By: Danièle Caloz
Despite his remarkable accomplishments as an explorer, interpreter and trader in New France from 1608 to 1632, Étienne Brûlé’s life has long remained a mystery. We do not know his dates of birth or death, although Samuel de Champlain did indicate that he was very young. Brûlé was among the men who established Québec and quickly gained the confidence of Champlain. He agreed to send Brûlé, at his own request, as a “truchement” (or interpreter) to live among the Onontchataron, an Algonquin people, in 1610. He lived among the Wendat (Huron), in Wendake, or Huronia, as early as 1611.
As the producer of a documentary for Radio-Canada entitled À la recherche d’Étienne Brûlé by Médiatique, my company, I went to Champigny in 2010 to see if any trace of Brûlé could be found in his native village. There, I met Eric Brossard, an historian who knew the local records well. He scoured the local, departmental and national archives to track Brûlé, and found many documents that flesh out the story of this celebrated figure. With all these findings, Étienne Brûlé’s impressive life and career become clearer and take a surprising turn. The documents reveal how an ordinary and illiterate kid from Champigny became a Paris bourgeois.
Brûlé is mentioned repeatedly in Champlain’s accounts, but without much detail. The father of New France outlines the young man’s journey to the south among the “neutrals” during the campaign against the Iroquois confederacy, or Haudenosaunee (probably the Seneca) in 1615-16. In his last accounts, Champlain accused Brûlé of treason because the latter agreed to do business with the Kirke brothers when they took Quebec for England in 1629.
Fr. Gabriel Sagard painted Brûlé as a depraved individual, but indicated that he was well embedded in the Wendat community. He was probably the first European to see all five Great Lakes as well as Niagara Falls. Brûle’s death in Wendake around 1632-33 has long been a source of controversy. Sagard (writing in France) alleges Brûlé was tortured and eaten by the Wendat, but the ethnohistorian Bruce Trigger dismissed this claim. Trigger believed (based on reports from Fr. Brébeuf and Chaumonont in 1641) that Brûlé was killed at the behest of a Wendat leader because he was suspected of promoting an alliance between the French and the Seneca (with whom he had lived in 1616) or was planning to work for the Dutch and trade with the Haudenosaunee. Regardless of the controversies, Brûlé served as the archetypical adventurer and coureur de bois for the next 350 years.
His date of birth is still unknown because many of the parish registers of Champigny-sur-Marne were lost sometime between 1590 and 1600. However, we now know that his parents, Spire Bruslé and Marguerite Guérin, were married in 1574 and had three children before Étienne: Pierre in 1574, Antoinette in 1577 and Roch in 1581. We also know that Étienne Brûlé was still in Champigny in 1602, six years before his departure for New France, because he was named as a godfather in parish registers that year.
The discovery of yet another document allowed Eric Brossard to speculate on the motives behind Étienne Brûlé’s commitment to New France. In a baptism recorded in 1603 in Champigny, the listed sponsor is none other than Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1588-1646), who knew Champlain well and eventually would become his key sponsor from 1612. He would have been roughly the same age as Brûlé. Was he the link between Champigny and Champlain that would have put an unknown and untrained youngster like Brûlé among the 1608 crew?
In 1979, the Jesuit historian Lucien Campeau revealed that, contrary to what was previously believed, Étienne Brûlé had not stayed permanently among the Wendat but had returned to France twice during his adult life. Étienne Brûlé first travelled back between 1622 and 1623. His substantial income at the time made him the prototype of the adventurer returning home from the wilds of Canada covered in gold. On 18 February 1623, Brûlé was named godfather to a child of Jacques and Suzanne Faudevin Coiffier, who was also called Étienne. This was the first link between Étienne and the family Coiffier, but it would not be the last.
Brûlé returned to France from 1626 to 1628. The documents discovered by Brossard show that he climbed the social ladder considerably: registers now refer to him as a merchant. In 1626 or 1627 he married Alizon Coiffier, born in 1587. Documents state that Brûlé owned a home in Champigny-sur-Marne and another in Paris, on rue de Grenelle-Saint-Honoré, in the parish of Saint-Eustache. On January 10, 1627, Étienne Brûlé was named the godfather of Marguerite Bruneau.
During his return trip to Canada in April 1628, the French fleet was captured by the British off Anticosti Island and Brûlé was brought to London. He was eventually released and returned to New France where, pledging support to the Kirkes, he resumed his life among the Wendat and his trading activities.
The year 1633 has often been advanced as the date of his death. However, we now have a baptismal certificate, dated 13 May 1633, in which Alizon Coiffier, listed as godmother, is designated as the widow of “the late Estienne Bruslé”. Unless the news was freshly brought to Paris early that spring (which would have been highly unlikely), that information was likely conveyed by returning ships in the fall of 1632. Brûlé probably died sometime in his 40s that year, when France again took possession of Quebec as a result of the Treaty of St-Germain-en-Laye.
On May 13, 1634 at the Châtelet in Paris, Étienne Brûlé’s assets were entrusted for three years to the care of his brother Roch and his wife Alizon, in case the news of his death was false and Étienne returned. Roch (who owned a home in Champigny) also undertook to pay to his sister-in-law, who lived in Paris, half her rent. On October 22, 1637 convinced that Brûlé would never return, Alizon remarried. Her new husband was Jean Tridat, a Parisian merchant.
Today, Champigny is a suburb of Paris of about 80,000 inhabitants. The Brûlé family has disappeared from the city, as have the Coiffier, but parts of his Paris are very evident: the Saint-Eustache church still stands proudly as is the rue de Grenelle-Saint-Honoré (now rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The documents newly uncovered by Eric Brossard show a different Étienne Brûlé. He was not just a supplier in the fur trade, but an active trans-Atlantic merchant who maintained business and personal link with Paris as his commercial activities thrived. The adventurous boy from Champigny grew up to be a Paris bourgeois.
-Translated by Patrice Dutil
About the author: Trained as a teacher and historian, Danièle Caloz has long been active in television production. She started Médiatique, her own production company, twenty years ago and is still seeking funding to produce an English version of À la recherche d’Étienne Brûlé
New original archival documents uncovered by Eric Brossard for Médiatique’s À la recherche d’Étienne Brûlé :
1.Marriage Certificate Spire Bruslé and Marguerite Guerin married Champigny January 24, 1574. EDépôt/Champigny/1E1, 1574.
2. Birth of Pierre Brûlé, son and Speyer Bruslé Marguerite Guérin. EDépôt/Champigny/1E 1/1574, baptismal, October 14.
3. Birth Bruslé Antoinette, daughter of Spire Bruslé and Marguerite Guérin. EDépôt/Champigny/1E 1/1577, baptismal, January 23.
4. Birth Rosh Bruslé, son and Speyer Bruslé Marguerite Guérin. EDépôt/Champigny/1E 1, 1581, baptismal, August 16.
6. Certificate of Baptism of Henri, son of the Bishop of Lyon Ysabelle of Longueuil, where was this Henry de Bourbon, Prince de Conde first peer and Prince of France. EDépôt/Champigny/1E 2, 1603, baptismal, August 20.
10. Act ofJune 26, 1634, between Rosh Brûlé and Alizon Coiffier. Both are trustees for three years in case the alleged missing return on receivables Étienne Brûlé.It mentions an act of May 13, 1634, not found.This act carries a margin of Alizon Coiffier release of October 22, 1637, which notes that she remarried with Jean Tridat Parisian merchant. National Archives of France, central minute, XXIV, 340.
Butterfield, C.W. History of Brulé’s discoveries and explorations, 1610–1626. Cleveland: Helman-Taylor Co., 1898.
Brossard, Eric, coordination, 2002, Étienne Bruslé Un Campinois en Nouvelle-France, Les dossiers, numéro 5, Société d’Histoire de Champigny-sur-Marne.
Campeau, Lucien. Monumenta Novae Franciae II : Établissement à Québec (1616-1634). Québec : Les presses de l’université Laval, 1979.
Jaenen, Cornelius. The French Regime in the Upper Country of Canada During the Seventeenth Century. Toronto : The Champlain Society, 1996.
Jurgens, Olga. “BRÛLÉ, ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1966. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brule_etienne_1E.html.
Trigger. Bruce R. The Children of Aataentisic: History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s, 1987.