BY Patrice Dutil
Samuel de Champlain approached the shores of Huronia on August 1st, 1615 in a state of excitement. He had never penetrated inside the continent so deeply, and drew tremendous satisfaction from the happy faces of the Wendake (they were called Hurons by the French) who greeted him. For many years they had pleaded with him to join them in battle against the Iroquois who threatened their very existence, and now he was among them, in the flesh, armed, and ready to command a small company against their foes.
Champlain, however, was a bit of a latecomer to the party that summer. Father Joseph Le Caron had preceded him by a week. Champlain met with the priest on the next day in the fortified village of Carhagouha (just north of today’s Lafontaine), and learned how difficult the travels had been for the churchman and the dozen soldiers who had accompanied him. It took a few weeks, but Champlain and his entourage thenmade their way to Cahiagué (near Warminster), and there met with the Wendake leadership. Among them was a young protégé he had not seen since 1611, Étienne Brûlé.
That young man—Champlain referred to him as a “boy” a few times his books—was an improbable presence. Born in Champigny-sur-Marne, just outside Paris, he would have been about twenty-five years old in 1615.
Étienne Brûlé very likely came to Canada with Champlain in 1608 and participated in the founding of Quebec City. He was among the few who survived that first settlement (most of Champlain’s men died that first winter), and became one of the commander’s homme de confiance. I suspect he was with Champlain when the latter shot his harquebus into an attacking troupe of Iroquois in 1609 in order to curry favour with the Algonquin with whom he wanted to trade.
Such proven coolness in the face of danger would make him a trusted friend. The following winter young Brûlé was assigned by Champlain to the Algonquins north of Montreal in order to learn their ways, their hunting methods and their language. He returned to Champlain in the spring of 1611 and clearly showed that he had fulfilled his mission. Confident that the young man could do the same with the “Hurons”who lived around Georgian Bay, Champlain ordered Brûléto join them and discover a new land.
Brûlé would stay with the Wendake for the rest of his life. Through his adventures, including a harrowing military missionin the fall of 1615 to attack the Iroquois (near today’s Syracuse) from the south while Champlain fired from the north, Brûlé saw enormous swaths of the continent. He participated actively in the fur trade and probably earned more money in the trade that Champlain himself. He was the first white man to see Niagara Falls, the western parts of Pennsylvania, all the great lakes. He walked the Wendakehunting grounds (that extended down to Lake Ontario) like one of them. His insights on the geography of Ontario shaped Champlain’s later maps.
Brûléreturned to France many times in the 1620s. He got married there, bought a house in Paris, and was gradually recognized as a “merchant”, but he always returned to Canada (without his wife) to his life as a coureur de bois. When the Kirke brothers took Quebec from Champlain in 1629, he traded with them, something Champlain considered treasonous. Soon after, Brûlé disappeared. Wendake warriors told Champlain in 1633 that they had killed him as a retribution for his treachery.
It is not clear at all why Brûlé was assassinated. The priests who lived among the Wendake later asserted that he was cannibalized for his debauched ways. “This man was recognized as being very vicious in character, and much addicted to women,” wrote Champlain.There is room to speculate that his hosts grew irritated by Brûlé’s role as middleman in the fur trade and decided to get rid of him for good. There is also some debate that Brûlé had grown disenchanted with the Wendake and sought better trade opportunities with the Seneca. Either way, he did not live long after his fortieth birthday.Soon, the Wendake people abandoned their villages and would be decimated by disease and war.
Brûlé’scontributed a great deal to the development of Canada. He was the source of knowledge that allowed Champlain to draw remarkable maps of Ontario and the great lakes area (except for his own short trip in 1615 to Huronia, Champlain did not explore the area). More than that, Brûlé was proof of a European dream of life in the wilds of North America where cohabitation with indigenous people was possible on a basis of respect. His violent death could leave one to conclude that he failed, but that would be a mistake. The kid from Paris accomplished something truly extraordinary. The first immigrant to Ontario enjoyed a life of riches, pleasures and discovery.
Brûlé’s first steps have not been celebrated in Ontario. But they changed the French understanding of the territory and of its peoples, and the history of the continent. That European, a young Frenchman, did not come with guns ora desire to compete. He wanted to be a man freed of European conventions, to make a living, and live adventures.
Patrice Dutil is the President of the Champlain Society.