How Etienne Brulé Set the Stage For the American Fur Trade

Ian Roberts

3 mins

22 Mar 2019

The Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company and the American Fur Company played a central role in the economic development of North America. We have likely heard of the romanticised lives of the voyageurs and courier du bois in paddling the rivers of Canada to open up the wilderness.

Brulé predated and laid the foundation for all of that. Alone with his Wendat companions he explored deeper and deeper into the west, learnt the languages and dialects of the tribes to the north and west.

A plaque to commemorate Étienne Brûlé’s discovery of the pathway to the Humber in Etienne Brule Park of Toronto, Ontario, puts his date of birth at 1595. Credit: PFHLai / Commons.

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By showing the trade goods of the French, the steel axes and knives, the copper kettles, and bolts of coloured cloth, and coloured beads, he convinced them to bring their furs to the Wendat, who then brought them to the French in Québec.

He travelled all over Georgian Bay, into Lake Huron, Lake Erie and would have been the first white man to see Niagara Falls.

One summer he paddled to the end of Lake Superior. The tribes there would have known of the headwaters of a great river not a hundred miles away. Today several lakes and a river in that region are named after Brulé. If he did go and see it he would have gathered from the tribes that that river, the Mississippi, flowed far to south ultimately to salt water.

He was remarkable in his adaptation of the Wendat way of life. By the time he died in 1633, after twenty-five years with the Wendat, the essential structure of the fur trade was in place. It thrived for another two hundred years.

Brulé and Champlain helped set the stage for the fur trade that would thrive for the next 200 years.

Why was Etienne Brulé murdered?

Brulé’s death is a bit of a mystery. He was murdered by a Wendat chief. Yet the tribe was certainly divided by the murder. Father Sagard, a Récollet missionary, claimed it was because of Brulé’s relations with the Wendat woman.

Yet the Wendat had an easy-going morality when it came to sexuality, so this more probably reflects the view of a Catholic priest, not the Wendat. Some speculate Brulé perhaps might have negotiated with the Iroquois about trading with the French.

That, if true, would certainly be grounds to kill him. But it would also be a very fool-hardy venture for a Frenchman, an established enemy of the Iroquois. Also he would have to go alone, since no Wendat would join him. His murder may have just been a personal fight. And he lost.

Samuel Champlain’s map of New France, 1632. For many years he relied on Brulé for information.

For years Champlain encouraged Brulé to keep journals and make maps. He never did. By the time of his death Champlain had other interpreters, and fur traders were everywhere.  He had long since stopped relying on Brulé for help. So when informed by the Wendat of his murder he did not react against them.

One could be led to believe that Brulé had just overstayed his welcome with the Wendat. Yet when the Jesuits asked for Brulé’s body, wanting to bury him in a Catholic graveyard, the Wendat in fact refused and insisted that he be buried with the Wendat in their own Feast of the Dead, where he would have joined dozens of Wendat in a final communal grave.

Setting the stage

The arrival of French fur trader and explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson at an Indian camp in 1660.

After Brulé first went out alone to join the Wendat in 1610, and returned to tell the story, other Frenchmen ventured into the wilderness. Nicollet, Marsolet and Grenolle among them. But Brulé went out first, stayed the longest, and ventured further into the wilderness than any of the others.

His gift for indigenous languages allowed him to develop trade with tribes that had never seen a white man before and had certainly never seen the highly desirable trade goods from Europe.

He set the stage for the vast fur trade to come.

Ian Roberts’ historical fiction novel about Etienne Brulé, A Land Apart, is available from Amazon or from your local bookstore. The novel has over 25 black and white illustrations by the author.