Etienne Brule

Despite being recognized as one of Canada’s best known explorers and the original courier de bois, very little documentary evidence remains to illuminate Etienne Brule. He left no personal accounts of the time that he spent living among the Huron tribes of Ontario and Quebec. The year of his arrival in New France is the subject of debate, as he is not mentioned in the journals of Samuel De Champlain until 1618, by which point Brule had spent eight years living among the Hurons. What little is written about Brule by Champlain at later dates is colored by the fact that Brule helped the British capture Quebec City in 1632. Even his death is shrouded in controversy, making him the subject of what some historians describe as Ontario’s first murder-mystery.

 

It is believed that Etienne Brule lived in North American from 1608 until his death in 1633, during which he traveled widely both in Canada and the United States while serving Samuel de Champlain as an interpreter and guide. One of the popular myths that have become attached to Brule is that he was the first European to see four of the five Great Lakes. A famous exploit of Brule’s to survive to the present day occurred in 1615. Champlain and the Hurons were preparing their third campaign against the Iroquios and marched to the village of the Onondagas, which was located not far from what is now the city of Syracuse in the state of New York. While there, Brule was sent to the Susquehannah tribe, allies of the Huron tribe, with the intent of convincing them to join the coming battle. In order to reach the Susquehannah village quickly, Brule and 12 Huron braves were forced to cross through enemy territory. It is during this time that Etienne Brule became the first European to see the site of the future city of Toronto when he passed through what is today the Bloor-West area. Historians are unsure of the exact route that Brule took, but it is commonly believed that Brule and his guides followed the Don and Humber Rivers south from Lake Simcoe, eventually making their way to the Niagara River and from there into Susquenhannah territory. It is from this that the city of Toronto got its name as Brule was also the first European to see the place where the Don and Humber Rivers converged, a site called Toronto, or “the meeting place.” Brule was able to convince the Susquehannahs to join the battle against the Iroquois, however Brule was delayed by two days so that by the time he got to the place where he was supposed to meet Champlain and the Huron army, he found the spot abandoned. As a result he returned with the Susquehannah tribe and continued to explore their territory. During this time he became the first European to follow the Susquehannah River to its mouth.

 

Champlain was unhappy with the fact that over the course of time Brule spent with the natives, he chose to adopt native habits, and customs, living a totally aboriginal way of life. Eventually, even the Indians intolerance for Brule increased. When Etienne Brule died in 1633, his efforts at pushing back the edges of the map were tarnished due in part to fact that merchants based in France were paying him to convince the natives to trade with their representatives as opposed to continuing Champlain’s efforts to map and settle New France.. The exact details of Etienne Brule’s death in 1633 are somewhat unclear. The story attached to his death, that he was eaten by a group of Hurons called the Bear Tribe has been dismissed as a myth by most historians. It is believed that Brule was murdered by the Bear Tribe for meddling in Huron politics, however there is little evidence to support this theory.

 

Etienne Brule is recalled in Canadian history as a figure of mystery and adventure as well as great courage. He is remembered today as a scoundrel and a libertine who displayed remarkable courage in his travels, often venturing where others had not or refused to go. Ultimately, he is remembered as the original courier de bois and one of the founders of the fur trade, which eventually lead to the colonization and settlement of Canada .His adventures among the Huron tribes captured the imagination of young boys in 17th Century France and he continues to capture the imagination today. The memory of Brule’s visit to the Bloor-West area is preserved in Etienne Brule Park in the city of Toronto. Curiously, this park does not include the actual spot where Brule is believed to have first seen the Humber River. Today that spot is marked with a plaque at the nearby South Humber Park.

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