Adventures of Radisson




Martin Fournier



Translated by Peter McCambridge



Originally published as
Les aventures de Radisson, 1 L'enfer ne brûle pas

© 2011 by Les éditions du Septentrion

Publié avec l'autorisation de Les éditions du Septentrion, Sillery, Québec


Translation Copyright © Baraka Books 2012


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.


Cover illustration by Jean-Michel Girard

Cover by Folio infographie

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Translated by Peter McCambridge


ePub conversion by:


ISBN 978-1-926824-68-0 (ePub)


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Translator's note: “In the early part of the seventeenth century the native people of Canada were not known to the French as ‘Indians,' but by the names of their tribal confederacies, and were referred to collectively as ‘Les Sauvages' (the Savages). The natives, for their part, spoke of the French as ‘Normans' and of the Jesuit fathers as ‘Blackrobes.'” — Brian Moore, from the Author's Note to
Black Robe
(Penguin: 1985), p. viii. After discussion with the historian and author of
Les aventures de Radisson
, Martin Fournier, the translator has used the term ‘Wildmen' occasionally in the narrative itself, since this is the term Radisson himself used in his English-language travel journals. In the 17th century, the French term
did not have the pejorative meaning it does today.



was the most famous
coureur des bois
in the history of Canada. Happily, the detailed accounts he left behind give us a good idea of his extraordinary adventures.

On May 24, 1651, he left his native France at age fifteen for New France, undertaking the perilous crossing of the Atlantic from Paris to join his two sisters, Marguerite and Françoise, in Trois-Rivières. At the time, no more than three hundred lived in the village. Montréal had been founded nine years earlier and was home to less than two hundred people. Québec was the biggest settlement with over one thousand inhabitants. In all, barely two thousand French settlers lived in New France.

Trois-Rivières lay at the confluence of the Saint-Maurice and St. Lawrence rivers, a long-established meeting place for the Wildmen in summer. The French village had some thirty axe-hewn square-timber buildings surrounded by a high stockade and protected by four solid corner bastions. Only the residence of the Jesuit missionaries was built from stone. When Radisson joined his two sisters there, war was raging between the French and the powerful Iroquois nation. The Iroquois had decimated the Hurons— their long-time enemies —the previous year. Since the Hurons were the main allies of the French in the fur trade— the colony's only source of revenue —those were critical days for New France. Its very existence was in peril.

At that time, news travelled very slowly: Radisson knew nothing of the impending crisis when he left France. Judging by the three letters his sister Marguerite had sent to her family over a period of five years, New France was a land of milk and honey. And so Radisson decided to leave his life in Paris, where he lived with his mother as a small-time trader. New France beckoned.

Radisson was astonished by all that he found in the colony: endless forests, broad expanses of water as far as the eye could see, phenomenal quantities of snow, and winters longer and colder than he could ever have imagined. Trois-Rivières was also much smaller and more isolated than he anticipated. Worse, the colony had almost come to a standstill. Radisson took up residence with his sister Marguerite and her husband Jean Véron dit Grandmesnil. But he soon had enough of being shut up inside the village.



with energy, mouth stuffed full of moose, head spinning with the thirst for life that devoured him, Radisson found it hard to pay attention as his brother-in-law Jean Véron retold his favourite story for the twentieth time.

“You should've seen our twelve canoes weighted down with all those furs!” he roared. “When we got within sight of Trois-Rivières, with Saint-Claude and the three Huron chiefs in the first canoe, I was so happy I fired my musket into the air! Everyone ran out to the shore to meet us. We beached the canoes, climbed out, and hugged each other heartily. The men couldn't believe all the fur we brought back and my beautiful Marguerite kissed me all over, tears of joy streaming down her face…”

Radisson pictured himself travelling the length and breadth of the endless expanses he'd heard about from the men who'd returned from the lands to the west. He dreamed of reaching the ends of the earth, and finding great riches and happiness. He felt prepared for adventure.

“The Jesuit missionaries who had come back with us embraced those who stayed behind. Then Father Le Mercier, the Superior, thanked the Hurons for once again coming from so far to trade their furs, despite the dangers of the journey. They'd be more than happy with what the French would give them in exchange, he promised. Then we sat down and the feasting began. Our beaver pelts turned more heads than even the

Outside a ferocious snowstorm was beating down on the tiny settlement of Trois-Rivières. Radisson had never seen anything like it. From time to time he paused between mouthfuls to listen to the jets of snow rattling against the windowpanes like sand thrown by a giant hand. With each terrible gust of wind the fire flared up, swallowing the logs Marguerite kept feeding the hearth to fight off the cold. The wind blew through the village, howled in the woods, veered out over the frozen St. Lawrence as the snow piled up around the houses as they struggled to resist the storm and cling to their heat, huddled tight up against one another, protected by the stockade that blunted the worst of the icy squalls. Noticing that his sister and brother-in-law seemed unconcerned, Radisson went on eating.

“That's the trade that made us rich,” Véron continued. “Not as rich as the merchants in Québec now, not that rich! But for people like us, here in Trois-Rivières we can't complain, can we, Marguerite? Can't complain at all! From that day on the governor of Québec has had complete confidence in me— even writes to me for advice!”

Marguerite had finished tidying the kitchen. Carefully she cast another log onto the hearth through the flames, and then sat down with her husband and Radisson at the table. Her belly had begun to swell with the child that would be born in the summer. Seeing that her brother was devouring her moose stew, she asked, “Another plate, Radisson? It sure looks like you're enjoying it!”

Radisson nodded enthusiastically, a smile dancing across his lips, delighted to discover meat he had never tasted before. Back from their great winter hunt, the Algonquins who lived no more than fifty feet away from the fort had traded some to Véron and Marguerite in return for flour and peas. Radisson had never heard of the Algonquins before, but he soon learned they were indispensable allies of the French against the Iroquois. Like everyone who lived in Trois-Rivières, he encountered them nearly every day. Their complicated language, the clothing they made from animal skins, and their strange ways all fascinated him.

Jean Véron finished his story. He fell silent for a moment, lost in thought, then changed tone and turned to his wife.

“Ah Marguerite, those were the days,” he sighed.

“Don't worry, my love. They'll return soon enough,” she replied. “Trade will pick up again, just like before. It's only a bad patch.”

“From your mouth to God's ear, woman! If things keep on like this, it'll be the end of trade in the Great Lakes! As long as the Iroquois are at war with us, we won't be going back there in a hurry, that's for sure.”

Gloomily Jean Véron returned to his thoughts, as though talk of the war against the Iroquois had robbed him of his voice, his hope. Meanwhile Radisson finished off his stew without batting an eyelid. The whole household could hear him slurping away each time the wind died down and the crackling of the fire subsided. He had never seen an Iroquois in his life and didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Marguerite put a firm, reassuring hand on her husband's shoulder and some of his energy returned. He looked at Radisson again:

“Lads like you are going to help us get through,” he said. “When spring comes, you'll come to Québec with me to take orders from the governor. Then, if you like, you'll come to Montréal with the men who are prepared to go with us and we'll find a way to resist the Iroquois and, above all else, replace the Hurons and find new trading partners for our furs. We can't give up, lad. The colony may be collapsing around us, but we have to pick ourselves back up! We have to fight! Otherwise everyone is going to run off back to France. Is that what you want, lad? To run right back where you came from? No, eh? Well, then you'll do your bit! I bet you're all set to help us. What do you think, Marguerite?”

“Of course my brother's going to help!” she said confidently. “I'd even go so far as to say that he wants nothing more than to help us. Isn't that right, Radisson?”

“That's for sure!” the young Frenchman exclaimed, nodding emphatically, his mouth still full of the bread he'd sopped up the gravy with.

, the most experienced man in all of Trois-Rivières, had just been chosen by the
to captain the militia. From then on, he would lead the fight against the Iroquois. For fifteen years he'd travelled everywhere with the Indians; he knew their languages, their ruses and customs. Like them, he knew how to hunt, fish, repair a canoe, and find his way through the woods. He knew the ways of the animals, the wild plants that healed and nourished, and the dangers that winter and spring could bring. He was tall, strapping, and strong as an ox, with hands as broad as paddles. Around him he gathered all the men who could bear arms outside the fort, within sight of the Saint-Maurice and St. Lawrence rivers. Speaking for the first time as captain, he addressed them in a booming voice. The three officers of the militia, his assistants, stood by his side.

Radisson was one of the youngest members in the group, along with his friend François Godefroy— the captain's son —and Mathurin Lesueur, a beanpole of a lad who'd arrived in Trois-Rivières a few weeks after Radisson the previous summer.

Instead of listening to Pierre Godefroy, Radisson let his eyes wander to the bright horizon. He could see exactly the passageway, along the St. Lawrence, to the far-off lands he dreamed of. The bright sunshine warmed his face. Spring was in the air, his friend François told him. Even though Paris was already warm at this time of year, Radisson couldn't have been happier to be in New France, a good distance from the village stockade that no longer blocked his gaze, or curbed his imagination. Here he was, happy to stare off into the wide-open spaces that beckoned to him irresistibly.

“The Iroquois are bound to attack us,” said Godefroy. “So we will have to ready ourselves. We have nothing to fear so long as we fight together. That's why it's vital to do what I and my officers tell you.”

Looking toward the steeple atop the Jesuit chapel and the smoking chimneys that peeked above the stockade, Radisson told himself that he was an apprentice no more. No more comments about his lack of experience and the country's many dangers. Soon it would be his turn to step out into the world. He was ready.

“You know your officers as well as I do,” Godefroy continued. “I have appointed Jean Véron dit Grandmesnil…”

Radisson's ears pricked up at the sound of his brother-in-law's name. How proud he was that his sister's husband had been named first officer of the militia after Godefroy. Véron had taught him how to fire a musket, an unthinkable privilege in France for anyone not a soldier or a nobleman.

“…Claude Volant dit Saint-Claude,” shouted Godefroy, “and Gabriel Dandonneau. These will be my three right-hand men. But we're also counting on each and every one of you! From now on you will go on daily patrols around the fort, in groups of five or six in Indian file. And you will practice your shooting. Radisson. Come here!”

The young Frenchman couldn't believe his ears. He didn't dare move. Why was Godefroy calling him forward? What had he done wrong, especially now that he was listening to the captain's every word?

“Radisson!” Godefroy shouted again. “Come here, I said!”

His friend François motioned for him to step forward and be quick about it. Radisson walked over to his captain, impressed by the strength that emanated from his broad belly.

“Stand here,” Godefroy told him. “Show them how to shoot. Now listen: when I throw this piece of wood up into the air and shout ‘Fire!' you open fire. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Radisson.

A lump in his throat, legs slightly bent for greater balance, feet planted firmly on his snowshoes, and musket level with his chest, Radisson steadied himself. He was keen to make a good impression, to prove that he deserved the trust Godefroy had placed in him. Suddenly Godefroy threw the wood high into the air and yelled “Fire!” Radisson brought the musket to his shoulder, aimed, pulled the trigger, and hit the branch. It tumbled through the air. “I hit it! I hit it!” shouted Radisson, hoisting his arms and turning toward the men looking on, the delight on his face clear for all to see.

“See that?” said Godefroy. “I wanted to show you that you don't need to be a soldier to be a good shot. Radisson never even held a gun before he came over here. But he's worked hard and he's learned well. In just six months, he's better with a musket than many of you. You can do anything if you set your minds to it. Now, if you all do the exercises I give you, you'll only get better and we'll have nothing to fear from the Iroquois! We will be stronger than anyone.”

Radisson was still thrilled and surprised at having shown everyone he was one of the sharpest shooters in Trois-Rivières. One man after another came up to congratulate him and pass on words of encouragement, aware that they needed young recruits like him if they were to regain the upper hand in the war against the Iroquois. He thanked them with his finest smile; he'd always found it easy to get on well with people. In Paris he'd already discovered the benefits of serving his father's customers with enthusiasm and good humour: it loosened their purse strings and kept them coming back.

“Follow me, now!” ordered Pierre Godefroy. “Everybody run!”

His triumph still fresh in everyone's mind, Radisson was keen to again prove that he was one of the best. He rushed forward but, unused to running on snowshoes, fell headfirst into the snow. François didn't miss the chance to exact his revenge:

“Ah, now we can all see the new guys aren't up to much,” he said scornfully. “You can't always be lucky like earlier, can you?”

“Shut up, François Godefroy. You know I'm a better shot than you!” replied Radisson as he struggled to get up, tangled in his snowshoes. “Give me a hand, will you?”

But François ran on ahead without turning round, in high spirits. Radisson caught up with him a few minutes later at the Algonquin camp. His father had already begun to address their chief in the Algonquin language. Radisson could barely understand a word. He leaned over to his friend, who spoke the language fluently, and whispered, “What's your dad saying?”

François was only too happy to show he knew more than Radisson and whispered back: “He is sorry so many Algonquins died when the Iroquois attacked them four years ago. He says that the French have come in force to pledge to fight alongside them and prevent another massacre. He wants to know if the Algonquins will agree to fight with the French.”

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