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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 20, 2004 - Issue 109


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Excerpts from: The Explorations of Pierre Espirit Radisson


From the original in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum
Arthur T. Adams, Editor
Loren Kallsen, Modernizer
Published in 1961 by Ross & Haines, Inc. (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The Explorations of Pierre Espirit Radisson

Excerpt from the Forward (page xxii):
Early in September 1661, Radisson and Groseillers embarked on their last journey West. Although the ultimate result of this voyage was momentous, it began inauspiciously, having been forbidden by D'Avaugour, the governor. They and their company accomplished their departure at night and were soon on their way up the Ottawa, the same course taken as on their previous voyage. At the Long Sault they again encountered the Iroquois, but succeeded in escaping serious loss or injury. In due course they passed through Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay and reached the Sault Ste. Marie. Here they rested and feasted, and all gave thanks to their respective deities for the plentiful and excellent food obtained at this "terrestrial paradise."

Skirting the south shore of Lake Superior, they arrived at Chequamegon Bay, probably in early November, and after erecting a fort, and staying their about two weeks, the proceeded to a village of Ottawas by "a little lake some eight leagues in circuit," now believed to be Lac Courte Oreilles, Wisconsin. After agreeing upon a meeting place in the Sioux country, they journeyed from here westward in small groups, but owning to a copious fall of light snow, they were unable to secure game for food and as a result suffered from famine. When relief came from this famine, they went to the 'rendezvous,' the appointed meeting place, which was probably near the present town of Mora, Minnesota. Here they celebrated a 'Feast of the Dead,' which was followed by games, sports, sham battles, and much dancing and frivolity.

Their next move was a seven weeks' visit to the Prairie Sioux country, which was probably the vicinity of southern and southwestern Minnesota.

This was followed by their return to Chequamegon Bay, from which point they began their journey to James Bay, the southern part of Hudson's Bay. This voyage brought to Radisson and Groseilliers the valuable and long-desired first-hand information of the fur trading possibilities in that region; it was the dissemination of this knowledge in England, which ultimately led to the organization and establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Upon their return to Canada in July 1663, they again had trouble with Governor D'Avaugour…

Excerpt from the chapter entitled 'Superior Voyage' (pages 128-134):
We marched four days through the woods. The country is beautiful, with very few mountains, the woods clear. At last we came within a league of the cabins, where we laid, that the next day might be for our entry. We two poor adventurers, for the honor of our country, or of those that shall deserve it, from that the nimblest and stoutest, went before to warn the people that we should make our entry tomorrow. Everyone prepared to see what they had never before seen. We were in cottages, which were near a little lake some eight leagues in circuit.[i] At the waterside there were an abundance of little boats made of trees that had been hollowed, and of rind.

The next day we were to embark in them, and arrived at the village by water,[ii] which was composed of a hundred cabins without palisades. There is nothing but cries. The women throw themselves backwards upon the ground, thinking to give us tokens of friendship and of welcome. We destinated three presents – one for the men, one for the women, and one for the children – to the end that they should remember that journey, that we should be spoken of a hundred years after, if other Europeans should not come in those quarters and be liberal to them, which will hardly come to pass.

The first present was a kettle, two hatchets, and six knives, and a blade for a sword. The kettle was to call all nations that were their friends to the feast, which is made for the remembrance of death,[iii] that is, they make it once in seven years; it's a renewing of friendship. I will talk further of it in the following discourse. The hatchets were to encourage the young people to strengthen themselves in all places, to preserve their wives and show themselves men by knocking the heads of their enemies with the said hatchets. The knives were to show that the French were great and mighty, and their confederates and friends. The sword was to signify that we would be masters both of peace and wars, being willing to help and relieve them and to destroy our enemies with our arms.

The second gift was two and twenty awls, fifty needles, two graters of castors,[iv] two ivory combs and two wooden ones, with red paint, and six looking glasses of tin. The awls signifieth to take good courage that we should keep their lives and that they with their husbands should come down to the French when time and season would permit; the needles for to make them robes of castor, because the French loved them. The two graters were to dress the skins; the combs and the paint to make themselves beautiful; and the looking glasses to admire themselves.

The third gift was of brass rings, of small bells and rasades[v] of diverse colors, and given in this manner. We sent a man to make all the children come together. When they were there we throw these things over their heads. You would admire what a beat among them, everyone striving to have the best. This was done upon this consideration; that they should be always under our protection, given them wherewithal to make them merry and remember us when they should be men.

This done, we are called to a great council of welcome and to the feast of friendship, afterwards to the dancing of the heads.[vi] But before the dancing we must morn for the deceased, and then, for to forget all the sorrow, to the dance. We gave them four small gifts that they should continue such ceremonies, which they took willingly; and it did us good, gave us authority among the whole nation. We knew their councils and made them do what ever we thought best. This was a great advantage for us, you must think. Amongst such a rawish kind of people a gift is much, and bestowed, and liberality much esteem, but prodigality is not in esteem, for they abuse it being brutish.

We have been using such ceremonies three whole days, and were lodged in the cabin of the chiefest captain who came with us from the French. We liked not the company of that kind, therefore left him. He wondered at this, but durst not speak because we were demi-gods. We came to a cottage of an ancient witty man that had a great family and many children; he wife was old, nevertheless handsome. The were of a nation called Menominees, that is, the Nation of Oats, grain that is much in that country. Of this (i.e., about the grain) afterwards more at large. I took this man for my father and the woman for my mother, so the children consequently brothers and sisters. They adopted me, I gave everyone a gift, and they to me.

Having now disposed of our business, the winter came on. That warns us. The snow began to fall,[vii] so we must retire from this place to seek our living in the woods. Everyone gets his equipage ready; so away we go, but not all to the same place. Two, three at the most, went one-way and so off another. They have so done because victuals were scant for all in a (single) place. But let us where we will, we cannot escape the mighty hand of God that disposes as he please, and who chastises us as a good and common loving Father, and not as our sins do deserve. Finally we depart one from another. As many as we were in number, we are reduced to a small company. We appointed a rendezvous (to be held) after two months and a half, to take a new road, and (to get) and advice what we should do.

During the said term, we sent messengers everywhere to give special notice of all manner of persons and nation that within 5 moons[viii] the feast of death was to be celebrated and that we should appear together and explain what the devil should command us to say, and then present them with presents of peace and union. Now we must live on what God sends, and war against the bears in the meantime, for we could aim at nothing else, which was the cause that we had no great cheer. I can say that we with our comrades, who were about sixty, killed in the space of two and a half moons (enough bears to last us) a thousand moons. We wanted not bear's grease to anoint ourselves to run the better. We beated down the woods daily for to discover novelties. We killed several other beasts, as orinacks, stags, wild cows, caribou; fallow does and bucks, cats of the mountain[ix] (child of the devil). In a word we led a good life.

The snow increased daily. We made rackets,[x] not to play at ball but to exercise ourselves in a game harder and more necessary. They are broad made like rackets that they may go in the snow and not sink when they run after the eland or other beast.

We came to the small lake, (near) the place of rendezvous, where we found some company that were there before us. We cottaged ourselves, staying for the rest, that came everyday. We stayed fourteen days in this place most miserable, like to a churchyard. There did fall such a quantity of snow and frost, and with such a thick mist, that all the snow stuck to those trees that are there so rough, being deal trees, pousse cedars and thorns. It caused darkness upon the earth; it is to be believed that the sun was eclipsed two months. After, the trees were so laden with snow that was as if it had been sifted. By that means (it was very light and did not bear us, albeit we made rackets six foot long and a foot and a half broad. Often thinking to turn ourselves, we felled over and over again in the snow, and if we were alone we should have difficulty enough to rise again. By the noise we made the beasts heard us a great way off, so the famine was among a great many that had not provided beforehand and who live upon what they get that day, never thinking for the next.

It grows worse and worse daily (To augment our misery we received news of the Ottawas,[xi] who were about a hundred and fifty with their families. They had quarreled with the Hurons in the isle[xii] where they had come from some years before in the Lake of the Staring Hairs, and came purposely to make war against them the next summer. But let us see if they brought us anything to subsist with: they are worst provided than we. Having no huntsmen, they are reduced to famine. But, oh cursed the Covetousness, what art thou going to do? It should be better to see a company of rogues perish than see ourselves in danger to perish by that scourge so cruel. Hearing that they have had knives and hatchets, the victuals of their poor children taken away from them; yea, whatever they have, those dogs mush have their share. They are the cursedest, unablest, the unfamous and cowardliest people that I have seen amongst four score nations that I have frequented. Oh ye poor people, you shall have their booty, but you shall pay dearly for it.) Everyone cries out for hunger. The women became barren and dry like wood. You men must eat the cord, being you have no more strength to make use of the bow. Children, you must die. French, you called yourself gods of the earth, that you should be feared; for your interest, notwithstanding, you shall taste of the bitterness, and be only too happy if you escape. Where is the time past? Where is the plentiness that ye had in all places and countries? Here comes a new family of those poor people daily to us – half dead, for they have but the skin and bones. How shall we have the strength to make a hole in the snow to lay us down? Seeing we have it not to haul our rackets after us, nor to cut a little wood to make a fire to keep us from the rigor of the cold, which is extreme in those countries in its season. Oh! if the music that we hear could give us recreation. We wanted not any lamentable music nor sad spectacle. In the morning the husband looks upon his wife, the brother on his sister, the cousin the cousin, the uncle the nephew, that were for the most part found dead. They languish with cries and hideous noise that it was able to make the hair stare on the heads of those that have any apprehension. Good God! Have mercy on so many poor innocent people, and of us that acknowledge thee; having offended, thee punishes us. But we are not free of the cruel executioner.

Those that have any life seeketh out for root, which could not be done without great difficulty, the earth being frozen two or three feet deep, and the snow five or six above it. The greatest subsistence that he can have is of rind tree, which grows like ivy about the trees. To swallow it, we cut the sticks some two feet long, tying it into a fagot, and boil it, and when it boils one hour or two the rind or skin comes off with ease, we take and dry it in the smoke, and then reduce it into a powder betwixt to grain stones, and putting in the kettle with the same water upon the fire, we make a kind of broth, which nourishes us. But we became thirstier and drier than the wood we eat. The first week we did eat our dogs. As we went back upon our steps for to get carcasses of the beast we had killed, and happy was he who could get what the others threw away, after it had been boiled three or four times to get the substance out of it. We contrived another plot: to reduce to power those bones, the rest of the crows and dogs, so put all that together half-foot within the ground and so makes a fire upon it. We covered it all very well with earth, so feeling the heat, and boiled them again, and that gave more froth than before. The next place we ate the skins that were reserved to make us shoes, cloth and stockings; yea, most of the skins in our cottages, the castor skins where the children beshit them above a hundred times. We burned the hairs on the coals. The rest goes down the throat, eating heartily these things most abhorred. We went so eagerly to it our gums did bleed like one newly wounded. The wood was our food the rest of the sorrowful time. Finally we became the image of death. We mistook ourselves very often, taking the living for the dead and the dead for the living. We wanted strength to draw the dead out of the cabins, or if we did when we could it was to put them four paces in the snow. At the end of the wrath of God begins to appease itself, and He pities His poor creatures. If I should express all that befell us in that strange accidents, a great volume would not contain it. Here are above some five hundred dead – men, women, and children. It's time to come out of such miseries. Our bodies are not able to hold out any further. After the storm, calm comes. But storms favored us, being that calm kills us. Here comes a wind and a rain that puts a new life in us. The snow falls; the forest clears itself; at which sight those that had strings left in their bow takes courage to use it. The weather continued so three days; we need no rackets more, for the snow hardened much. The small stags are as if they were stakes in it. After they made seven or eight capers, it's an easy matter for us to take them and cut their throats with our knives. Now we see ourselves a little furnished, but yet have not paid, for its cost many their lives. Our guts became very straight by our long fasting so that they could not contain the quantity of food some put in them.

I cannot omit the pleasant thoughts of some of them wild men. Seeing my brother[xiii] always in the same condition, they said that some devil brought him wherewithal to eat, but if they had seen his body, whey should be of another opinion; the beard that covered his face made it appear as if he had not altered his face. For me that had no beard,[xiv] they said I loved them because I lived as well as they from the second day we began to walk.

There came two men from a strange country who had a dog. The business was how to catch him cunningly, knowing well those people love their beasts. Nevertheless, we offered gifts, but they would not take them, which made me stubborn. That dog was lame and as hungry as we were, but the masters have not suffered so much. I went one night near that same cottage to do what discretion permits me not to speak. Those mean were Nadoueceronons.[xv] They were so much respected that nobody durst offend them, being that we are on their land[xvi] with their leave. The dog came out not by any smell but by good like. I took him and brought him a little way. I stabbed him with my dagger. I brought him to the cottage, where he was broiled like a pig and cut in pieces, guts and all. So everyone of the family had his share. The snow where he was killed was not lost, for one of our company went and got it to season the kettle. We began to look better daily.

We gave the rendezvous[xvii] to the convenientest place to celebrate the great feast.[xviii]

[i] This lake has been identified by Father Chrysosom Verwyst as Lac Courte Oreilles, Sawyer County, Wisconsin, Parkman Club papers (No. 11) Volume 2 pages 1-24.

[ii] When the writer of this note visited the site of this transitory village, which is now the Chippewa village of Reserve, Mr. John Bracklin, an Ojibwa of about 60 years, indicated on a road map the ancient trail from Chequamegon Bay to this point. The trail ended on the north side of the lake, and Mr. Bracklin stated it is traditional that the Indians left the trail and came across the lake on the ice or in canoes to the village here. This accords well with Radisson's narrative.

[iii] The Feast of the Dead. See Jesuit Relations, Volume 10 pages 279-311. Also Newton H. Winchell, The Aborigines of Minnesota (St. Paul, 1911) page 732

[iv] Castor is the old name for beaver.

[v] Mugs, drinking cups

[vi] The Scalp Dance.

[vii] This suggests the time as late November.

[viii] Five moon probably means both light and dark moons, which would equal two and a half months.

[ix] Catamount, Panther, or mountain lion.

[x] Snowshoes

[xi] Radisson seems to be confused. Since leaving Chequamegon Bay, the Voyageurs were accompanied only by Hurons. There were no Ottawas with them on the Superior voyage at any time. The entire passage in parenthesis is very unclear.

[xii] An Island at the mouth of Green Bay.

[xiii] Menard Chouart (Sieur des Groseillers)

[xiv] Radisson was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old at this time.

[xv] Nadoueceronons are the Sioux – the Nation of Beef.

[xvi] The voyagers apparently have crossed the St. Croix and are within the present state of Minnesota.

[xvii] This reference to rendezvous is too ambiguous to throw any light on its location.

[xviii] Feast of the Dead.

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