Those Magnificent Vagabonds


THOMAS B. COSTAIN August 15 1954

Those Magnificent Vagabonds


THOMAS B. COSTAIN August 15 1954

Those Magnificent Vagabonds




The fabulons partners defied authority, laughed at death and helped father the Hudson s Bay Company. But could anyone trust these soldiers of fortune who prized adventure above gain:

BEHIND the palisades of a small post in the heart of Iroquois country fifty men of New France awaited certain death. Worse, death by torture, by burning at the stake. News of the massacre would shock the distant communities on t he St. Lawrence, but it would scarcely surprise them. When in 1653 a delegation of the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois had come to Quebec with the proposal that the French show their friendliness and good faith by establishing a colony among the Iroquois, the official view had been that to do so would be to step like flies into the diabolical parlor of the Iroquois spiders.

Yet the Jesuits favored this new proposal. Danger to them was an enticement rather than a deterrent. “The blood of t he martyrs,” t hey cried, “is the seed of the Church.” In the end, their devout courage had prevailed. Four priests and a party of stout-hearted volunteers set out under the escort of a few soldiers.

At first the community had succeeded; four hundred converts were made. But with the coming of winter the French outpost heard blood-chilling news: a dying Indian, a captive of the Iroquois,

broke it to the priest who comforted his last hours. The white men were to be allowed to live through the winter, but they would be killed when spring came.

In its extremity the community decided on a plan suggested by its youngest member. At 15, Pierre Esprit Radisson had come to New France with his parents from St. Malo. They had lived at Three Rivers and the youth had been captured by a prowling band of Mohawks while hunting in the woods. Adopted by a Mohawk family and most affectionately treated, he had managed to escape. Later he had been among those who volunteered for the journey into the Onondaga country.

All through the winter the French labored secretly to prepare themselves for one of the most unusual escapes in history. Every night parties slipped out into voods and carried back the limbs of trees, in ihe loft above the main house, where no prying eye could see, they succeeded in making two large open boats . *V1 four elm-bark canoes. March came, and with it the promise of open water. The second half of the stratagem was then put into execution.

The plan was to invite the Indians to a great feast

and stuff (hem with so much food that they would fall into a coma. These feasts had an almost religious significance for the natives of North America. Such an invitation could not be refused, even though the guests were planning to butcher their hosts immediately after.

It is safe to say that in all Iroquois history there had never been a feast to equal this. All the male population of Onondaga came at the appointed time. Large fires had been set blazing in front of the gate. The guests said “Ho!” the ceremonial greeting, and seated themselves at one of the fires. There they waited.

It was a curious scene: the silent braves squatting cross-legged on the ground with no trace for once of enmity, the young Frenchmen entertaining the guests by singing and dancing and playing on musical instruments. Young Radisson played a guitar and proved himself quite adept.

Then the gate swung open wide and the food was carried out. All the pigs belonging to the colony had been butchered, and this provided a wonderful base for the meal. Corn and a kind of mincemeat were brought in first, followed by kettles full of broiled bustard and chicken and turtle. Next came eels and salmon and carp and a sagamité of thickened flour filled with vegetables. The Indians allowed themselves to be served great spoonfuls of everything. No dish passed them untouched. As young Radisson put it in his diary, “They eat as many wolves, having eyes bigger than bellies.”

It was customary for the hosts to abstain from eating, and so, while the feasting went on, the French beat on their drums and blazed away on their instruments and so made it impossible for the gorged warriors to detect certain unusual sounds which came from the rear of the enclosure.

Nature finally took a decisive part. The overstuffed stomachs of the warriors brought sleep to their eves. One by one they toppled over.

The Historic Meeting

When the fires died down, the sleeping Indians were wakened by the cold. Some of them stirred, sat up and roused the others. Footprints led to the shore of the lake, suggesting to the trained eyes of the Iroquois that they had been made by men in a great hurry. The French had departed, then, by water. But how? They had no boats, the Indians were sure. And the ice was unbroken. There was no way of knowing that the white men in their secretly built craft had broken the ice before them as they made their way out from the shore, and that it had frozen over behind them.

At Three Rivers that resourceful young man, Pierre Radisson went ashore to join his family. Here he met for the first time a man ten years his senior who was destined to become his partner in some of the most unusual exploits in history, one Médard Chouart des Groseilliers. This newcomer had married Radisson’s half sister Marguerite, the widow of the Sieur de Grandmesnil. The title Des Groseilliers had become his in the first place as a joke. Chouart had acquired a corner of land at Three Rivers overrun with brambles and gooseberry bushes. Hence the name which, bestowed in jest, be-

came accepted seriously in later years.

Médard Chouart was born on July 31, 1618, at Charly-sur-Marne. Coming to Canada at an early age, he turned up in Huronia as an engagé and lived through the bitter days of the war of extermination, returning with the last of the party to leave the island of St. Joseph. Coming to Three Rivers, he married and seemed disposed to settle down.

The two men took one look at each other and realized that there was a kinship between them. A spark passed from eye to eye. They were animated with the desire to leave no horizon unexplored, their feet always having the itch for exploration.

Before long they were off together for the west. An important moment in history, this, Radisson and Groseilliers starting on their first journey together. What matter that officials had frowned over the fact that a pair of young fellows had taken to the woods without permits? Two of the greatest and least appreciated men in Canadian annals were beginning their rocketing career together.

In the early summer of 1660 the arrival of Radisson and Groseilliers with a large cargo of furs had saved temporarily the credit of the colony. They had passed the Long Sault on the way home a few days following the slaughter of Dollard and his brave handful. They had seen the staked bodies of the victims at the water’s edge and may, indeed, have been the first to bring the dreadful tidings to Montreal. But they also brought proof that they were incredibly successful fur traders. Elaborate plans were made for another voyage and rumor spread through the town that the objective of the new venture would be Hudson Bay. The two coureurs de hois were certain they could lead the way there.

The Sieur d’Avagour was governor at this time, and it was known that he had a willingness to improve his own fortunes, a weakness shared by a number of the governors of New France. He came to Radisson and Groseilliers in great secrecy with a proposal. He would give them official permits for their next excursion if they would give him half of the profits. The answer he received was that they would be glad to have the governor’s company if he desired to share in the proceeds. This, at least, is the story that Radisson tells; there were no doubt denials later from the official camp. There is such a nice fitness about the answer of the voyageurs that it is easier to believe the Radisson version than the denials which came from the other side.

Whatever the truth may be, the resourceful pair stole away in the night as they had done before. They left Three Rivers with a cheery message from the guards in the lookout tower, where no doubt there was much grinning and winking in the dark. When a member of the party named Larivière became separated from the rest and was found later in a state of semi-starvation, the governor displayed his pique by j clapping him in prison. Whereupon the Í good people of Three Rivers, who knew enough of the story to have decided sympathies and who seem, moreover, to have been an,independent lot, broke open the jail and released him.

The expedition was a great success. The party struck for the hunting grounds north of Lake Superior, where Radisson was prompted by the beauty and richness of this stretch of primeval land to write in his diary: “It grieves me to see that the world could not discover such enticing country to live in . . . The Europeans fight for a rock in the sea against one another or for a sterile land . . . It is true, I confess, that access here is difficult, but nothing is to be gained without labor and pains.”

The party returned from this idyllic land in 1663 with a wonderful store of furs and a secret. Some intimation of the secret leaked out at once; it had to do with a new land route to Hudson Bay.

They Worked for Nothing

The governor acted promptly and with a degree of severity which showed that his resentment still ran deep. He ordered them arrested and had the cargo impounded. The upshot was that they were fined almost up to the full value of the fur they had brought back with them. Some of the money was to be employed in building a new fort at Three Rivers, this being intended perhaps as a measure to rob them of the sympathies of their fellow citizens. As a sop to the pair, it was stipulated they could put their respective coats of arms on the gate of the new fort . From the figures available, it seems that the value of the furs ran very high—some place it at 60,000 pounds—and out of this the woodsmen were left no more t han 4,000 from which the expenses of t he expedition had to be met.

Radisson and Groseilliers were not men to sit down under such treatment. Radisson had been nicknamed Dodcon, which meant Little Devil, when he was a prisoner of the Mohawks, and both he and his partner had shown highhandedness and temper in their dealings. Groseilliers departed at once for France in a state of high dudgeon to appeal their case before the King’s ministers. The ministers turned a cold shoulder.

It is clear they gave no thought to the possibility that these men, the most spectacularly successful traders the colony had produced, might be capable of bringing continuous revenue into the royal coffers if allowed official cooperation. The stand they took was a grievous error and was to cost France a huge price in war and bloodshed as well as financial losses so enormous that by comparison the amount of the fines seems of no more consequence than the scratch of a bookkeeper’s pen.

Groseilliers returned to New France and rejoined his partner. They were now almost devoid of funds, and their position seemed so hopeless that they reached a momentous decision, with considerable reluctance, it is believed. They decided to see if they could secure




THE HAUGHTY FRONTENAC qua nel led with everyone in New France and was recalled in disgrace. But when the colony was in dire danger it was Frontenac who defended Quebec. He was

The Hero who had no Friends


backing in the colonies of New England. At Port Royal they met a New England sea captain named Zachariah Gillam, who encouraged them to do their trading in future from England’s colonial ports. Their reluctance still nagged at them because this meant going to Hudson Bay by sea and abandoning the land route which they had learned from the Indians of the west, the direct and easy way through a long lake now called Winnipeg and then straight to the bay by a river which would he given the name Nelson.

Zachariah Gillam offered to take them in his ship, and together they got as far as the straits which Sir Martin Frobisher, the great Elizabethan navigator, had found in 1577. Gillam, according to Radisson’s account, began to complain that his ship was not fitted out for winter sailing and decided to return.

Arriving in Boston, the partners made a deal by which two ships were supplied for another effort to reach Hudson Bay by sea. One of the ships was wrecked and the crews lost heart. They did not reach the bay, and on their return the New England backers of the venture entered suit against the French Canadians.

At this low point in their fortunes they were now almost destitute—they met an extraordinary man named Sir George Carteret. He had been born and raised on the island of Jersey, and during the English civil war had fought with the greatest zeal on the Royalist side; with so much zeal, in fact, that after the King’s banner went down finally he waged a privateering war on English shipping and was proclaimed a pirate. When the restoration of the Stuarts put Charles II on the throne Carteret was made a baronet and granted “a certain island and adjacent islets in perpetual inheritance to he called New Jersey.”

In one way and another Sir George Carteret became one of the wealthiest men in the world. He was in the American colonies on business when he met Radisson and Groseilliers. His keen mind jumped at once to the great possibilities of the northern trade. He saw the French Canadians undoubtedly as men of his own kidney. He persuaded them to go to England with him.

They arrived in England after many adventures, including their capture by the Dutch, with whom England was at war, and a period of detention in Spain. It was in 1665 when they arrived, when London was in the throes of the Great Plague. The most acute stage of that terrible visitation had been reached and those who could afford to leave the city had already done so. King Charles

was at Oxford, and Carteret repaired to that city, taking his two new friends from the French colonies with him.

Radisson acted as spokesman and the King listened to him with the closest attention. There can be no doubt that this young adventurer had a way with him. He seems, sensibly enough, to have dwelt on the great profits to be made out of the fur trade in the northern waters, but through the recital ran a golden thread of speculation that out of the bay running ever westward on its way to the east, would be found the Northwest Passage.

The King was sufficiently impressed to order that for the balance of the year, by which time he expected to have definite plans made for the conquest of the north, the sum of forty shillings a week was to be given the two Frenchmen.

King Charles next ordered his brother, the Duke of York, who would later succeed him on the throne as James II, to loan the Eaglet, of the South Seas fleet, for the purpose of a test exploration. It was a small vessel under the command of a Captain Stannard. A second ship called the Nonsuch was also put into service, under the same Capt. Zachariah Gillam who had tried once before. A start was made for the west on June 3, 1668.

Formation of the HBC

Radisson was in the Eaglet, which was unlucky for him. The ship was disabled early and had to put back to Plymouth. The Nonsuch with Groseilliers on board reached the northern waters and penetrated as far south as James Bay at the southern end of Hudson Bay. Here a small fort was raised and the business of trading with the natives began. On the advice of the Frenchmen, the cargo included all the right articles for barter. Half a pound of beads or five pounds of sugar were given for one beaver skin, twenty fishhooks for five skins, a gun for twenty. As the result of a year’s trading the Nonsuch returned with a cargo valued at 19,000 pounds, which was ample to meet all expenses and leave a margin o. profit to be divided among those who had contributed the funds. The result, certainly, was good enough to convince everyone that there was money to be made in the bay.

On May 2, 1670, the famous charter of the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, Trading into Hudson’s Bay was introduced and signed. And thus one of the most profitable and fascinating ventures in the whole history of business the world over was begun.

This historic charter was a document of five sheets, written in curiously involved sentences, and giving the Adventurers practically the whole of the north and the waters and seas thereabouts. There were 18 men listed as members, including the Duke of York, Prince Rupert, a cousin of the King, Carteret, Colleton, Sir James Hayes, Sir John Kirke (whose daughter Mary became Mrs. Radisson soon thereafter), an assorted lot of peers, the Duke of Albemarle, the Earl of Craven, Lord Arlington and Lord Ashley, and a number of plain baronets and knights. John Portman, listed as citizen and goldsmith, was made the treasurer.

What of Radisson and Groseilliers? They were not mentioned, although it was understood they were to continue on some kind of dole, and the King himself gave each of them “a gold chain and meddall.”

There can be no doubt that Radisson and Groseilliers were an unscrupulous pair, but their side of the much-vexed question which developed is not hard to see. Knowing the value of t heir services to the English they believed they were entitled to a fair share of the profits. “We were Caesars,” wrote Radisson the Irrepressible. But grasping hands in high places were taking the rewards from them.

The French habit of impoverishing them with fines because they were so successful drove them to England and to the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The suspicions and the social contempt of the English drove them again to the French service. They shuttled back and forth until the story becomes too complicated to follow in detail. Yes, they were unscrupulous, crafty and glib. Their heads were filled with schemes, and so the men they dealt with had to be wary. But the French officials were as blind as bats, seeing these brave and somewhat mad adventurers as nothing but disobedient servants of the Crown. The English looked down their noses at these “renegades” and refused to give them any share in the company, fobbing them off with small and reluctant doles.

I n 1672, while at Hudson Bay, Radisson and Groseilliers received letters from Colbert, the French King’s minister, proposing that they return to the service of France. They returned to London at once to try to get better terms from the directors of the company. Protracted negotiations followed. It becomes clear enough that Radisson and Groseilliers would have remained in the service of the company if satisfactory terms had been offered them. They remained in London throughout the winter of 1673-74, pressing their claims during an interminable series of talks and conferences, the letters from Colbert burning holes in their pockets the while.

The company, however, remained adamant. The best they could do was to promise Radisson one hundred pounds per annum (this apparently was to be a joint, fee, for no mention is made separately of Groseilliers) and “if if pleases God to bless the company with good success hereafter that they come to be in a prosperous condition that they will reassume considerations.”

Some authorities contend Iliat the company had not been paying clividends and that this was the reason for the seeming niggardliness of their proposition. Others declare that the profits had been large and that dividends up to one hundred percent had been paid.

Radisson and Groseilliers slipped quietly across the Channel and paid a call on Colbert. He greeted them cordially and made it clear that the severity which had driven them to London in the first place was now regretted, as well it might be, for it had thrown the empire of the north into the hands of France’s great rival. He made them an offer: come back into the service of France and receive a salary three times as large as the Hudson’s Bay Company was offering. They agreed.

In the year 1680 an important conference was held in New France. Those present were the great figures of the colony, the bold and the farseeing, the wise and the courageous men. Among them were the Sieur de la Salle, about whose exploits much will be told later; Joliet, joint discoverer of the Mississippi; a successful fur trader of Quebec named Aubert de la Chesnaye. Then there was that brave and solid citizen of Montreal, Charles le Moyne, whose sons were destined to play truly glorious roles in the tumultuous years ahead. And, to give point to the gathering, there were Radisson and Groseilliers.

These two stormy petrels of the north had been for some time back in the employment of France. They had not been allowed, however, to return to Hudson Bay. As long as the two countries were at peace a fiction of neutrality had to be maintained and, as the English were in possession there, nothing could be done to disturb them.

The importance of this informal gathering can be judged by the fact that out of it came La Compagnie du Nord, the Company of the North, an organization which represented the will of the French-Canadian people to contest the lordship of the fur country with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The little group got down to business. La Chesnaye, a great promiser, assured them that he could produce the necessary funds and the ships if Radisson and Groseilliers would take the command. Their consent was readily obtained. This was what they wanted to do more than anything else in the world. It was decided, therefore, that Radisson and Groseilliers would go in the spring to Isle Percé, where the fishing fleets congregated, and there they would wait for the twin ships La Chesnaye had promised to fit out and man.

La Chesnaye, it developed, was better at making promises than in the fulfillment of them. The two ships which finally came heaving and pitching into Isle Percé like a pair of veteran porpoises were the smallest and oldest and the crankiest that could have been produced by a search of the offcasts of all nations. They were called the St. Pierre and the Ste. Anne and they could hold no more than thirty men between them, which was perhaps just as well, because the men La Chesnaye had recruited were for the most part raw and inexperienced landlubbers. The rigging was rotten, the holds were unseaworthy, and there was a stench about these derelicts which only long service in the fishing trade could produce. Was it possible for even inspired leaders to accomplish anything under these circumstances? Could Radisson and Groseilliers win back the bay with ships redeemed from naval junk piles and with the culls and misfits who made up the crews?

They decided to try. Radisson took the St. Pierre. Groseilliers, having a

grown-up son, Jean Chouart, with him, took the Ste. Anne. After suppressing a mutinous outbreak among the crew, who were finding the service quite different from what they had expected, they finally reached Hudson Bay in September.

Dependence must be placed on Radisson’s narrative for the story of what happened after that, and it has to be avowed at the start that there was always a tendency to exaggerate in everything he put down on paper. His story was that the Frenchmen in their little tubs came limping into the waters where the Hayes and the Nelson Rivers raced to the bay. They found there a ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, which had come from New England under the command of Ben Gillam, a son of the captain who had figured in the early years of the company. They were poaching, these bold colonials, and the delighted Radisson saw at once that he had a hold over young Ben Gillam which could be used to advantage. By his glib talk he had “come over” young Gillam and won his confidence when a vessel owned by the company, the Prince Rupert, completed the triangle. It sailed into the estuary of the Nelson with two men of some prominence on board, Governor Bridgar of the company and old Zachariah Gillam himself.

A Turner of Coats

The newcomers should have sensed the situation at once because the directors of the company had made plans for just such an emergency as this. On sailing, the captains of company shipá were given sealed orders which contained among other things the harbor signals. Ships on the bay which did not hoist the proper signals were to be fired on as poachers and interlopers. Neither Radisson nor Ben Gillam was in a position to fly the right signals—in fact, they did not dare fly any flag at all—and the Prince Rupert should have blown them out of the water.

Radisson took advantage of the opportunity thus presented to him. He built a high fire, which was the Indian way of announcing their presence with furs to trade, and in response the Prince Rupert came in to anchor. Radisson then succeeded in getting the ear of old Zachariah Gillam and acquainted him with the news of his son’s involvement. Zachariah was distressed, for he knew that his son could be shot if his identity was discovered. He did not, therefore, let Bridgar know that this bearded stranger was none other than Pierre Esprit Radisson, that well-known turner of coats.

Then nature took a decisive hand. A storm drove the ice from the bay into the estuary, and the Prince Rupert was sunk. Fourteen of the crew, including Capt. Zachariah Gillam, were drowned.

At this point the story that Radisson retails becomes too involved for recapitulation or belief. By devious means, which he makes more ingenious than any pirate ever contrived, he took possession of a fort which Ben Gillam had built on shore and captured the whole New England crew. Not a blow was struck, not a drop of blood spilled. Then he made prisoners of Bridgar and most of his men (this one does justice to Münchhausen himself) and putting all of them on board the Bachelor’s Delight, and all the furs which the poachers had secured, he sailed away in triumph.

It is almost impossible to believe what Radisson tells of the methods by which he brought about this miracle, but there is no denying the results. The Bachelor’s Delight reached Quebec. Bridgar and Ben Gillam were on board in the role of prisoners. There was a valuable cargo in the hold.

This much also is certain. The people of Quebec went wild with enthusiasm when the terror of the north, who had always been a hero in the eyes of most of them, came into the harbor with his loot and his prisoners. But in high circles there was no trace of enthusiasm at all. In the citadel of St. Louis there was at this time a governor named Lefebvre de la Barre, an old soldier who completely lacked the qualifications to deal with situations like this. To Governor la Barre the success of Radisson was a complication which he solved by doing the obvious thing. He fined the victors and ordered that they return at once to France and report to Colbert, who would know how to deal with them. He restored the Bachelor’s Delight to Ben Gillam. Bridgar was sel at liberty with diplomatic apologies.

La Compagnie du Nord came very close to a premature collapse as a result of this decision on the part of Governor la Barre. When Radisson, impoverished a second time by the fines imposed on him, reached Paris he found that Colbert was dead and that the King was in a state of fury over the whole episode. Louis was angry with La Barre and wrote to him demanding to know why the latter had thus publicly surrendered the French claim to Hudson Bay. He was furious with Radisson because he had been too successful but a little later ordered him to go back to the bay and do what he could to help the English restore order. The English government furiously bombarded Versailles with demands for damages and the punishment of the men responsible for the losses of the company.

At this point Groseilliers drops out of the story. Some say he retired to Three Rivers and lived out the balance of his days there with his faithful wife and his brood of children. Others believe that he died in the north while Radisson was performing his feats of legerdemain. Whatever the reason, from that point on Radisson traveled alone. It had been a truly remarkable alliance, a David and Jonathan epic of the north woods and waters. Radisson was the showy partner, the dynamic leader. Groseilliers had carried the heaviest share of the burdens.

In the spring of 1684 there was a meeting of the directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company at which a most unexpected announcement was made. Pierre Espi-it Radisson was back in London and he was back for good. He was no longer willing to trust himself and his fortunes to the mercy of French colonial governors. The directors, willing to forget the past, welcomed the prodigal and made an agreement with him by which he received stock to the value of two hundred pounds, a salary of one hundred pounds in years when dividends were not paid and fifty when they were, and the sum of twenty-five pounds to set himself up again. They were so glad to see the rolling stone on their side that they made a present of seven musquash skins to Sir William Young who had persuaded Radisson to return. They even took the Frenchman to meet the Duke of York, who had succeeded Prince Rupert as governor of the company. As a shareholder he had to take the customary oath of allegiance which began, “1 doe sweare to bee true and faithful to ye Comp’y of Adventurers: ye secrets of ye Comp’y 1 will not disclose ...”

In the years that followed Radisson seems to have been an active and faithful servant of the company although he was still to wage many battles with the directors over his share of the proceeds and to secure a pension for his wife. He went out to the bay immediately in the Happy Return; and a happy return it was for he brought back twenty thousand pelts. He made many other (rips to the wild north country which he loved so much and was a factor, without a doubt, in the successes which now crowned the company efforts. There were years when his dividends on the two hundred pounds of stock he held amounted to one hundred and fifty and there were years when he received, probably as a result of the loss of ships, no more than fifty. He was able to live reasonably well although he had nine children to support. He drew his last quarterly installment in July 1710, when he was in his seventy-sixth year.

His last years could not have been happy ones. In London, his ears were filled with the cries of the streets, and this must have been a poor substitute for the sound of dipping paddles and the swish of water along the sides of a birch-bark canoe. F rom his windows he saw sooty chimney pots and lowering skies instead of the green line of trees and the flash of the northern lights.

Of all the characters produced by New France, and there were so many of them, he seems the most picturesque. He had in him much of the stuff of greatness.