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The First coureur des bois

For the week of Monday July 21, 2014

On July 26, 1615, Étienne Brûlé and Samuel de Champlain arrived at Lake Nipissing, Ontario. This was the second exploration of the region for the enigmatic Étienne Brûlé. Protégé of the great explorer Samuel de Champlain, he was the first person from France to live among the Aboriginal peoples and understand the importance of the rich natural resources of the Great Lakes region.

Étienne Brûlé at the mouth of the Humber River (1615)
© Library and Archives Canada / Charles William Jefferys / 1972-26-1395

At the age of 15 or 16, Étienne Brûlé sailed to North America, possibly aboard Samuel de Champlain’s ship, the Don de Dieu. Once on American shores, Brûlé obtained Champlain’s permission to spend a year among the Algonquin to learn their language. He lived a largely nomadic life, travelling by birchbark canoe like his adoptive people. He even travelled down the Lachine Rapids in one!

When he rejoined Champlain near Saut St-Louis (now the Lachine Rapids in Quebec) in June 1611, the explorer was stunned to see his “youngster” in Aboriginal dress, accompanied by a large party of Hurons and Algonquins, speaking their language, and accepted as one of their own. Naturally, Champlain made Brulé an intermediary between the French and Aboriginal peoples, helping form alliances and trade for furs.

Étienne Brûlé’s travels, 1615-1621
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, IMG2013-0143-0010-Dm

No sooner was Brûlé back; he was off again, travelling deeper into Huron Territory. He later reported that he had gone back to the Ottawa River, crossed Lake Nipissing, and sailed four of the Great Lakes! In all, he spent more than 20 years among the Aboriginal peoples. However, his adoption of Aboriginal customs caused a falling-out between him and Champlain and angered the Catholic clergy in New France.

The French government also resented him for guiding the British Kirke Brothers up the St. Lawrence River, where they gained control of Québec City. Eventually, Brûlé was captured during battle and tortured by the Iroquois. He bluffed his way out of imprisonment, but his Huron allies, not believing his story, turned against him and assassinated him around 1633.

An adventurer and free spirit, Étienne Brûlé is a National Historic Person for his role as an interpreter and for his contributions to the fur trade. He is the embodiment of the free lives of Aboriginal peoples and the coureurs des bois, (independent early French-Canadian explorers and fur traders), which were so attractive to French youth. Samuel de Champlain is also a National Historic Person.

To find out more about the explorers, see Champlain Charts Coast, We Reap What We Sow, The First Permanent Settlement on Newfoundland, William Baffin’s Explorations in the This Week in History archives.

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