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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.