When Samuel de Champlain set sail from France in 1608, a voyage which would ultimately result in the founding of Quebec, young Étienne Brûlé was on board. At only 16 years of age, Brûlé had been hired by Champlain as an 'engagé' ('indentured servant') and to whom Champlain referred as 'my boy'. Following the founding of Quebec, Brûlé was one of the 8 who managed to survive the devastating winter of 1608-1609.
Brûlé's adventures would be many, but, unfortunately, he kept no records or journals. His stories derive only from journals by Champlain, among others, who recorded Brûlé's verbal accounts, or from Native oral histories and from Jesuit records. All this information was pieced together into something of an historical biography.
In 1610, Champlain arranged an exchange between the Fench and the Hurons (then known as the Wendat). In the exchange, Brûlé would go to live among the Hurons, integrate himself, learn the language and customs, and literally become a native. At the same time, Nicolas du Vignau would live with the Algonkins, and Savignon, the son of the Algonkin (Algonquin) chief Iroquet, would travel to France. This was not only an exchange of 'trust', but it would serve greatly for the two different peoples to get to know each other.
Champlain decided that young Étienne Brûlé would be the ideal 'truchement' ('embassador') to send to live among the Hurons. Brûlé was young, strong, adventurous, and fascinated with the Natives of New France.
Brûlé is believed to have been the first coureur de bois ('runner of the woods'). Many more would follow, including Jean Nicolet. Much of the early interior exploration was done by coureurs des bois. Often, these Frenchmen would literally become natives, marrying into various tribes and spending the rest of their lives as natives. They and their families would ultimately become the Métis Nation and they would have an enormous impact on Canada's early history.
During the few early months of his stay among the Hurons, Brûlé quickly learned the language and adopted a Huron way of life. So complete was his integration that Champlain was shocked at the sight of him when he returned to Quebec with 200 Hurons who wished to trade. Brûlé was barely recognizable and this concerned Champlain. His journals describe Brûlé as a 'sauvage' ('savage'). Nonetheless, he allowed Brûlé to return.
At some time before 1612, Brûlé accompanied a group of Hurons to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron ('Karegnon', or 'Sweet Water Bay'). In 1612, he returned to Quebec and led Champlain on a personal expedition to Lake Huron. On their return journey, Champlain and Brûlé were the first Europeans to look upon the waters of Lake Ontario.
Before returning to Quebec, Champlain sent Brûlé on to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. Brûlé followed the river all the way to Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic Ocean. During the return journey, he was captured by the Iroquois and tortured, but somehow escaped and made his way back to Canada.
Brûlé was to meet a tragic death, but he was also to journey to four of the five great lakes: Erie, Ontario, Huron and Superior. In 1622, Brûlé arrived in present-day Sault Ste Marie. At the time of his arrival, the area was called Sault de Gaston by the Ojibwa who lived there, named after the brother of Louis XIII. This clearly indicates that Brûlé was not the first Frenchman in the area. Some historians contend that Brûlé continued westward to the Bois Brûlé River. However, 'bois brûlé' translates as 'burned woods'. It is known that the Ojibwa often burned forests as a method of controlling and improving their hunting territory, so it is very likely that the name 'Brûlé' was simply a coincidence and that Brûlé himself never travelled that far west.
When Quebec was captured by the English in 1629, rumours quickly spread that Étienne Brûlé had, in fact, betrayed Champlain and piloted one of the ships which attacked the French settlement. Perhaps this is true, but Brûlé may have been made a scape-goat to quantify the loss of Quebec. It is simply not known to be true.
It has also been suggested by historians that, back in 1610, Brûlé had not been sent by Champlain but had, in fact, escaped in order that he would no-longer be indentured to Champlain. Considering the rumours concerning Brûlé's role in the capture of Quebec, and considering Champlain's reactions following Brûlé's death, this would seem a more likely scenario.
Whether Brûlé was sent by Champlain or escaped on his own to live with the Hurons, he retired from his old life as a Frenchman following the capture of Quebec to live the rest of his life as a Huron. His death in 1634 remains something of a mystery, though. It is generally accepted that Brûlé made the fatal mistake of trading with the Iroquois, mortal enemies of the Hurons, to the south and that the Hurons had murdered Brûlé for his actions. However, by Jesuit accounts, Brûlé had a rather high libido which had got him in serious trouble with the very natives he considered his family. The Jesuits claim that Brûlé was murdered by the Hurons as a result of his sexual improprieties and that the Iroquois story was concocted to cover the real reason for the murder.
Whatever the reason, Étienne Brûlé was, indeed, murdered by the Hurons. Samuel de Champlain assured them, however, that he would not seek retribution for the death of his 'engagé' since he now considered 'my boy' a traitor.
Brûlé's impact on Canada's history is undeniable. Through him, the entire Great Lakes regions became open to future explorers and the information he had gathered would prove invaluable.