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French and English on the Bay

Every year three ships were sailing to the Bay and returning to England laden with peltry; but in 1672 it was observed by the traders at the fort that fewer Indians than usual came down the river with furs. In the next year there were still fewer. For some reason the trade was falling off. Radisson urged Bayly to establish new forts on the west coast, and at length the governor consented to go with him on his regular summer cruise to Nelson. When they came back to Rupert in August they were surprised to find the fort tenanted by a Jesuit from Quebec, Father Albanel, who handed letters to Radisson and Groseilliers, and passports from the governor of New France to Bayly. The sudden decrease of trade was explained. French traders coming overland from the St Lawrence had been intercepting the Indians. But France and England were at peace and bound in closest amity by secret treaty, and Bayly was compelled to receive the passports and to welcome the Jesuit, as the representative of a friendly nation, to the hospitality of Fort Charles. What the letters to Radisson and Groseilliers contained we can only guess, but we do know that their contents, made the French explorers thoroughly dissatisfied with their position in the Hudson's Bay Company. Bayly accused the two Frenchmen of being in collusion with the Company's rivals. A quarrel followed and at this juncture Captain Gillam arrived on one of the Company's ships. The Frenchmen were suspected of treachery, and Gillam suggested that they should return to England and explain what seemed to need explaining.

The Admiralty records for 1674 contain mention of Captain Gillam's arrival from Hudson Bay on the Shaftesbury Pink with 'a French Jesuit, a little old man, and an Indian, a very lusty man.' This Jesuit could not have been Albanel, for in the French archives is conclusive proof that Albanel returned to Quebec. The 'little ould man' must have been another Jesuit found by Gillam at the Bay.

The winter of 1673-74 found Radisson and Groseilliers back in England pressing the directors of the Company for better terms. The Governing Committee first required oaths of fealty. Conferences were multiplied and prolonged; but still Radisson and Groseilliers refused to go back to the Bay until something was done. On June 29, 1674, the Governing Committee unanimously voted that 'there be allowed to Mr Radisson £100 per annum in consideration of services, out of which shall be deducted what hath already been paid him; and if it pleases God to bless the Company with good success, hereafter that they come to be in a prosperous condition, then they will reassume consideration.' 'Prosperous condition!' At this time the shareholders were receiving dividends of fifty and one hundred per cent.

Now, in Radisson's pockets were offers from Colbert, the great minister at the French Court, for service in the French Navy at three times this salary. Abruptly, in the fall of 1674, the two Frenchmen left London and took service under Colbert. But now another difficulty blocked Radisson's advance. Colbert insisted that Radisson's wife should come to France to live. He thought that as long as Madame Radisson remained in England her husband's loyalty could not be trusted. Besides, her father, Sir John Kirke, was a claimant against France for £40,000 damages arising out of the capture of Quebec in 1629 by his relatives and its restoration to France in 1632 without recognition of the family's rights. If Sir John's daughter was residing in Paris as the wife of a French naval officer, the minister saw that this dispute might be more easily adjusted; and so he declined to promote the two Frenchmen until Madame Radisson came to France.

In 1679, during shore leave from the navy, Radisson met one of his old cronies of Quebec—Aubert de la Chesnaye, a fur trader. 'He proposed to me,' Radisson says, 'to undertake to establish the beaver trade in the great Bay where I had been some years before on account of the English.' It may be supposed that naval discipline ill-suited these wild wood-wanderers, and after this it is not surprising that we find Radisson and Groseilliers again in New France at a conference of fur traders and explorers, among whom were La Salle, Jolliet, Charles Le Moyne, the soldier with the famous sons, and La Chesnaye. No doubt Radisson told those couriers of the wilderness tales of profit on the sea in the north that brought great curses down on the authorities of New France who forbade the people of the colony free access to that rich fur field. La Chesnaye had introduced the brothers-in-law to Frontenac, the governor of New France, and had laid before him their plans for a trading company to operate on the great bay; but Frontenac 'did not approve the business.' He could not give a commission to invade the territory of a friendly power; still, if La Chesnaye and his associates chose to assume risks, he could wink at an invasion of rival traders' domains. A bargain was made. La Chesnaye would find the capital and equip two ships, and Radisson and Groseilliers would make the voyage. The brothers-in-law would sail at once for Acadia, there to spend the winter, and in the spring they would come with the fishing fleets to Isle Percé, where La Chesnaye would send their ships.

During the winter of 1681-82 La Chesnaye persuaded some of his friends to advance money for provisions and ships to go to the North Sea. Among these friends were Jean Chouart, Groseilliers' son, and a Dame Sorrel, who, like the English Lady Drax, was prepared to give solid support to a venture that promised profit. Thus was begun the Company of the North2 (la Compagnie du Nord) that was to be a thorn in the side of the 'Adventurers of England' for over thirty years. Frontenac granted permission for two unseaworthy vessels, the St Anne and the St Pierre, to fish off Isle Percé. Strange bait for cod lay in the lockers.

With profound disappointment Radisson and Groseilliers saw at Isle Percé in July the boats which they were to have. The St Pierre, outfitted for Radisson, was a craft of only fifty tons and boasted a crew of only twelve men. Groseilliers' vessel, the St Anne, which carried his son, Jean Chouart, was still smaller and had fifteen men. Both crews consisted of freshwater sailors who tossed with woe and threatened mutiny when the boats rolled past the tidal bore of Belle Isle Strait and began threading their way in and out of the 'tickles' and fiords of the ribbed, desolate, rocky coast of Labrador. Indeed, when the ships stopped to take on water at a lonely 'hole in the wall' on the Labrador coast, the mutiny would have flamed into open revolt but for the sail of a pirate ship that appeared on the horizon. Thereupon Radisson's ships crowded sail to the wind and sped on up the coast. What pirate ship this was may be guessed from what happened three weeks later.

Early in September the two vessels reached the Hayes river, which Radisson had named twelve years before and where he had set up the arms of the English king. Advancing fifteen miles up-stream, they chose a winter harbor. Leaving Groseilliers to beach the boats and erect cabins, Radisson and young Jean Chouart canoed farther up to the rendezvous of the Cree and Assiniboine Indians. The Indians were overjoyed to meet their trader friend of long past years. The white man's coming meant firearms, and firearms ensured invincible might over all foes. 'Ho, young men, be not afraid. The Sun is favorable to us. Our enemies shall fear us. This is the man we have wished for since the days of our fathers,' shouted the chief of the Assiniboines as he danced and tossed arrows of thanks to the gods.

When the voyageurs glided back down-stream on the glassy current, other sounds than those of Indian chants greeted them. The Hayes river, as we have seen, is divided from the Nelson on the north by a swampy stretch of brushwood. Across the swamp boomed and rolled to their astonished ears the reverberation of cannon. Was it the pirate ship seen off Labrador? or was it the coming of the English Company's traders? Radisson's canoe slipped past the crude fort that Groseilliers had erected and entered the open Bay. Nothing was visible but the yellow sea, chopped to white caps by the autumn wind. When he returned to the fort he learned that cannonading had been heard from farther inland. Evidently the ships had sailed up the Nelson river. Now, across the marsh between the two rivers lay a creek by which Indian canoes from time immemorial had crossed. Taking a canoe and three of his best men, Radisson paddled and portaged over this route to the Nelson. There, on what is now known as Seal or Gillam Island, stood a crude new fort; and anchored by the island lay a stout ship—the Bachelor's Delight—cannons pointing from every porthole. Was it the pirate ship seen off Labrador? It took very little parleying to ascertain that the ship was a poacher, commanded by young Ben Gillam of Boston, son of the Company's captain, come here on illicit trade, with John Outlaw and Mike Grimmington, who later became famed seamen, as first and second mates. Radisson took fate by the beard, introduced himself to young Gillam, went on board the ship—not, however, without first seeing that two New Englanders remained as hostages with his three Frenchmen—quaffed drinks, observed that the ship was stout and well manned, advised Ben not to risk his men too far from the fort among the Indians, and laughed with joyous contempt when Ben fired cannon by way of testing the Frenchman's courage.


On the Hayes River
From a photograph by R. W. Brock

There was enough to try Radisson's courage the very next day. While gliding leisurely down the current of the Nelson, he saw at a bend in the river the Hudson's Bay Company's ship Prince Rupert, commanded by his quondam enemy, Captain Gillam, sailing straight for the rendezvous already occupied by Ben Gillam. At any cost the two English ships must be kept apart; and at once! Singly, perhaps they could be mastered by the French. Together, they would surely overpower Radisson. It was nightfall. Landing and concealing his comrades, Radisson kindled such a bonfire as Indians used to signal trade. The ship immediately anchored. There was a comical meeting on the Prince Rupert the next morning, at which Radisson represented to the new governor, John Bridgar, who was on the ship with Gillam, that each of his three paddlers was a captain of large ambushed forces. Charity will, perhaps, excuse Radisson for his fabulous tales of a powerful French fort on the Nelson and his disinterested observation that this river had a dangerous current higher up. It appears that Radisson succeeded completely in deceiving the Englishmen. Had they known how helpless he was, with only a few rude 'shacks' on the Hayes river garrisoned by twenty or thirty mutinous sailors, surely they would have clapped him under hatches. But he was permitted to leave the ship, and Bridgar began the preparation of his winter quarters on the shore.

Some days later Radisson came back. His old enemy Gillam was suspicious and ordered him away; but Radisson came again, and this time he brought with him the captain's son, young Ben, dressed as a wood-runner. This was enough to intimidate the old captain, for he knew that if his son was caught poaching on the Bay both father and son would be ruined. One day two of Bridgar's men who had been ranging for game dashed in with the news that they had seen a strange fort up the Nelson a few miles away. This, of course, Bridgar thought, was Radisson's fort, and Captain Gillam did not dare to undeceive him. Then a calamity befell the English winterers. A storm rose and set the tidal ice driving against the Prince Rupert. The ship was jammed and sunk with loss of provisions and fourteen men, including the captain himself. So perished Captain Zachariah Gillam, whom we first met as master of the Nonsuch, the pioneer of all the ships that have since sailed into the Bay in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company.


Entrance to Nelson and Hayes River
Map by Bartholomew

The wreck of the ship left Bridgar helpless in his rude fort without either food or ammunition, and he at once began to console himself for loss of ship and provisions by deep drinking. Then Radisson knew that he had nothing further to fear from that quarter and he sent food to the starving Englishmen.

Ben Gillam was outwitted through defiantly accepting an invitation to visit the French fort. Gillam visited his rivals to spy on their weakness, and openly taunted them at the banquet table about their helpless condition. When he tried to depart he was coolly told that he was a prisoner, and that, with the aid of any nine Frenchmen Ben chose to pick out from 'the helpless French,' Radisson purposed capturing the poacher's fort and ship. The young captain had fallen into a trap. Radisson had left French hostages at Gillam's fort for his safe return, but these had been instructed to place firearms at convenient places and to post themselves so that they could prevent the sudden closing of the gates. Such precautions proved unnecessary. Radisson walked into the New England poacher's fort and quietly took possession.

A few days later Bridgar, who had learned too late that the fort on the Nelson was not French but English, marched his men up-stream to contrive a junction with young Gillam's forces. When the Hudson's Bay men knocked on the gate of the New Englanders' fort for admission, the sentinel opened without question. The gates clapped shut with a slamming of bolts, and the Englishmen found themselves quietly and bloodlessly captured by the intrepid Radisson.

Meanwhile Groseilliers and his son, Jean Chouart, had been plying a thriving trade. To be sure, the ice jam of spring in the Hayes river had made Radisson's two cockle-shell craft look more like staved-in barrels than merchant ships. But in the spring, when the Assiniboines and Crees came riding down the river flood in vast brigades of birch canoes laden to the waterline with peltry, the Frenchmen had in store goods to barter with them and carried on a profitable trade.

Radisson now had more prisoners than he could conveniently carry to Quebec. Rigging up the remnants of his rickety ships for a convoy, he placed in them the majority of the Hudson's Bay Company and New England crews and sent them south to Rupert and Moose. Taking possession of Ben Gillam's ship, the Bachelor's Delight, he loaded it with a cargo of precious furs, and set out for Quebec with Bridgar and young Gillam as prisoners. Jean Chouart and a dozen Frenchmen remained on the Hayes river to trade. Twenty miles out from port, Bridgar and young Gillam were caught conspiring to cut the throats of the Frenchmen, and henceforth both Englishmen were kept under lock and key in their cabins.

But once again Radisson had to encounter the governing bodies of Quebec. The authorities of New France were enraged when they learned that La Chesnaye had sent an expedition to the North Sea. In the meantime Frontenac had been replaced by another governor, La Barre. Tax collectors beset the ships like rats long before Quebec was sighted, and practically confiscated the cargo in fines and charges. La Barre no doubt supposed that the treaty of peace existing between England and France gave him an excuse for seizing the cargo of furs. At all events he ordered Radisson and Groseilliers to report at once to Colbert in France. He restored the Bachelor's Delight forthwith to Ben Gillam and gave him full clearance papers. He released Bridgar, the Company's trader. His stroke of statesmanship left the two French explorers literally beggared, and when they reached Paris in January 1684 Colbert was dead.

But, though Ben Gillam secured his release from the governor of New France, he did not escape the long hand of the Hudson's Bay Company, who had written from London to Mr Randolph of the American Plantations to effect the arrest of Ben Gillam at any cost. At the same time they sent Randolph a £10 present of silver plate. On reaching Boston, Ben Gillam was duly arrested. He afterwards became a pirate, and his ultimate fate was involved with that of the famous Captain Kidd. Both were sent to England to be tried for crimes on the high seas; and it is supposed that, like Kidd, Ben suffered execution. Bridgar, suddenly freed from all danger, as suddenly regained a sense of his own importance. He made drafts on the Company and set out from Quebec in such state as befitted his dignity, with secretary and interpreter and valet. He rode hurriedly along the old post-road between Boston and New York, filling the countryside with the story of his adventures. Then he took ship to England; but there his valor suffered a sudden chill. The Company had refused to honor his bills. They repudiated his drafts, reprimanded him severely, and suspended him from service for several years. Mike Grimmington and Outlaw and the others, who had been shipped down from Nelson to Moose and Rupert, promptly took passage home to England on the Company's yearly ship. By the time Radisson and Groseilliers reached Paris, Europe was ringing with the outrage involved in their exploits.

Radisson found small comfort in Paris. Possibly Colbert's death had deprived him of a sympathetic protector, and the French court was as reluctant now to interfere with the actions of the colonial authorities at Quebec as it had been twenty years before. After petitioning vainly for consideration, Groseilliers seems to have given up the contest and retired for the remainder of his life to a small patrimony near Three Rivers. Not so Radisson! He was bound to the Old World by marriage; and now international complications came to bind him yet more completely. 'It is impossible,' wrote Louis XIV to Governor La Barre, 'to imagine what you mean by releasing Gillam's boat and relinquishing claim to the North Sea,' At the same time Louis was in a quandary. He would not relinquish the French claim to the North Sea; but he dared not risk a rupture of his secret treaty with England by openly countenancing Radisson's exploit on the Nelson river. Radisson was secretly ordered to go back to the Bay and, unofficially, in his private capacity, restore the Nelson river fur posts to the Hudson's Bay Company. The words of the order in part are: 'To put an end to the differences between the two Nations touching the settlements made by Messrs Groseilliers and Radisson on Hudson's Bay, the said Groseilliers and Radisson shall return and withdraw the French with all effects belonging to them and shall restore to the English Company the Habitation by them settled to be enjoyed by the English without molestation.'

At the very same time that these royal orders sent Radisson to restore the forts, a privateering frigate was dispatched from France to Quebec with equally secret orders to attack and sink English vessels on the Bay. The 'Adventurers of England,' too, were involved in a game of international duplicity. While Mr Young, the fashionable man about town, wrote letters imploring Radisson to come back to England, Sir James Hayes bombarded the French court with demands that the Frenchman be punished. 'I am confirmed,' he wrote, 'in our worst fears. M. Radisson, who was at the head of the action at Port Nelson, is arrived in France the 8th of this month and is in all post haste to undermine us on the Bay. Nothing can mend but to cause ye French King to have exemplary justice done on ye said Radisson.'

On May 10, 1684, Radisson arrived in London. He was met by Mr Young and Sir James Hayes and welcomed and forthwith carried to Windsor, where he took the oath of fidelity as a British subject. The Company, sunk a month before in the depths of despair, were transported with joy and generous rejoicings, and the Governing Committee voted Mr Young thanks for bringing Mr Radisson from France. Two days after Radisson's arrival, Sir James Hayes and Mr Young reported to the Company that Mr Radisson had tendered his services to the Company, that they 'have presented him to our Governor, His Royal Highness, who was pleased to advise he should again be received in service, under wage of £50 per annum and benefit of dividends on £200 capital stock during life, to receive £25 to set him out for this present expedition.' On May 21 Sir James Hayes reported that he had presented Mr Radisson with 'a silver tankard, charged to the Company at £10 14. 0.'

Radisson returned to the Bay on the Happy Return, sailed by Captain Bond. On the same ship went the new governor, William Phipps, who had been appointed to succeed Bridgar, and a boy named Henry Kelsey, of whom we shall hear more later. Outlaw, who had been with Ben Gillam, had a commission for the Company and sailed the Success. His mate was Mike Grimmington, also of the old poacher crew. There was a sloop, too, the Adventure—Captain Geyer—for inland waters.

When Radisson arrived at the Hayes river and told Jean Chouart—who, as we have seen, had been left in charge of the French trade there—of the looting of the fur cargoes at Quebec and of the order from the French king to transfer everything to the English, the young Frenchman's rage may be imagined. He had risked his entire fortune on the expedition from Quebec; but what account did this back-stairs trick of courtiers take of his ruin? Radisson told him that he had been commissioned to offer him £100 a year for service under the English, and £50 each to his underling traders. Jean listened in sullen silence. The furs gathered by the Frenchmen were transferred to the holds of the English vessels, but Jean and his companions evinced no eagerness to go aboard for England. On September 4, just as the sailors were heaving up anchors to the sing-song of a running chant, Phipps, the governor, summoned the French to a final council on board the Happy Return. Young Jean looked out through the ports of the captain's cabin. The sea was slipping past. The Happy Return had set sail. The Frenchmen were trapped and were being carried to England. In an instant, hands were on swords and the ship was in an uproar. Radisson besought his countrymen to bethink themselves before striking. What could five men do against an armed English crew? Once in England, they could listen to what the Company had to offer: meanwhile they were suffering no harm. The Frenchmen sullenly put back their swords. The boat reached Portsmouth in the last week of October. Radisson took horse and rode furiously for London.

If the adventurers had been exultant over his return from France, they were doubly jubilant at his victorious return from the Bay. He was publicly thanked, presented with a hundred guineas, and became the lion of the hour. The Governing Committee on November 14, 1684, three weeks after Radisson's return, voted that he had 'done extraordinary service to the great liking and satisfaction of the Company...the committee are resolved to bestow some mark of respect to the son of Mr Groseilliers and order 20s. a week paid him beginning October 30.' A present of seven musquash skins was now given Mr Young for having induced Radisson to resume his services.

Radisson was requested to make terms with the young Frenchman, but this was not such an easy matter. Some one suggested that Jean Chouart should follow the example of his uncle and marry an English wife. Jean shrugged his shoulders. In a letter to his mother at Three Rivers he wrote: 'I am offered proposals of marriage to which I will not listen. I would leave, but they hold back my pay, and orders have been given to arrest me in case I try. Cause it to be well known that I never intended to follow the English. I have been forced to this by my uncle's subterfuge. Assure M. Du Lhut of my humble services. I will have the honour of seeing him as soon as I can. Tell the same to M. Péré and all our good friends.' To M. Comporte he writes: 'I will be at the place you desire me to go, or perish.' As M. Du Lhut had been dispatched by the Company of the North with the knowledge of the governor of Quebec to intercept Indians going down to the English on Hudson Bay, and M. Péré and M. Comporte were suave diplomats and spies in his service, it may be guessed that the French passed secret messages into the hands of young Jean Chouart in London, and that he passed messages back to them. At all events, from being doggedly resistant to all overtures, he suddenly became complaisant in March of 1685, and took out papers of 'deninization,' or naturalization, in preference to the oath of fidelity, and engaged with the English Company at £100 a year. He was given another £100 to fit him out, and his four comrades were engaged at from £45 to £80 a year. How could the gentlemen of the Company guess that young Jean was betraying them to the Company of the North in Canada, where a mine was being laid to blow up their prosperity?

The Hudson's Bay Company declared dividends of fifty per cent, and chartered seven vessels for the season of 1685—some from a goldsmith, Sir Stephen Evance; and bespoke my Lord Churchill as next governor in place of James, Duke of York, who had become King James II.

Footnotes:

2. While there are earlier records referring to the Company of the North, this year (1682) is generally given as the date of its founding. Similarly 1670 is taken as the date of the founding of the Hudson's Bay Company, although, as we have seen, it was practically begun three years earlier.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914

 

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