One of the main reasons for the continued exploration of the New World was the search for an easier, more direct route to the Orient. The theory arose that just such a route lay to the north of the North American continent - the fabled Northwest Passage.

Radisson & Groseilliers by Frederic Remington, 1905 - Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody Wyoming; Gift of Mrs. Karl Frank; 14.86

Radisson & Groseilliers by Frederic Remington, 1905
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody Wyoming; Gift of Mrs. Karl Frank; 14.86

The quest for the Northwest Passage began in earnest in 1576 with the first expedition of Martin Frobisher. Frobisher's three unsuccessful attempts to find the passages did not diminish enthusiasm for the search. In 1610 a syndicate of English courtiers commissioned Henry Hudson to try and chart the Northwest Passage. During the course of this voyage he would discover the great saltwater sea now known as Hudson Bay. But the rigours of a long hard winter stranded in the ice were too much for his crew, which mutinied. They set Hudson adrift with his young son and some faithful crew members, never to be seen again.

By 1631, there was conclusive evidence that Hudson Bay was not the sailing route to the Orient. But there was a growing realization that the area was inhabited by some of the choicest fur-bearing animals in the world.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636 - 1710) and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers (1618 - 1710), were the first Europeans to penetrate deep into the forest belt of the North, to negotiate treaties with the Cree, to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi and Missouri, and to establish the durable trading pattern responsible for creation of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In 1659 des Groseilliers, along with Radisson, his young brother-in-law, set out for the upper Great Lakes basin, despite the fact that the Marquis d'Argenson, Governor of New France, would not issue them a trading licence. There the two wintered, meeting and trading with the First Nations. The following year they returned with a cargo of prime furs only to be charged for trading without a licence. The Governor confiscated most of their furs, fined them and briefly jailed des Groseilliers.

Pierre Esprit Radisson - Belier/Library and Archives Canada/C-15497

Pierre Esprit Radisson
Belier/Library and Archives Canada/C-15497

Des Groseilliers crossed to France to seek redress but found none. While there he made an effort to establish a fur trade for the French direct with Hudson Bay, but failed. Upon his return to Quebec, he and Radisson, angered by the restraints placed on their ambitions by the French Colonial Government, and finding no way of prosecuting their proposed venture, went to Boston. Although their attempts to interest the New Englanders in their project were unsuccessful, they did meet an Englishman, Colonel George Cartwright, who took the two men with him to England and presented them to Sir George Carteret, who took in turn presented them to King Charles II.

At the Court of Charles II, Radisson and des Groseilliers enraptured their audience with their vision of a trading expedition to a far-off wilderness. It was only in 1667, however, that Prince Rupert, the King's cousin, took charge of the project. The Royal Navy was ordered by King Charles II to loan the ketch Eaglet while the private citizens associated with the project outfitted another vessel, the smaller Nonsuch. On June 3, 1668, Radisson in the Eaglet under Captain William Stannard, and des Groseilliers in the Nonsuch, under Captain Zachariah Gillam of Boston, sailed down the Thames to cross the Atlantic.

Bad luck hit the expedition. Eaglet was damaged in a storm and had to return to England, but Nonsuch arrived at the southern end of James Bay on September 29, 1668, three months and 26 days after leaving England. There, at the mouth of the Rupert River, the party erected Charles Fort (later Rupert House). A "League of Friendship" was established with the local First Nations and the land was "formally purchased". In the spring over 300 aboriginals came down to trade. When the ice broke in the Bay the furs were loaded on board and Nonsuch headed home to England with her precious cargo.

The phenomenal success of the voyage served to further excite Prince Rupert and his group of courtier-investors and to consolidate their commitment to the fur trade in the New World. They applied to the King for a Royal Charter, which was granted on May 2, 1670.