ERLANDSON, ERLAND, HBC clerk and the first European to travel overland from Hudson Strait to the Atlantic coast; b. c. 1790 in Denmark; d. at Port Hope, Ont., 23 Jan. 1875.
Erland Erlandson was “bred a ship carpenter in the dock yard of Copenhagen.” In December 1813, while apparently serving as a Danish seaman, he was taken prisoner by the English in the Kattegat and sent to a prison ship at Chatham, Kent. Early in the following year, at the end of the war between Great Britain and Denmark, the Hudson’s Bay Company recruited a number of Scandinavians, including Erlandson, for service in Hudson Bay. At this time he was described as a stoutly built man of 5 feet 9 1/2 inches, with a pale, oval, pock-marked face, hazel eyes, and light brown hair.
Erlandson began work in 1814 as a sailor attached to Eastmain House on the east shore of James Bay. He had then only a slight knowledge of English, but his correspondence and journals of a later date show that he gained a good command of the language. He quickly earned the reputation of being “an excellent servant . . . strictly honest, sober, and active, and very intelligent,” and was rewarded with promotion. In 1817 he was transferred to the Moose Factory district where he was in charge of workmen engaged in carpentry and various routine duties. Two years later he became a clerk, and in 1822 took charge of Eastmain House. He remained there until 1830 when he accompanied Nicol Finlayson as second in command “on dangerous service” to Ungava.
After an overland journey from Richmond Gulf (Lac Guillaume-Delisle) to Ungava Bay, they built Fort Chimo about 27 miles from the mouth of the South (Koksoak) River and near an anchorage for the vessels which were to bring supplies to this most isolated of all HBC posts. An early breakdown of the sea-link with Hudson Bay emphasized their hazardous position in an inhospitable country and this, coupled with their concern about the meagre trade, caused Finlayson, in February 1831, to send Erlandson overland with letters to Governor George Simpson*. These were lost, however, when Erlandson’s canoe was wrecked near the head of Michipicoten River. But he reported to Simpson in person at York Factory and arrived back at Fort Chimo in the sloop Beaver in the following September.
In 1832 Erlandson built South River House on the Kaniapiskau River about 130 miles south of Fort Chimo. After suffering great hardship and gaining only a small trade at the expense of Finlayson’s, he abandoned his post in 1833 and returned to Fort Chimo. His experience convinced both Finlayson and himself that any post inland from Fort Chimo should be situated near the height of land, and that communication with the company posts on the Gulf of St Lawrence was essential. Erlandson, therefore, under instructions from Finlayson, prepared to travel overland to Mingan and eventually five somewhat reluctant Indians agreed to guide him. The party left Fort Chimo on 6 April 1834 and travelled south via Whale River to Lake Petitsikapau (near present-day Schefferville, Que.). There Erlandson realized that the Indians’ firm intention, suspect from the start, was to travel towards the Atlantic coast. The party crossed Lake Michikamau and continued east, following a chain of small lakes to Naskaupi River and Grand Lake. On 22 June they reached the western end of tidal Lake Melville (in the area of present-day Goose Bay, Labrador) and Erlandson thus became the first European to travel overland from Hudson Strait to the Atlantic coast. On the return journey, beyond the height of land, he used a more westerly route through Lakes Wakuach and Chakonipau to reach Kaniapiskau River and Fort Chimo, where he arrived on 17 July. His report on the promising fur country of the interior led Simpson to adopt a new policy for Ungava. In future Fort Chimo and interior posts were to be linked with a depot on Esquimaux Bay (Hamilton Inlet) which would be supplied by ship from Quebec.
On Finlayson’s departure in 1836, Erlandson had charge of Fort Chimo until John McLean* arrived in the following year. In spite of his undoubted abilities Erlandson had not been promoted and he was now a disappointed man. Simpson recognized his claims, but thought that the vote-casting commissioned officers would be unwilling to elect to a chief tradership one who was “a foreigner and raised from the ranks.” Erlandson’s health was deteriorating but in 1838 he built Fort Nascopie on an arm of Lake Petitsikapau. From there, in 1839, he accompanied John McLean on a journey to Esquimaux Bay during which they became the first Europeans to see the Grand (Churchill) Falls of the Grand (Churchill) River. Before leaving Ungava in 1840, Erlandson spent the winter at Fort Trial on George River.
In 1841, after many delays while travelling, Erlandson reached the company’s Lake Superior district to which he had been assigned. The posts of which he had charge there, Long Lake (1841–43) and Pic (1843–48), did not offer enough scope for his abilities and so enable him to press for promotion. His dissatisfaction grew and he retired voluntarily in 1848.
In “easy circumstances, without a family,” he settled near retired chief trader George Gladman* in Port Hope, Canada West. He visited London and Denmark in 1853–54, and apparently in 1855 stayed for a while with John McLean, who was then agent for the Bank of Montreal in Guelph, C.W. Two sums of money disappeared in mysterious circumstances during his visit, and because, on his death in 1875, he left an estate of some $14,000 (most of which he bequeathed to the Toronto General Hospital), he has been accused of having stolen the missing money. No accusation was made against Erlandson during his lifetime and in the interests of justice an examination should be made of his financial transactions in Canada, in London, and possibly in Denmark, before judgement is passed on one who always bore an exemplary character.