In his short and extraordinarily adventurous life, Étienne Brûlé was a teenaged indentured sailor, explorer’s agent and wilderness guide to the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay, politically astute interpreter, mineral finder, adopted member of the Huron Bear Clan, language instructor to missionaries and a participant in international intrigue – all before his murder just before his 40th year.
Though he traveled extensively and the first map of Lake Superior stems from his journey, he left no written records. He is known by references to him in the writings of his boss, Samuel de Champlain, and of two Catholic missionaries, Gabriel Sagard and Jean de Brébeuf.
Brûlé was almost certainly the first European seen by the Lake Superior region’s Ojibwe people. Many scholars believe he was the first European to view Lake Superior from the eastern tip; others believe he actually crossed the Big Lake in canoe to its western head of the lakes today called Duluth – a city named for another French explorer who arrived three decades later.
“From what we know from our research, he was the first white man to see Lake Superior with another French young man named Grenolle,” says Denis Sauvé, who with Jean-Claude Larocque wrote three books about Brûlé released in French by Les Éditions David.
Though he did not blaze an easily followed trail to the Big Lake, Brûlé’s voyage did pave curiosity about the region and its potential mineral wealth.
This was the heyday of “New France” and the French attempt to claim large chunks of the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes and all the fur-rich forest of the north-central United States and Canada. The long-range goal was to find a passage by water across North America to capture trade to the Orient in competition with the British and Dutch. In the meantime, dominance of the Great Lakes fur trade was the top-dollar project.
In this first third of the 17th century, the Voyageur era was yet to come and that of the Catholic missionaries barely beginning.
The man in the right place and the right time was Étienne Brûlé. No one knows what he looked like, nor do we have any written reports to his boss Champlain. However, Brûlé’s activities are reflected in Champlain’s own extensive writings as the governor of New France and even Champlain’s mapping of Lake Superior (called at the time Lac Tracy.)
The adventure for Étienne began in 1608 when was just 16. He left his parents’ farm near Paris, made his way to the Normandy coast and signed up with Champlain as an indentured servant, gaining free passage to New France in exchange for working on the ship and in an unspecified capacity in the New World.
Brûlé probably saw his first birch bark canoe near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and began to get to know many of the indigenous populations engaged in a complex and shifting pattern of alliances among themselves and with the French. Quickly, Brûlé showed an ability to learn languages and to survive (only 7 out of 28 lived through their first winter, at their Quebec fortress base).
Brûlé sought permission to live with Algonquins and Hurons, exchanging himself with a young Native American man who wanted to accompany Champlain to France for a season. He eventually was adopted into the Bear Clan of the Huron people, a rare honor for a European.
By age 18, Brûlé was the main interpreter for the lucrative fur trade, traveling widely. In about 1615, he traveled southeast along Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario. The only Great Lake he probably never visited was Lake Michigan.
Brûlé was recruited to teach the local languages he knew to early missionaries from France. He balked – the missionaries disapproved of his adoption of Huron customs and his relationships with local women – but he had to acquiesce and even helped with creation of an French-Huron dictionary.
Denis and Jean-Claude say Brûlé was forced by the Jesuits to return to France twice to mute the power he was gaining over the Ontario fur trade because of his ties to the local tribes.
At the behest of Champlain, Brûlé persuaded the Huron people to take him to the “sea” to the west, about which he heard through the local people. Champlain wanted Brûlé to make alliances with the local Native Americans and to find a passage to China and India.
“They had heard, the French had heard, there was a sea beyond Lake Huron, but it was not a salty sea – it was Lake Superior,” Denis says.
Brûlé made it to Sault Ste. Marie around 1621-23 and named the waterfalls at the St. Marys River the “Sault de Gaston,” or Gaston Falls, after the brother of the French king.
After returning to Quebec, Brûlé reported to Champlain, who created a map of Lake Superior based on his observations. Some scholars think Brûlé only reported what he was told by the Ojibwe people at the Sault, but Denis and Jean-Claude believe he traveled the Lake.
“The measurements that Brûlé supplied Champlain with are different than what the Indians had told them,” Jean-Claude said. “He did travel on Lake Superior.”
Also after his trip, Brûlé introduced the missionary Gabriel Sagard to the Huron people. “They showed him a big piece of copper ... brought from the Lake Superior area,” Denis says. Sagard noted the encounter in his writings.
Brûlé much appreciated, and perhaps preferred, the Huron culture to his own, though at one point he was captured and tortured by a rival clan, but survived and chose to remain.
By 1627, England and France were at war, and Brûlé got involved with the English side, to the horror of Champlain. He continued living with the Huron people.
Brûlé’s death remains something of a mystery. In 1632 or 1633, one faction of his adopted clan murdered him, for reasons unknown.
Minneapolis writer Jeanne Hanson has written numerous magazine pieces and 12 books, mostly dealing with natural history.