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?
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.
It’s hard to fathom the amount of legal release forms you would have to sign in order to make a trip like that today. It brings to mind the dog that the Russians sent into orbit, ignorant of its fate, attached to feelers and sensors to gather information for the betterment of another’s cause. Brulé’s chance of survival wouldn’t have been much better. Not only were the Algonquins involved in an ancient, nasty war with the Iroquois nation to the south, they were rarely able to stockpile enough food to last the entire winter. But Brulé had yet another problem: He was entirely dependent on the Algonquins’ goodwill at the same time he was a liability to them, a helpless piece of baggage for their canoes that could easily bring trouble.
And these canoes must have been pure misery. Accounts by Champlain and the Recollect missionary Gabriel Sagard give a good picture of what Brulé must have gone through. While on the move during warmer weather, his new companions, traveling naked or in loincloths, endured hunger and insects and physical hardships that would have killed most Frenchmen. To avoid stopping, they used their wooden food bowls as chamber pots in the boat. Their diet was radically different from that of the French, comprising dried fish, parched corn, and whatever the forest or river provided. At times, they ate their human enemies. They would load quartered corpses into the bow of a canoe or carry prisoners live to be consumed later. With every bend in the river, Brulé probably thought less about Champlain’s imperial desires and more about his own safety.
One of history’s great missing stories is what happened that winter with Brulé. All that is really known is that he survived and learned the language, “very well” as Champlain wrote in his journal the following summer. Champlain’s journals are the best available device for tracking Brulé, but they are sparse with relevant details. The Champlain Society would cringe, but I’d happily trade information about his own lavishly recorded doings for more coverage of Brulé’s.
When Brulé’s first winter with the Algonquins, away from other white men, was over, he came down the Ottowa River to the St. Lawrence with 200 Indians to meet with the French for what had become an annual trading fair below the Lachine Rapids near Montreal. It was June 13, 1611. They swapped beaver pelts for knives and kettles and hatchets, and Brulé served as the interpreter for Chief Iroquet, who now showed complete trust in him.
At the close of the trading season, BrulÉ asked to go spend the year with the Huron Indians, who lived near what is now known as Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. His desires happened to coincide with those of Champlain, who still didn’t have an interpreter for the Hurons, a wealthy and powerful people. So plans were made for the boy to go visit the land where, in about 20 years, without a friend or a nation, he would die.
Champlain justified his decision to send a boy into so very different a culture by claiming he would demonstrate Christian principles to the savages. This was certainly a gesture to the church, which saw Champlain’s journals as dispatches from the war with the devil. Without church support, Champlain was sunk (as was anyone in government), yet even the most pious should have doubted the logic of planting a single adolescent male into another culture in the belief that he’d come out as a shining representative of his society’s values. But the single-minded Champlain felt he needed every advantage he could get in the fur trade, no matter the cost.
When Brulé left with the Hurons in 1611, he disappeared from the record for four years. With this trip he knew what he was getting into, so it must have been far different from the one he had taken a year before with Chief Iroquet. Surely he couldn’t have cared much about Champlain’s financial interests; it’s likely he had his own reasons for wanting the life he was pursuing. In France he could be executed for hunting one of the king’s rabbits, but here was an endless expanse of land on which to hunt deer, bear, and moose. The Hurons had greater reverence for personal autonomy; respect and power were earned by acts, not by birth. Coming from a country where you could be dealt a bad hand before you even knew what the game was called, this must have been invigorating. What a system the Hurons had! A young man sent to live with them stood a better chance at getting respect and equality than he did among his own countrymen. I can see Brulé paddling hard, carrying more than his weight.
When he re-emerged in Champlain’s journals, four years later, he was completely transformed. He was dressed fully in skins and participated in the open promiscuity of the Huron youth. This resembles remarkably the mating strategy of my generation of college-educated twenty-somethings. In both, a young woman would go through any number of male suitors, sleeping with them at will under no pretenses about commitment, before eventually settling down with her favorite.
Champlain and the Jesuit and Recollect fathers who would become open critics of Brulé probably started to form their nasty opinions of him around this time. Still, the boy brought back with him a great haul of news and rumors, including tales of a northern sea above and west of Lake Huron. Plus, the interpreter now knew many dialects and could speak with almost anyone in the eastern Great Lakes watershed. Just what Champlain needed, too, because in 1615 he was planning an expedition into New York to slaughter a village of Iroquois, and he wanted to assemble an allied force.
Forays against the Iroquois were a sort of summer hobby for Champlain. These residents of present-day upstate New York were primarily farmers, but their raids into the St. Lawrence Valley for fur and captives had gained them the bitter enmity of the Hurons and Algonquins. Every beaver pelt that made it into an Iroquois canoe was bound for Dutch merchants to the south, not for the French, so the Iroquois inadvertently picked up some terrible foes. Twice Champlain had ventured to the Iroquois homeland with his muskets and his Indian allies, annihilating forces of Iroquois. For some of these people, the first firearm they ever saw had Champlain’s eyeball staring down its barrel.
The 1615 expedition was bound for a village along Onondaga Lake, in central New York, and Brulé was in the party, along with several hundred Hurons. The plan was for Brulé and 12 of the Hurons to split off at Lake Simcoe and head down through enemy territory to gather a force of 500 Andaste warriors who lived to the south along the Susquehanna River near what is now Elmira, New York. Then they all would meet at the Iroquois village and raze it together.
On September 8, Brulé departed with the Hurons on his mission. Champlain wouldn’t see him again for three years. With the 12. Hurons, Brulé traveled south from Lake Simcoe, becoming the first white man to see Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and then headed to the Andaste village. The Andastes agreed to send the 500 men, but they wasted five days on pre-war partying. When they did get around to making the three-day journey north, they were too late. Champlain had already been defeated and wounded by the Iroquois and had left for the north.
BrulÉ went back with the Andastes. To kill time over the winter, he traveled down the Susquehanna River to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps near Baltimore, racking up several more firsts for European explorers. He somehow passed unscathed through the lands of many enemies of the French. When his journey south was over, he went back to the Andastes for a while, then left with six men to travel up to the Hurons’ country. On the way, the group was attacked by a party of Iroquois and scattered. Brulé wandered for days. Lost and starving, he found a path and followed it to three Iroquois who were returning to their village with a load of fish. They fed him and took him home with them. At their village, Brulé denied being French and said he came from another, better nation that loved the Iroquois. They knew he was lying, so they began the long, torturous murder process obsessively described by many Frenchmen. They ripped out his fingernails and pulled out his beard and burned him with hot sticks. The ritual was interrupted only when Brulé, in desperation, threatened them with the wrath of God just as the clear sky turned cloudy and broke out in a great thunderstorm. This scared them so badly that he became a figure of much importance in the village of his former enemies.
Brother Sagard, a Recollect du Creux lay brother, who had no problem believing in miracles, found this story of Brulé’s a little curious. He would later say of it, “God works his marvels often through the worst persons.” People familiar with Brulé said that the explorer did not even know his prayers and that he commonly offered tobacco to inanimate objects in the belief that he would then receive safe passage. Also, it seems a bit odd that a people who lived so very directly in the natural world would be astounded by a sudden change in the weather. Champlain did later witness the physical evidence of Brulé’s mishandling, and the Iroquois weren’t ones to take sudden pity on someone after starting in on him. Whatever really happened that day is a mystery. Perhaps Brulé had simply charmed them.
In the summer of 1618, he left his new Iroquois friends, vowing another visit. He returned to the Hurons, then made a short journey with them down to Quebec. There, he explained his three-year delay to Champlain, and then he left again with the Hurons.
About 1620, he crossed Lake Ontario, heading west, and then traversed the land north of Lake Huron. There are few known details about this trip, only that he was checking on the rumor of the Great Western Sea. He made the first ascent by a European up the rapids at what is now Sault Ste. Marie, was the first to set foot on Michigan soil, and became the first to enter Lake Superior. Somewhere alone the way in Lake Superior, perhaps all the way to Isle Royale, he came across an ingot of copper, which he later showed to the French on the St. Lawrence. Many years later, the retrieval of that copper from its source would physically transform the northern Great Lakes more than all previous events, more than the missionaries and wars and fur trading that followed closely in Brulé’s steps.
His trip up to Lake Superior and northern Michigan would be the last history he would make as an explorer of never-before-seen places. He took to spending much of his time in Huronia, along the eastern shore of Lake Huron near Georgian Bay. By now, his countrymen considered Brulé a total pagan, unashamed of his defection to Indian life.
In 1623 Brother Sagard went to Huronia to minister to the people there. While Brulé helped guide him around a little, he ultimately tried to block the missionary’s efforts. Sagard’s interpreters struck a deal among themselves that no one should teach the missionary to master the Huron language. Instead, they taught him obscenities so that if he tried to explain the Trinity, he would be talking about something else altogether. Sagard later complained to Champlain that Brulé did not want the Indians to settle down and lead moral lives. He also reported that Brulé was “much addicted to women.”
It’s odd that no one ever discusses Brulé as an early force against globalization, a person defending an indigenous way of life that was fading. Instead, his actions are regarded just as Champlain described them, as the willynilly workings of a lunatic. But his efforts didn’t stop with his sabotage as an interpreter.
In 1629 a war between France and England had spilled across the Atlantic, and an English general, Thomas Kirke, had put Quebec under siege. His ship was the largest ever to sail up the St. Lawrence, which could be tough to navigate. No problem, though, for he had a skillful pilot to take him upstream. When Champlain surrendered the fort without a fight, he was surprised to see the pilot among the captors: It was Brulé. Champlain wrote down the lecture he gave to his sometime protégé that day, and it was prophetic: “You will be pointed at with scorn on all sides, wherever you may be.” Brulé returned to Huronia.
In no time at all, the French regained their territory. No sooner had Kirke taken Quebec than word of a treaty between France and England spread to the New World, and all recent conquests were off. Trade with the Indians continued, and every year they came downriver in greater numbers. In the summer of 1633, 140 canoeloads of Hurons came down. The Indians were somewhat tense because over the winter they had killed and eaten Etienne Brulé after a quarrel, and they feared French retaliation. Champlain told them to forget it. The man had no nationality, so his life was of no concern to the French; don’t let it spoil the trading fair.
Brulé would have been boiled in a kettle or hollow log, not roasted, and eaten without salt; we know that. What we don’t know is why it happened. Champlain suggests it was because of a woman. According to the Recollect du Creux, Brulé’s trip to the judgment seat was expedited so that he might sooner be made to answer for his life of sin. The missionaries’ attempts to demonstrate something better to the Hurons didn’t do them much good. By 1649 they had been annihilated by the Iroquois in their villages. Hundreds were led away as slaves or food. Eight Jesuits were killed in all, several of them tortured to death.
As far as the history books go, getting killed by the Hurons was one of Brulé’s greatest accomplishments. The very few authors that ever mention him always point that out. Seeing the name in print was too much for Champlain. In 1633 he revised his journals, removing Brulé’s name in the discussion of that explorer’s greatest adventures.