- 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
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.
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, we see him just as Champlain did.
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.