It’s January 26, 2017, and Michigan is now 180 years old. It’s a story of triumphs and failures, plot twists, and ironic twists of fate. We lost the Toledo War and were given the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize, skidding into statehood via shaky legal process, in much the same way the Lions tend to make the playoffs—by the skin of someone else’s teeth. Be it the discovery of Keweenaw copper, the ingenuity of Henry Ford, or the twenty-three-year-old “boy governor” who stood up to President Jackson, Michigan has a way of prevailing through long odds. But perhaps none embody the spirit of the Wolverine State quite like Étienne Brûlé.
If there was ever an example of young tenacity, it was sixteen-year-old Brûlé, whose name lives on in the rushing whitewater demarcating the Michigan-Wisconsin border. At the ripe old age of sixteen, Brûlé was making a name for himself as the Native American diplomat for Samuel de Champlain. For reasons of mere curiosity, Brûlé requested to live with the Hurons and learn their customs, essentially becoming the Midwest equivalent of The Revenant’s Hugh Glass. No, he was never mauled by a grizzly, but he does hold the honor of being the first European to take a gander at the land called Mishigamaa in 1620. Throughout his years as an adopted Huron, the voyageur recorded various exploratory achievements, including paddling the five Great Lakes and mapping out “the rapids of St. Mary”— or Sault Ste. Marie—the first city established in the Wolverine State.
Of course Champlain and the Jesuits had their own agenda for allowing Brûlé to live among the natives, but damn if they didn’t find the perfect man for the job. Brûlé was one with the tribe. He embraced their speech, dress, and cultural mannerisms with 24/7 participation, negotiating fur trades and even assisting with raids against neighboring tribes.
Remarkably, Brûlé was also a French loyalist, dutifully seeking out Champlain’s permission before participating with each of the Hurons’ political movements. Often gone for years at a time, he made sure to always keep in touch with his commanders, who were more than happy to have a diplomat among the people who knew this vast new land most intimately.
Brûlé’s level of enthusiasm certainly raised some eyebrows, however. He seemed to like his role a little too much. I’m sure some nervous collar-tugging ensued every time Brûlé sat down for his quarterly review in a loincloth and moccasins, chuckling to himself in Algonquin about the foolishness of imperialism. Occasionally, he was sent back to Montreal to teach native languages to the Jesuits, but for the most part Champlain was wise enough to keep him stationed in the field where he flourished.
If you’re sensing some potential John Smith-Walt Disney drama coming into this story, you’ll be relieved to hear that Brûlé mostly lived before the days of colonial escalation. In 1620 the surface of New France had barely been scratched by these new kids on the block, and all parties were relatively content with these mutually beneficial trade relationships. Make no mistake, drama would ensue, and in due time Champlain would find himself in the thick of the Seven Years’ War, but our intrepid Michigan explorer never lived to see the beginning of the end of his beloved new family.
As all great explorers go, Brûlé also met his demise in a spectacularly tragic and grisly fashion. Due to Brûlé’s success uniting the French with the Hurons, Champlain and unwittingly gained a formidable enemy in the Seneca Iroquois. During a battle between the two tribes, Brûlé was captured and abandoned in the face of overwhelming force. As a vital player in the grand scheme of the changing New World, the Iroquois planned to torture him until his loyalties shifted. But tenacity dies hard in the land of the fighting wolverines, and the feisty Brûlé managed to escape and journey back to his people. Unfortunately, in a sad twist of irony, it was the Hurons who grew suspicious of his loyalty and accused him of making deals with the Iroquois. The price of treason was high: dismemberment and cannibalism.
He left quite a legacy, though. As 2017 commences—a time where one’s patriotism and respectful allegiance to country might have to be weighed against an alternative moral route—it’s good to look back on the example of Étienne Brûlé, a man who set race and customs aside, brought people together in symbiosis, explored the New World, and discovered the Great Lakes State. All before his thirtieth birthday.
And speaking of birthdays: Happy 180th, Michigan.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.