Fur trader and explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1640?-1710) came to New France around 1651, and with his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers, became the first French fur traders to visit Wisconsin after Jean Nicolet in 1634. Radisson was involved in matters of international importance, moving in royal circles in both England and France, and adapting quickly to situations with seemingly little moral, religious, or patriotic concern. Radisson led the life of an adventurous coureur de bois (unlicensed traders who traded French goods for Indian furs), setting out to explore the rich fur territories of the upper Midwest and the Hudson Bay. His knowledge of the region and of the Indians proved essential to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company in 1670.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson was born around 1640 in Avignon, France. Little is known of his parents, birth, or early childhood in France. Radisson's half sister, Marguerite Hayet, played an important role in his life as he either came to New France with her or as a result of her being there. Her second husband, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers, would become Radisson's partner in the exploration of North America.
Radisson arrived in New France around 1651 at the age of 16. Captured by the Iroquois, he survived torture and was adopted by the Mohawks. He learned their language and customs quickly, adapting with remarkable skill to his new environment, and was given the Indian name Oninga. In 1653 Radisson escaped to Fort Orange, the Dutch settlement near present-day Albany, New York, and was shipped back to Amsterdam in the early weeks of 1654. He returned to New France later in the year, probably after his brother-in-law, Des Groseilliers, had left on his two-year exploration into the continent's interior.
For many years it was assumed that Radisson had accompanied Des Groseilliers on this trip. Radisson's own reminiscences make this claim, however the discovery of a document from 1655 bearing Radisson's signature from a deal in Quebec proves his story inaccurate.
In 1657 Radisson accompanied a Jesuit missionary party led by Father Paul Ragueneau to Onondaga, a mission established the previous year in Iroquois country near Syracuse, New York, by Joseph-Marie Chaumonot and Claude Dablon. Radisson left a colorful account of this trip, including his departure with Ragueneau from the Iroquois, who were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Jesuit missionary venture.
Radisson's next trip was with Des Groseilliers to the far end of Lake Superior. They left in August 1659 and returned to Montreal on August 20, 1660. Radisson's account contains detailed descriptions of the countryside and of their strange and often harrowing experiences, though his claim to have traveled to Hudson Bay seems highly improbable given the length of time they were away. Writing later of his journey, Radisson was anxious to appear as knowledgeable about the fur trade and his exploration of North America as possible, which may have led to exaggerated claims.
Unfortunately, Radisson and Des Groseilliers had left without government permission so were greeted upon their return to Montreal with fines and jail. Embittered by their harsh treatment, Radisson and Des Groseilliers sold their knowledge and services to the English and helped found the Hudson Bay Company.
The company received its charter in May 1670, and until 1675 Radisson and Des Grosielliers were kept busy traveling back and forth between England and Hudson Bay, advising their employers about provisions and trading commodities. The political turmoil caused by the Exclusion Crisis in 1675 against the succession of the Catholic Duke of York, Radisson's patron, to the throne forced the two Frenchmen to leave England. Radisson returned to work for the French for a few years, but by 1684 Radisson was back in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company where he established a permanent trading post for the company at the Nelson River.
From 1687 until his death in 1710, Radisson lived in London, having been naturalized as a British citizen. Despite his sometimes dubious claims and his easily altered allegiences, Radisson, with Des Grosielliers, earned a permanent place in Wisconsin history as the first fur trader and author of some colorful early depictions of our state.