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.
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.
three of them went forward and found a clearing. Radisson pointed. Shots rang
out and they shot enough birds to satisfy Radisson's friends.
plenty. It's more than enough," said one on them.
no. Let's get some more. It isn't enough," said Radisson, strong-willed and
thought this might happen Pierre. You are never satisfied."
is it because you're both cowards and are still little boys who can't face
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.
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, 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
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.
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. 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.
 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."
 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.