Étienne Brûlé is no longer the mysterious character who has inspired many different representations, ranging from traitor to hero. Recently discovered documents paint a picture of an intrepid fur trader living alongside wise and battle-hardened Aboriginal communities in the largely uncharted Canadian wilderness. With one foot in Huronia (Wendake), Étienne Brûlé had the other planted firmly in France, to which he returned twice over the course of his career. Documents show that his intention was to live out his old age in the village of his birth, enjoying his large fortune and the company of his wife. Fate had other plans.
However, in the 1970s, Jesuit historian Lucien Campeau discovered that Étienne Brûlé did in fact exist in the French archives and had returned to France twice over the course of his adult life: first in 1622–23 and again in 1626–28. Madeleine and Olga Jurgens conducted further research, and their findings supported this discovery.
Then, in 2010, French historian Éric Brossard was conducting research in Champigny-sur-Marne, Brûlé’s birthplace, for the documentary À la recherche d’Étienne Brûlé, produced by Médiatique for Radio-Canada. Brossard was intrigued by this character, famous overseas but unknown in his birthplace, and delved further into Brûlé’s past. His research produced several more documents previously unknown to historians.
Thanks to all of this research, we can now trace Étienne Brûlé’s impressive life and career. His birthdate remains unknown, because the parish registers for 1590-1600, when he was most likely to have been born, have been lost. However, his parents’ identities have been established: they were Spire Bruslé and Marguerite Guérin, and they were married in 1574. The couple had three children before Étienne: Pierre in 1574, Antoinette in 1577, and Roch in 1581.
Documents prove that Brûlé was definitely in Champigny in 1602, eight years before his departure for New France. He is listed as a godfather on a birth certificate, which was an honour awarded to families of good pedigree.
After leaving for New France in 1610, Brûlé returned home for the first time in 1622. His large fortune made him the original “rich American uncle,” and he became an even more sought-after godfather (and husband!).
By the time he returned to France again in 1626, he had climbed even higher on the social ladder: documents refer to him as a merchant. In 1626 or 1627, he married Alizon Coiffier. Brûlé owned a home in Champigny-sur-Marne and another in Paris, on Rue de Grenelle in the parish of Saint-Eustache.
Brûlé once again set off for Canada, but on 9 April 1628, the English captured the French fleet and took Étienne Brûlé to London. He returned to New France and the Huron-Wendat in 1629 — this time on an English ship —and was killed there in 1632.
But what exactly was Étienne Brûlé’s occupation? Until now, few historians have studied his greatest successes as a trader in uncharted territory. Clues gleaned from the newly discovered documents can help answer this question.
The young Brûlé was well and truly settled in his trading territory. His mentor, Samuel de Champlain, identifies him clearly in his Voyages (1619) as having lived among the Huron-Wendat for eight years by 1618:
However, there was one with them named Étienne Brûlé, one of our interpreters, who had lived among them for eight years, as much to pass the time as to see the country and learn their language and their way of life […]
Several years later, the fur trade had become a large and well-organized affair. In spring 1624, when his employer Guillaume de Caën’s ships arrived, Brûlé lost no time in encouraging the Aboriginal population to move to Montréal as soon as possible, as Samuel de Champlain mentions in his 1632 Voyages:
We were by the Iroquois river, where we found the aforementioned Des Chesnes, who reported having news that some 300 Hurons, whom Étienne Brûlé had met at the Saut de la Chaudière (Chaudière falls), 75 leagues from the Iroquois river, were coming.
That same spring, Brûlé attended a large friendship banquet in Québec City for the annual trade fair on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Gabriel Sagard, a Récollet friar who had spent time in Huronia and accompanied Étienne Brûlé on the return journey, also attended. He recalls an incident where Brûlé, whose life was in danger, bartered his tobacco provisions for right of passage past an Algonquin barricade:
We returned to Cap de Victoire, where the interpreter Brûlé had arrived two days earlier, with two or three Huron canoes. He informed me that the Montagnais and the Algonquin were preventing him from continuing his journey and that they wanted him to wait there with them for the trading boats. They tried to resist but were overcome, particularly the interpreter, who ended up giving them a bag of tobacco.”
On the same journey, Brûlé kept the peace by sacrificing a dog for the cooking pot. Clearly, his trading career was not without its challenges. We also know that after his death, when the Huron-Wendat were ravaged by epidemics, they admitted to Father Le Jeune that they had previously stolen a necklace of 2,400 glass beads from Brûlé. They offered to return it if the missionaries would keep the disease away from them.
Many historians have written about the very high wages paid to Brûlé—1,000 livres per year. According to historian Bruce Trigger, Brûlé’s mission was so crucial that he was paid many times what an ordinary employee would receive, and almost as much as Champlain’s official wages. Brûlé also earned income from the trading he was allowed to engage in independently. The Jesuit missionary Lalemant mentions this:
I know an interpreter who has 100 pistoles and permission to take many skins with him every year.
We do not yet know for how long Étienne Brûlé earned such a high income. However, he certainly became an essential piece on the economic chessboard of New France, and his wages were probably a good investment for merchants.
What, then, did Étienne Brûlé do with his fortune? Historian Lucien Campeau has discovered two procurations that Brûlé signed on the eve of his departures from France. These documents clearly show the state of his finances.
First Journey to France, 1622
Étienne Brûlé had left France 14 years earlier. He probably returned with a shipment of furs and seems to have settled comfortably in the village of his birth on the banks of the River Marne, near Paris.
He renewed his contract on 7 February 1623. Before leaving, he gave power of attorney to his brother Roch. From this procuration, we learn a number of facts.
Guillaume Caën, Étienne Brûlé’s employer, had not yet paid him fully for his years of work. He still owed him 2,000 livres. Brûlé had also loaned a sum of 2,400 livres to Jean-Jacques Dolu, according to a document dated 10 February 1623. Dolu was the Grand Audiencier of France and the first intendant of New France to be appointed by the king.
Second Journey to France, 1626
Étienne Brûlé returned once again to France in 1626, along with his young friend Amantacha, a Huron-Wendat who came to Paris to be baptized and receive an education. He was the son of Soranhes, one of “the first and most active Aboriginal fur traders.” Étienne Brûlé visited Amantacha often, first as an interpreter, and then as a friend after the newcomer had learned French.
At the time of his second voyage to France, Étienne Brûlé was even richer and had changed social status; he was now a merchant. It was then that he married Alizon Coiffier.
Once again, it came time for Brûlé to depart. On 9 April 1628, he rented his house in Champigny to his brother Roch for 25 livres. In the procuration that he drew up that same day, he entrusted his interests to the notary François Macqueron, not to his brother. Because his assets were more significant, they probably needed to be handled by someone more experienced; Brûlé had made numerous investments.
Intendant Jean-Jacques Dolu still had to make payments on the money that Étienne Brûlé had loaned him. At the time, it was a sum of 1,400 livres, according to a contract from 21 March 1626.
The procuration also lists loans that Brûlé and his wife made to inhabitants of Champigny and surrounding areas: 30 livres each to Michel Chesnaye and Jean Mayeux, grape producers; another 45 livres to Gilles Bruneau, father of his goddaughter; 18 livres to Jean Legroulx, a locksmith and gunsmith; 18 livres to Gaspard Henry, a merchant; and 12 livres to two “gagne-deniers” (unskilled workers), Jean Maillard and Marie Minet, who would probably never pay him back.
Étienne Brûlé also seems to have done business directly with fur merchants, as shown by the sum of 1,600 livres that was owed him by the Parisian merchant André Ferrus, according to a contract signed on 8 April 1628.
This procuration paints a picture of a prosperous man who intended to spend the rest of his days in France, surrounded by his family. Fate had other plans.
Death in 1632 and Impact in France
Étienne Brûlé’s death at the hands of the Huron-Wendat was generally believed to have occurred in 1633. However, a baptismal certificate dated 13 May 1633 lists Alizon Coiffier as godmother and “widow of Étienne Bruslé.” Based on this evidence, he must have died in 1632, since at least one season of fair weather was needed for the news to cross the Atlantic to France.
On 22 October 1637, absent any sign that Brûlé was still alive, his affairs were settled between Roch and Alizon. By that time, she was already remarried — to a Parisian merchant named Jean Tridat.
Today, Champigny is a suburb of Paris with a population of approximately 80,000. There is no trace of the Brûlé and Coiffier families in the area. In Paris, the Saint-Eustache church still stands. Nearby is Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was formerly Étienne Brûlé’s street, Rue de Grenelle.
In 2012, there were several screenings of the documentary À la recherche d’Étienne Brûlé in Champagny-sur-Marne. It was enthusiastically received by local authorities, the general public and schools. Several classes are currently collaborating on a rock opera about Étienne Brûlé that will introduce younger generations to an inspiring historical figure who was, until recently, largely unknown in his native country.