Étienne Brûlé Arrives At Lake Ontario
It seems that Étienne Brûlé—the man many historians think was the first European to set foot on the land that would eventually become Toronto—was more than a bit of an asshole. Samuel de Champlain, his long-time boss, called him "licentious and otherwise depraved", plus "very vicious in character, and much addicted to women". A francophone priest called him "a transgressor of the laws of God" who led a "wretched life in vile intemperance". Even worse, in 1629, he turned traitor, helping to lead the British down the St. Lawrence to capture Quebec City.
But he's also one of the most important figures in Canadian history. He arrived in New France as a teenager in the early 1600s to work for Champlain (the explorer/solider/dude who founded Quebec City). And he'd soon talked his way into becoming the first European to spend time living with the Huron and the Algonquin, learning their languages and customs. The experience made him an incredibly important interpreter and go-between. The original coureur du bois, he traveled further into the continent that anyone from the Old World ever had before—the first to see huge parts of Southern Ontario and the Northern U.S.—while exploring, trading and developing alliances with the First Nations.
It's far from clear, but many historians believe he passed through our neck of the woods in 1615, when Champlain sent him on a mission to recruit native allies for the fight against the Iroquois. He traveled south from Lake Simcoe into what would later become the Northern United States—a trip that usually meant taking a portage route down the east bank of the Humber River. That trail, called the Toronto Carrying Place, was the main route between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario for hundreds of years, right up until Yonge Street was built in the late 1700s.
It was on the way back from that trip that things started to go wrong. Brûlé was captured by the Seneca, one of the Iroquois nations, and tortured. He would later tell Champlain that he escaped by convincing them that a sudden storm was a supernatural omen, but it seems more likely that he promised to arrange an alliance between the Seneca and the French. Which was a lie.
Now, the last bit. I'm guessing this should probably be taken with a grain of salt since specifics about Brûlé are always fuzzy and most of the information comes from the French, who were, you know, horribly racist colonizers, but pretty much every reliable historical source I find seems to agree on at least the basic outlines of Brûlé's death:
Years after he escaped from the Seneca, he was captured again—this time by his former friends, the Huron. The reason isn't entirely clear, but it seems they might not have trusted him anymore after his capture by—and suspiciously miraculous escape from—their Iroquois enemies. And so, in a ritualistic ceremony in 1633, Étienne Brûlé was killed, dismembered and then eaten.
There's all sorts of contradictory information about Brûlé, since he didn't keep his own records, so if you're interested in sorting it all out for yourself, you could start by checking out his entry at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, or his Wikipedia page, or Earliest Toronto, the book I'm reading right now which prompted this post. The painting above is by C.W. Jeffreys, a Torontonian artist from the early 1900s who painted lots of events and figures from Canadian history.