Reaching the Gateway to Lake Superior
Having followed the St.
Lawrence River-Ottawa River-Mattawa River-Lake Nippissing-French River-Georgian
Bay route to reach Lake Huron, Radisson became one of the first European fur
traders to travel what was to become the les voyageurs route to the
Great Lakes. There had been Champlain and roughly a dozen Jesuit blackrobes to
take the route, but since the Iroquois invasions that began in earnest in the
1640's it had become too dangerous for Europeans to travel.
Radisson's smaller company
went west from the mouth of the French River for several days and then south
along the east cost of Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the
world. Using the shores of the island as a windbreak, Radisson enjoyed the
thick forests and open spaces on the limestone island. He was captivated with
the striking beauty of the area and with the island in particular from his
description in his journals. "The coast of this lake is most delightful to the
mind. The land is smooth and it has woods of all sorts. In many places there
are many large open fields where in, I believe, wildmen formerly lived before
the destruction of the many nations that did inhabit..."
Radisson might have learned this from the Hurons because it was accurate.
Manitoulin Island, which the natives regarded as the home of the Great Spirit
(Manitou), was not populated all year. Natives used to visit the island in the
summer to make offerings to Manitou, but did not inhabit the island out of
respect for the Great Spirit. Many open fields dotted the island, as the
geology was limestone that inhibits the robust growth of trees in some spots.
Radisson also saw the abandoned Jesuit mission on the east coast of Manitoulin
Island. Paul Rageneau jad been the head of the mission there and had run it
from 1648 to 1650, the same blackrobe Radisson had been with the previous year
in Iroquois territory.
Once Radisson's company went
around the southeast corner of Manitoulin Island through Fitzwilliam Strait, he
was paddling west along the northern part of Lake Huron where there were long
stretches of sand dunes and beaches, namely in Carter Bay and Providence Bay.
He notes the massive "banks of sand" and abundance of fish in the clear waters
of Huron: "an infinite deal of fish that scarcely we are able to draw out our
net. There are fishes as big as children of 2 years old."
Being situated in the middle
of the Great Lakes, namely beside Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior
(via the North Channel), Manitoulin Island was very windy. Radisson's group was
forced to stop their journey for several days at a time when they were moving
westwards along the south shore of the island. Contrasting the countless
islands of northern Georgian Bay at the mouth of the French River, there were
not many islands along the south coast of the island, which Radisson made a
note of, except for a few hidden in the numerous bays and streams that feed
into Lake Huron. Radisson ends his explicit description of Manitoulin Island
with: "The South part is without isles, only in some bays where there are some.
It is delightful to go along the side of the water in summer where you may
pluck the ducks." The duck
population was robust along the southwest shore of Manitoulin Island, where
they past Outer Duck Island, Great Duck Island, Middle Duck Island, Western
Duck Island and Inner Duck Island.
several days more of travel they passed through the strait between Sugar Island
and the shore of Michigan to Munuscong Lake. The Huron with them were living
with the Octonac tribe on Lake Huron, displaced from the south shores of Lake
Huron due to the Iroquois. Their arrival here caused a variety of reactions,
both sad and joyful. There were some tears for the men they lost to the
Iroquois on the way back from Quebec, but since French merchandise had not
reached this far west, there were Indians interested in many of the things Radisson
and Groseilliers had brought with them from New France.
The returning party learned
that there were recent reports that some of the enemy were close by in some
fields. There was a council held and it was decided that they should go out and
stop these Iroquois from reaching the village. Radisson volunteered to join the
war party so they left. After two days looking for them they found the Iroquois
invaders, and on the third day attacked when they least expected it. They
fought brilliantly so none escaped. The following day the war party returned
with eight dead and three prisoners. The dead were eaten and the captured
Iroquois were burned with fire and utter cruelty, which comforted the bereaved
to see the enemy revenged for the death of their relations.
Radisson and Groseillier's
ambition was to be known with the remotest people, so with this victory
Radisson had gained the confidence and trust of the Huron and the Octanac
peoples. By showing them that he was willing to die in their defense, they gave
them consent to go with an escort to the Nation of the Stairing Hairs. So the
two Frenchmen left with an escort and met these natives with the turned up
hair. They were welcomed with much fanfare, with these peoples saying the
Frenchmen were the Gods and devils on earth. The Stairing Hairs had holes in
their nose and five holes in their ears. A piece of straw about a foot long was
through their nose that barred their face, and the holes in their ears were big
enough that they could put their fingers through. Radisson was told that in the
winter these Indians don't where a hat because of their turned-up hair; instead
they filled the holes in their ears with swan's down that covered their ears
from the cold.
When they learned that
Radisson had fought with the Hurons and the Octanac peoples against the
Iroquois, they asked that he fight against their enemy too. Radisson suggested
that there should be peace between them so that the Iroquois could be
vanquished. When the Hurons and Radisson had shared some of the atrocities of
the Iroquois nation, the elders of the Stairing Hairs consented to try. They
first sent ambassadors to the enemy with gifts from Radisson, but had planned
to war with them if they did not consent. The enemy was called the
Pontonatemick (Potawatomi) who, without much ado, turned up to meet them and
peace was concluded. Feasts were had and gifts exchanged with a great deal of
Exploring Lake Superior
the span of the summer Radisson and Groseilliers made it their business to meet
neighboring nations. They met a strong nation called the "Nadoneceronon," with
whom the Hurons and Octanacs were at war with. They also met the "Christinos"
(Cree), a wandering nation that lived on what they could hunt. Their land was beyond
the great inland sea to the north and lived on the "side of the salt water in
the north" during the summer where the hunting and trapping of beavers was
unsurpassed. Radisson was told that the side of the salt water where the Cree
lived in the summers was 1800 miles away due to the route they must take to get
there, but the inland sea intrigued him because it was freshwater and a new
frontier for trading.
So they seized the opportunity to go
north into Lake Superior when they told the Hurons and Octanacs that their
enemies to the north would stand in fear because of Radisson and Groseilliers'
firepower. The Octanacs that were present were so impressed by their bluster
that they decided to join them on their journey north, as well as the Hurons.
However both the Hurons and the Octanacs turned back to their country halfway
there so the Frenchmen were left alone to go north through what Radisson
described as immensely beautiful land.
paddled along the northeast shores of Wisconsin past the Sault Indian village
to reach the mouth of the biggest freshwater lake in the world. Navigating
along the north shore of the lake they saw cottages in small Cree settlements
in a setting that made him grieve for Europeans and how they fight to the death
for small pieces of rock in the seas or some swampy land when there was never
more of a more enticing country to live. The climate was temperate during the
summer that brought forth fruit and berries and all that was plentiful in life.
The wildlife around Superior teemed with deer and buffalo and moose and fish.
There were so many turkeys around that they used to throw stones at them for
fur traders met with several tribes, which were, according to Radisson,
sedentary and civil and amazed to see them. They conducted a lot of trading,
and everywhere they went they were made much of, never lacking in food as each
village furnished them with necessities for their journey. The people were
strong and healthy, lived long and were wise in their ways. He noted there were
very few infirmed people due to the physical lives they lived. The entrenched
image of the Red Man being so fierce, savage and uncivilized, this was a
revealing experience of how well they, were received by the natives and treated
with meals and hospitality. He mused how millions of Europeans complained about
poverty and misery, and how much death came from wars over religion when there
was this utopia that existed unknown and undiscovered by God-fearing souls.
one Cree willage on the northwest shore of the lake Radisson and Groseilliers
conversed with them and heard of the salt water in the north (Hudson Bay). The
natives told them about seeing a "great white thing that was sometimes upon the
"It came towards the shore
with men in the top of it and made a noise like a company of swans." Radisson,
unaware of Henry Hudon's ill-fated journey to Hudson Bay, speculated that it
could have been the Spaniards because the natives had found a broken barrel
that the Spanish were known to use. But it irked him because he didn't think
Spain had sailed that far north. It was the British and French and
Scandinavians who were looking for the Northwest Passage to reach China and
India to conduct trade.