- 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
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.
Life in the canoe must have been pure misery, and with every bend in the river, Brulé probably thought less about Champlain’s imperial desires and more about his own safety.
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.