- 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
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.