Etienne Brule 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?
By Steven Rinella
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 Brule 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 Brule'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 involve-
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 Brule, 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 Brule 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. Brule weaves
in and out of the narrative for 25 years, from his arrival in
ment with the Indians, and that was where Brule 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. Brule was to be the exemplar of this plan,
the continent's first exchange student.
corpses into the bow of a canoe or carry prisoners live to
be consumed later. With every bend in the river, Brule 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 Brule. 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 Brule,
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 Brule's.
When Brule'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 Brule served as the interpreter for Chief
Iroquet, who now showed complete trust in him.
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, Brule 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. Brulewas about
17 years old. Champlain decided that the boy should spend
the winter with Chief lroquet of the Algonquin Indians,
to go spend the year with the Huron Indians, who lived
who had come down to Quebec to trade furs. Iroquet's
near what is now known as Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.
village was on the upper Ottawa River, probably in what
His desires happened to coincide with those of Champlain,
today is Ontario, a place no white man had ever seen.
who still didn't have an interpreter for the Hurons, a
At first, Iroquet resisted Champlain's request, fearing the
wealthy and powerful people. So plans were made for the
wrath of the French should the boy die. Champlain told
boy to go visit the land where, in about 20 years, withhim not to worry, accidents could happen to anyone.
out a friend or a nation, he would die.
It's hard to fathom the amount of legal release forms
Champlain justified his decision to send a boy into so
you would have to sign in order to make a trip like that
different a culture by claiming he would demonstrate
today. It brings to mind the dog that the Russians sent into
Christian principles to the savages. This was certainly a
orbit, ignorant of its fate, attached to feelers and sensors to
gesture to the church, which saw Champlain's journals
gather information for the betterment of another's cause.
Brule's chance of survival wouldn't have
as dispatches from the war with the
devil. Without church support, Chambeen much better. Not only were the Alplain was sunk (as was anyone in govgonquins involved in an ancient, nasty
Life in the canoe must
ernment), yet even the most pious
war with the Iroquois nation to the
should have doubted the logic of plantsouth, they were rarely able to stockpile
have been pure misery, and
a single adolescent male into anenough food to last the entire winter.
with every bend in the river,
other culture in the belief that he'd come
But Brule had yet another problem: He
Brule probably thought
out as a shining representative of his
was entirely dependent on the Algonsociety's values. But the single-minded
quins' goodwill at the same time he
less about Champlain's
Champlain felt he needed every advanwas a liability to them, a helpless piece
imperial desires and more
tage he could get in the fur trade, no matof baggage for their canoes that could
about his own safety.
ter the cost.
easily bring trouble.
When Brule left with the Hurons in
And these canoes must have been pure
he disappeared from the record
misery. Accounts by Champlain and the
for four years. With this trip he knew what he was getRecollect missionary Gabriel Sagard give a good picture
ting into, so it must have been far different from the one
of what Brule must have gone through. While on the move
he had taken a year before with Chief Iroquet. Surely he
during warmer weather, his new companions, traveling
couldn't have cared much about Champlain's financial
naked or in loincloths, endured hunger and insects and
interests; it's likely he had his own reasons for wanting the
physical hardships that would have killed most Frenchmen.
life he was pursuing. In France he could be executed for
To avoid stopping, they used their wooden food bowls as
hunting one of the king's rabbits, but here was an endless
chamber pots in the boat. Their diet was radically differexpanse of land on which to hunt deer, bear, and moose.
ent from that of the French, comprising dried fish, parched
The Hurons had greater reverence for personal autonomy;
corn, and whatever the forest or river provided. At times,
respect and power were earned by acts, not by birth. Comthey ate their human enemies. They would load quartered
ing 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 Brule 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 twentysomethings. 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 Brule 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 Brule was in the party,
along with several hundred Hurons. The
plan was for Brule 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, Brule departed with
the Hurons on his mission. Champlain
wouldn't see him again for three years.
With the 12 Hurons, Brule 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.
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. Brule 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, Brule 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 Brule, in desperation, threatened them with the
wrath of God just as the clear sky turned cloudy and broke
plain that Brule did not want the Indians to settle down
out in a great thunderstorm. This scared them so badly that
and lead moral lives. He also reported that Brule was "much
addicted to women."
he became a figure of much importance in the village of
his former enemies.
It's odd that no one ever discusses Brule as an early force
Brother Sagard, a Recollect du Creux lay brother, who
against globalization, a person defending an indigenous
bad no. problem believing in miracles, found this story
way of life that was fading. Instead, his actions are re9f Brule's a little curious. He would later say of it, "God
garded just as Champlain described them, as the willyworks his marvels often through the worst persons." Peonilly workings of a lunatic. But his efforts didn't stop with
ple familiar with Brule said that the explorer did not
his sabotage as an interpreter.
even know his prayers and that he commonly offered
In r629 a war between France and England had spilled
tobacco to inanimate objects in the belief that he would
across the Atlantic, and an English general, Thomas Kirke,
then receive safe passage. Also, it seems a bit odd that
had put Quebec under siege. His ship was the largest ever
a people who lived so very directly in the natural world
to sail up the St. Lawrence, which could be tough to naviwould be astounded by a sudden change in the weather.
gate. No problem, though, for he had a skillful pilot to take
Champlain did later witness the physical evidence of
him upstream. When Champlain surrendered the fort
B,rule's mishandling, and the Iroquois weren't ones to
without a fight, he was surprised to see the pilot among
take sudden pity on someone after starting in on him.
the captors: It was Brule. Champlain wrote down the lecWhatever really happened that day is a mystery. Perhaps
ture he gave to his sometime protege that day, and it was
Brule had simply charmed them.
prophetic: "You will be pointed at with scorn on all sides,
In the summer of r6r8, he left his new Iroquois friends,
wherever you may be." Brule returned to Huronia.
vowing another visit. He returned to the Hurons, then
In no time at all, the French regained their territory .
.. -made a short journey with them down to Quebec. There,
No sooner had Kirke taken Quebec than word of a treaty
-he explained his three-year delay to
between France and England spread
to the New World, and all recent
Champlain, and then he left again with
the Hurons.
conquests were off. Trade with the
About r620, he crossed Lake OnIndians continued, and every year they
It's odd that no one ever
tario, heading west, and then traversed
came downriver in greater numbers.
discusses Brule as an early
the land north of Lake Huron. There
In the summer of r633, r40 canoeforce against globalization,
loads of Hurons came down. The Inare few known details about this trip,
dians were somewhat tense because
only that he was checking on the rumor
a person defending an
of the Great Western Sea. He made the
over the winter they had killed and
indigenous way of life that
first ascent by a European up the rapids
eaten Etienne Brule after a quarrel,
was fading. Instead, we see
at what is now Sault Ste. Marie, was the
and they feared French retaliation.
him just as Champlain did.
first to set foot on Michigan soil, and
Champlain told them to forget it. The
became the first to enter Lake Superior.
man had no nationality, so his life
Somewhere along the way in Lake Suwas of no concern to the French; don't
perior, perhaps all the way to Isle Royale, he came across
let it spoil the trading fair.
an ingot of copper, which he later showed to the French
Brule would have been boiled in a kettle or hollow log,
---on the St. Lawrence. Many years later, the retrieval of that
not roasted, and eaten without salt; we know that. What
---~copper from its source would physically transform the
we don't know is why it happened. Champlain suggests
northern Great Lakes more than all previous events, more
it was because of a woman. According to the Recollect
than the missionaries and wars and fur trading that foldu Creux, Brule's trip to the judgment seat was expelowed closely in Brule's steps.
dited so that he might sooner be made to answer for his
life of sin. The missionaries' attempts to demonstrate
His trip up to Lake Superior and northern Michigan
something better to the Hurons didn't do them much
would be the last history he would make as an explorer
of never-before-seen places. He took to spending much
good. By r649 they had been annihilated by the Iroquois
of his time in Huronia, along the eastern shore of Lake
in their villages. Hundreds were led away as slaves or food.
Huron near Georgian Bay. By now, his countrymen conEight Jesuits were killed in all, several of them tortured
to death.
sidered Brule a total pagan, unashamed of his defection
to Indian life.
As far as the history books go, getting killed by the
In r623 Brother Sagard went to Huronia to minister to
Hurons was one of Brule's greatest accomplishments. The
the people there. While Brule helped guide him around a
very few authors that ever mention him always point that
little, he ultimately tried to block the missionary's efforts.
out. Seeing the name in print was too much for Champlain.
Sagard's interpreters struck a deal among themselves that
In r633 he revised his journals, removing Brule's name in
no one should teach the missionary to master the Huron
the discussion of that explorer's greatest adventures.
--~la-n-guage. Instead, they taught him obscenities so that if he
--trIed to explain the Trinity, he would be talking about some-----Steven Rinella is a freelance writer living in Missoula,
thing else altogether. Sagard later complained to Cham-