Before none of them had any reason to fear him but now, with this knife, they had. It was a gesture of trust and a symbol of acceptance.

Down river they hit rapids and were forced to portage, where they reached an empty camp with cottages already built. There, Radisson chopped wood for the fire like the rest of them. The next day they killed two bears, one of which was massive. It was here that Radisson witnessed the Iroquois having a sweat lodge. After having built a fire and heating large "grandfather stones" until they were red hot, they placed these stones in the middle of a pit inside an enclosure of birch bark and other sticks and bark. Inside they sweated and hollered and generally screeched for about an hour until they lumbered out of the sweat lodge and threw each other in the river. Radisson thought they were incensed but it was their custom he was to find out.[2] They feasted on the bears, giving everyone their share.

During the night they heard shooting so they all left the camp in a hurry. They made Radisson lie down in the canoe as they paddled hard in the darkness. Radisson slept securely until the morning where he awoke among high bulrushes, where they all remained without making a noise since they were on the lookout for the Algonquin army. Moving quietly for some days until they reached a shore with thick forest, they took their bundles on their backs and walked for a day and night into the bush until the following day they met two men with whom the Mohawks knew. They spoke a long while until about twenty women came out of the woods and gave them dried fish and Indian corn. After the men had eaten, the women took their baggage and they continued to walk deeper into the forest along a well-laid trail. They finally reached a clearing where there was a lake with good fishing, and about fifteen cabins. All the men were warmly welcomed except for Radisson.

[1] The word "Huron" comes from the French word "hure" meaning the head of a boar or a pig), used by the French to describe the type of haircut popular with these Indians, close-cropped and bristly. The Indian word for the Hurons is "Wendat," meaning "island" or "isolated land."

[2] Bear root may have been used to throw on the hot stones, which produces an intoxicating effect. Bears eat it when they hibernate, which acts as a natural sedative. 
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