- Historic Sites
Etienne Brulé was one of the great explorers—the first white man to see Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Superior, the first to set foot in Michigan. Why have you never heard of him?
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Growing up in the Great Lakes region of North America, I developed an early appreciation for the European explorers who had long ago traveled the waterways of my home. I read all the books I could find about adventurers like Champlain, Jolliet, Marquette, and Nicolet, and they defined what I thought I should be as a young man: tough, brave, single-minded, and born a couple of hundred years earlier. When I got older, though, I realized that my affection for these men was not shared by everyone. I started college in 1992, seemingly at the height of the so-called revisionist historians’ attempts to convert the old pioneering heroes into the new societal enemies.
This new line of thinking certainly rubbed off on me, and I had to admit that greatness was something more than the resolute desire to mow down everything and everyone in your path in the name of God and country. It was kind of heartbreaking, though, because I had enjoyed loving the Great Lakes explorers, and now it seemed both unfashionable and unconscionable to do so. But just when I was thinking that I would have to continue my reading with the dry, uninspired analysis of a historian, I was saved by a man named Etienne Brulé, a French explorer turned pagan traitor who was killed and eaten by the Huron Indians in the winter of 1632.
I first got turned on to Brulé when it occurred to me that if the current templates of thinking made the pioneer heroes look like villains, maybe the old pioneering villains should be re-examined for heroic attributes. This idea was spurred on by Champlain: The Life of Fortitude , Morris Bishop’s admiring 1948 biography of the French explorer and founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain. Brulé weaves in and out of the narrative for 25 years, from his arrival in the New World as a boy of 15 under the service of Champlain to the winter of his death. Toward the end of the book, Bishop borrows an epitaph for Brulé that was originally offered by the Recollect du Creux, a French missionary order: “Long a transgressor of the laws of God and man, he spent…his wretched life in vile intemperance, such as no Christian should exhibit among heathen. He died by treachery, perhaps only that he might perish in his sins.” But following this quote, almost as if he had anticipated the revisionist movement, Bishop writes, “Let any who wish rehabilitate the memory of this extraordinary discoverer.”
Nothing is known of Brulé’s existence prior to the day in April 1608 when he set sail for the New World with Champlain, King Henry IV’s royal geographer and the governor-to-be of New France. Champlain had made several previous trips to the Americas, but the scope of the French territory was vague, ranging along the Atlantic seaboard from northern New England to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and perhaps beyond. Nobody had a clear idea what lay inland, but it was generally agreed that the inventory included the Western Sea, with its passage to the Orient, lost souls to be converted to Catholicism, the lost souls’ beaver pelts to be converted into French currency, and the potential for self-supporting colonies.
The French saw the St. Lawrence River as the gateway to the interior, so that was where Champlain concentrated his efforts and resources. For years, Indians of the St. Lawrence Basin had traveled down to its mouth to trade furs with European fishermen and independent traders, but Champlain wanted to push far up the river and intercept the commerce. He also had plans for further involvement with the Indians, and that was where Brulé came in.
Years before, while Champlain was exploring up and down the Atlantic coast of America, he had realized that adolescent crewmen had a particular facility both for learning the natives’ languages and for surviving the winters, so he had developed a plan to introduce French youths to the allied Indian tribes of the St. Lawrence. Once living with them full-time, Champlain figured, these boys could learn their languages and customs and serve as valuable assets to the fur trade. Brulé was to be the exemplar of this plan, the continent’s first exchange student.
He quickly proved his mettle on the front line of wilderness imperialism by being one of only 8 out of 24 Frenchmen to survive the first winter in newly founded Quebec. To Champlain’s pleasure, Brulé spent the winter hunting moose in the deep snows and fishing through the ice around the fort with the local Montagnais Indians, whose difficult language he picked up. After another year, in 1610, Champlain felt enough confidence in his experiment to send his charge into the unknown. Brulé was about 17 years old. Champlain decided that the boy should spend the winter with Chief Iroquet of the Algonquin Indians, who had come down to Quebec to trade furs, Iroquet’s village was on the upper Ottawa River, probably in what today is Ontario, a place no white man had ever seen. At first, Iroquet resisted Champlain’s request, fearing the wrath of the French should the boy die. Champlain told him not to worry, accidents could happen to anyone.