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The Life of Radisson
Chapter Seventeen

Fleeing the Fort

The French planned to flee the fort in the spring when the ice had melted. They were able to get through the winter with some scares, as there were a few skirmishes involving guards at the fort but nothing that couldn't be healed with a few gifts.

Radisson's familiarity with the psychology and culture of the Iroquois nation gave him the idea of how they would escape. Since he could hold a tune, he secured a guitar for him to play during the feast since the Indians valued music in any form. He devised a plan whereby all the Iroquois of the surrounding villages would be invited to a great feast to emphasize that they had no greater friends than the French. All were invited and all accepted to attend the feast. Those of the fort made sure that the Jesuit father and two Frenchmen who lived a distance from the fort were included in this feast because this Jesuit father was part of the escape plan. After two days of feasting and singing, the Indians departed and with them the two Frenchmen and the Jesuit priest, but the priest feigned a fall and pretended to break his arm. Thus he was transported into the fort where they made a plaster cast for him and ordered to remain there in bed to recover. Since the Indians loved the padre, many came to the fort to visit him and give him gifts to encourage him to heal. The two Frenchmen also visited the priest at the fort crying for his safe return to health, but they were not part of the plot. This added to the realism of the plan, and was a crucial reason the Indians did not suspect anything.

Such as the situation was, the French resolved to have another feast that would act as a decoy to their departure. This feast was to mark the successful recovery of the Jesuit father, as the elders sent messengers daily to check up on how he was doing. When the boats were ready and the French at the fort were all packed with their bundles for the journey, they sent word that the priest was well and that the feast was to celebrate his return to good health. No Indians were allowed into the fort the day of thee feast because of the preparations. They were told they couldn't enter because it was French custom "not to show the splendor of their banquets before they were presented at the table."

 Once the trumpets sounded there were nothing but outcries and the clapping of hands as large kettles full of beaten Indian corn dressed with minced meat was served. All attended the big banquet and were encouraged to sing and dance so that it was done with gusto. The French made a point of keeping them awake just as the bird-catcher teaches the bird to sing and not fly away. The wisest began his speech, thanking heaven for the food and the French who are so generous.

"They eat as many as wolves, having eyes bigger then bellies," he said. The next course are kettles full of broiled ducks and buzzards, and turtles that had been caught in their fishing nets. They hooped and exclaimed at the victuals and gorged on the fowl. Then came the fish and eels and salmon and carps, which gave them new stomach. Were they to burst, here they would show their courage." A number of the French entertained them with singing and dancing, as was their custom. But finally the main course arrived: venison with bear oil and thickened flour. (Bear oil was actually bear root, the sedative bears eat before hibernating for the winter months).

The feasting was having an affect on most of the natives present. One beat his belly and another shook his head, and another made funny faces, while others moved their eyes up and down as another tightened his mouth to keep in what he had eaten. Anything to endure the feast. Radisson played guitar to make it a special occasion.

"Cheer up like brave men," said the Frenchmen, who were beginning to fall asleep. "If your sleep overcomes you, you must awake! Come, sound the drum! Is it not now to strum the guitar? Come, make a noise! Trumpet blow and make thy cheeks swell, to make the belly swell also."

The French competed to see who could make the greatest noise. But finally the wild men cannot endure anymore. Postures began to slouch.

"Skenon!" they cry out. "Enough! We can bear no more!"

"Hunnay!" replied the Frenchmen. "We are going. We are weary and will sleep also."

"Be it so!" replied the exhausted Iroquois. They left the Iroquois sleeping and quietly returned to the fort a short distance away. There they tied the rope at the gate where the sentry stood to the foot of a hog.

There were a total of 53 French who were in the two big boats and canoes leaving Onondaga. When they left in their boats the water had frozen overnight so the going was tough to break the ice with their staves to push through. The ice ended when they reached the mouth of the small river where they went down with the current of a bigger river until they eventually reached Lake Ontario. They kept watch but did not see any Iroquois chasing them in revenge. Radisson was to learn later that the Iroquois rested for seven days before discovering their absence. Every time they went to the fort and rang the bell it tugged on the hog that was still tied to the rope.

They passed what Radisson now called "the isle of murder" where the Huron woman was found half-starved. They all knew it was the island because the Huron woman was with them. (She had been asked days before to join them because she was Christian). They had bad weather during their journey back to New France. Since it was much colder going north, the ice was hazardous for them to navigate. One of their vessels ran aground but they were able to free it up and guide it to a small natural harbor. Of the four in the canoe, three died of hypothermia trying to swim ashore but one survived.

Six weeks passed by the time they reached Montreal. There was still a lot of ice and the going was very rough but they were able to make it through the troublesome spots and there rested among their countrymen in Montreal. It was the end of March by the time their pains were over and had reached Quebec. For Radisson, 14 days later he was back in Three Rivers where he was reunited with his family and his brother-in-law Grosseilliers. There he only remained a month until he left with Grosseilliers for a voyage into the interior of the New World that was to change the course of history.




Chapter Eighteen

Becoming a Les Voyageurs

It does seem strange that a young man like Radisson, who had already experienced such hardship and extreme privation, should choose more adversity rather than to succor the fat bosom of some fine woman in the safety of the colony. Indeed the 23-year old was fully gung-ho to go forth and utilize his unique past to seek more adventure accompanied by those who shared a similar life view. He chose fur trading as his new occupation when he returned from the lands of the Iroquois in 1658, a new vocation that would capitalize on his exposure with native tribes in the New World and an opportunity to experience new adventures in a land waiting to be explored.

His partner during his years of being a les voyageur was his brother-in-law Medard Chouart, Des Groseilliers, who married Radisson's half-sister Marguerite in 1653. Upon seeing Radisson hardened and fit after his hardships and achievements among the tribes of the Iroquois, Groseilliers asked Radisson to join him on his journey. Older and with more experience fur trading in the interior of Canada's vast network of waterways, he valued Radisson's passion for life and knowledge of the native tongue and culture, which could only enhance his goals to succeed in fur trading.

Groseilliers had already been west to the lake of the Hurons and had conducted trade with the Indians. He had heard of the vast reaches of the great lakes where no European had been before and resolved to go forth and explore these new untapped lands and to trade with the Indians. Groseilliers had likely been to the Jesuit missions west of the St. Lawrence River, such as the mission at Midland on the southern shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario (1625-1649) and Manitoulin Island (1648-1650) in the middle of the Great Lakes, which at the time were the farthest outposts of European settlement in the New World. With such a small number of Frenchmen involved with such far journeying west, it was likely that Groseilliers would have been acquainted with the lucrative fur-trading lands in the far west of New France and therefore had an idea of the likelihood of success. However he would also have been aware of the extreme danger of expeditions into these unexplored territories controlled by marauding gangs of savages that had no scruples and even less hesitation to take a life.

Impressed with Radisson's incredible coup to save 53 people from an impending massacre in Onandoga country, he wondered if he didn't prefer to relax in Three Rivers rather than to put himself in peril again by undertaking a voyage into the unknown. When Groseilliers asked him about this, the young Radisson mused at the unlikelihood of accepting Groseillier's offer.

"It is a strange thing," he replied, "when victuals are wanting, work whole nights and days, lie down on the bare ground, and not always that happy, the breech in the water, the fear in the buttocks, to have the belly empty, the weariness in the bones, and drowsiness of the body by the bad weather that you are to suffer, having nothing to keep you from such calamity, but I am desirous of nothing but new things." It might have been Radisson's religious zeitgeist that has brought this asceticism forth, since those held highest in esteem were those blackrobes who valued sacrifice, poverty and service to God and country, but whatever the motivation for the Frenchman might have been, Groseilliers had found the right man for the job.

It was the spring so they were inclined to take advantage of the swift currents and higher water levels from the melting snow, which meant fewer portages on their way west with Huron guides. The previous year Groseilliers had chosen the best among the Huron guides to meet his party in the spring in Three Rivers to take him and two Jesuit priests to spread the gospel to the heathen tribes of the interior. Now that he had hired Radisson he had an interpreter and able hand to help with the monumental task before them.

At the time the governor of Quebec was encouraging Frenchmen to go deeper into the interior "to come back loaded with merchandise for the traffic of furriers who come from the remotest parts of the north of America."

Other than a handful of courageous Frenchman, who included Samuel de Champlain, Groseilliers and Ettiene Brule, it was the Jesuit missionaries who had gathered hard-won knowledge and wisdom from their journeys to the interior beginning in 1615. Father Jean de Brebeuf was one of these daring blackrobes who ventured inland to the Saint Marie Among the Hurons in 1626 and was martyred there in 1649, precipitating the closure of the mission and the withdrawl of Jesuits west of Montreal.


Table of Contents


          1 - Radisson's Capture by the Iroquois

          2 - How Radisson Earned Respect

          3 - Adoption into a Mohawk Family

          4 - His Escape

          5 - Recapture and Torture

          6 - Endurance

          7 - Acceptance

          8 - Going On the Warpath

          9 - The War Continues

          10 - The Hollanders

          11 - Escape to Fort Orange


          12 - Becoming an Interpreter for the Jesuits

          13 - "Mistrust is the Mother of Safety"

          14 - Meeting Old Friends

          15 - Reaching Onondaga

          16 - Conspiracy to Kill the French

          17 - Fleeing the Fort


          18 - Becoming a Les Voyageurs

          19 - Huronia Jesuit Mission and Brebeuf

          20 - Radisson and Groseilliers Go West

          21 - Reaching the Gateway to Lake Superior

          22 - Exploring Lake Superior




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