Who Was Etienne Brulé? First European to Journey Beyond the St. Lawrence River

Ian Roberts

4 mins

22 Mar 2019

Imagine coming to the New World in 1608 — a two-month crossing from Honfleur in France up the St. Lawrence River and landing in Tadoussac. Champlain, the leader of the expedition, after spending a dismal winter trying to start a colony on Sainte-Croix Island near the Atlantic coast in 1604, would now try again.

Founding Quebec city

His men assembled a small barque and Champlain sailed up river to Ile d’Orleans and just beyond that to a site the local tribes called Kebec, meaning the narrowing of the waters.

Here Champlain decided to start his colony. The ships were unloaded, the men began building square-timbered store rooms and housing. In addition, they surrounded the buildings with a palisade so it could withstand a siege.

The arrival of Samuel Champlain at Québec.

All this one would expect in building a new colony. Champlain drove his men hard but by fall the fort was complete and the stores, ample after his disastrous winter in 1604, safely housed for the winter.

The ships returned to France leaving behind twenty-eight men.

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Unprecedented winter struggles

The fall was pleasant but winter came early and by mid-November snow buried the colony. No one had any idea of how cold it would get in Québec. Most would only have had experience of northern France where temperatures would barely reach freezing. In Québec the temperature fell below O F for weeks at at time.

They could not go outdoors for long because their clothes and particularly their boots could not withstand the cold. Their fireplaces could not keep the buildings warm. And then they began to get sick.

Champlain called it dysentery, but a dysentery so severe it proved lethal. Many died of it. Then scurvy set in in February.

By April as spring began to warm the land, only eight men remained alive. Thirteen had died of dysentery, eight from scurvy. Champlain survived, as did Etienne Brulé [Bru-lay], a seventeen-year old.

One would think after the horror of that winter everyone, to a man, would have one goal in mind — get on a ship, head back to France, and never see the New World again.

A few did. Champlain did as well. He sailed to France in the late summer, after leading the Algonquin on an expedition against their deadly rivals, the Iroquois. But he went back to France to raise funds and recruit settlers and he returned before winter.

Champlain’s Battle with the Iroquois.

Brulé makes his mark

Brulé stayed in Québec. He hunted with the Algonquin, the local tribe, and began to pick up their language.

The following spring, a trading party of Wendat, or Hurons, from what is now Ontario, came to trade with the Algonquin. When Brulé saw the Wendat he wanted to join them and explore deeper into the wilderness.

He convinced Champlain to let him go. Champlain needed interpreters, he needed alliances with the western tribes, he needed to know more about what lay to the west, he needed to know if there was a route to India, and he needed to know if there was gold, as well if there were plentiful supplies of furs and timber for trade.

So Brulé joined the Wendat. He became the first European to travel deep into the interior of North America with an indigenous tribe. The Spanish had led expeditions into the interior, but they were just that, expeditions, which carried as much of their world with them as possible.

Brulé went alone. He didn’t speak Wendat and he had very little idea of where the Wendat lived. Except he knew it was a long way from Québec. Yet this is what attracted him. And he thrived.

Brulé became the first European to travel deep into the interior of North America with an indigenous tribe.

A changed man

When Brulé returned to Québec after a year, Champlain searched  the canoes as they glided to shore. He couldn’t see Brulé. He grew anxious. Had something befallen the young man? Then Champlain found Brulé right there in front of him dressed just as a Wendat.

Champlain scolded him, feeling his role as a European should be to uphold the culture and civilisation of France. It was too late for that. And Brulé had learned the language.

A decade later the Récollets and then later still the Jesuits arrived to convert the Wendat to Christianity. They were attracted to the Wendat because they farmed and stayed in one place unlike so many of the woodland tribes that were nomadic.

The priests found the language completely perplexing. They created dictionaries, but in the decades they were with the Wendat only one or two could say even the most elementary things. By Champlain’s account, Brulé was completely fluent within a year.

The need for allies

Champlain, his men and the Algonquin attack an Iroqouis fort.

Brulé did serve a very useful role in creating an alliance with the Wendat. They now trusted Brulé. And the Wendat were the gateway tribe for all the tribes that lived to the north and west of them in Ontario. Brulé knew he could expand the fur trade.

Champlain needed the alliance for two reasons. One, to develop trade to support Québec. Two, he needed alliances against the Iroquois to the south. The Iroquois were enemies with the Algonquin around Québec and with the Wendat. So creating a larger, stronger alliance of tribes helped protect Québec from Iroquois attack.

Brulé went back to live with the Wendat. He stayed with them, except for a couple of brief periods, for the rest of his life.

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.

A plaque commemorating Étienne Brûlé’ and his discovery of the pathway to the Humber in Etienne Brule Park, Toronto. Credit: PFHLai / Commons.