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ERHARDT, JOHN CHRISTIAN, Moravian trading agent on the Labrador coast; b. c. 1720 at the Baltic seaport of Wismar, then in Swedish territory (now German Democratic Republic); d. 1752, on the Labrador coast.

John Christian Erhardt, a German sailor, joined the Moravian Brethren after coming under the influence of their missionaries on the island of St Thomas in the West Indies. Subsequently Erhardt sailed in the supply ship serving the Moravian mission stations in Greenland. There he picked up some Eskimo words and talked with the missionaries, especially with the veteran Matthew Stach, who told him that the Eskimos on the opposite side of Davis Strait probably were similar to the Greenlanders in their language and customs. Erhardt wrote to Bishop Johannes [John de Watteville] in 1750 offering his services in establishing a Labrador mission, saying that as “an old Greenland traveller,” he had “an amazing affection for these countries, Indians and other barbarians, and it would be a source of the greatest joy if the Saviour would discover to me that he had chosen me and would make me fit for this service.”

In 1752 three merchants of the London Moravian congregation fitted out the vessel Hope to trade with the Labrador Eskimos as a means of financing a voyage of reconnaissance along the then virtually unknown coast. Erhardt was appointed second in command of the ship and was to be in charge of the trade. Four Moravian Brethren went out in the ship as missionaries: George Golkowsky, John Christian Krum, Christian Frederick Post, and Matthew Kunz.

The Moravians left London on 18 May 1752 and first met Labrador Eskimos on 29 July, north of Hamilton Inlet. On 31 July they picked out a suitable site for a mission post, called it Nisbet’s Harbour, and took possession of the land in the name of King George III. Nisbet’s Harbour was probably in the region of modern Hopedale, about ten leagues south of Davis Inlet.

Erhardt immediately began a brisk barter trade with apparently friendly Eskimos for whalebone and seal skins. He found himself hampered by his limited knowledge of Eskimo and lamented: “I often wish I had the Stachs with me, for my little bit of Greenlandish does not go far.” Meanwhile the ship’s crew laboured to set up a prefabricated house brought from Europe, in case the missionaries should decide to winter in Labrador.

In early September, with the missionaries in their new home, the Hope sailed north to Davis Inlet for more trading before returning to England. At the mouth of the inlet Erhardt, with Captain John Madgshon and five crew members, left the ship with a boatload of goods to trade among the islands. The boat was never seen again. After waiting for two days, the remaining crew sailed the Hope back, reaching Nisbet’s Harbour on 14 September. A search party set out in the missionaries’ yawl, but was driven back by high winds. The missionaries now decided to return home since their help was needed to man the ship. They left supplies behind in case Erhardt and his companions somehow survived and should reach Nisbet’s Harbour.

The following summer, the chief mate of the Hope, Elijah Goffe, went again to Labrador, found the mission house destroyed, and located the bodies of the missing men on a nearby island. After they left the ship, Erhardt and his party may have been delayed or detained by the Eskimos; they made their way back to Nisbet’s Harbour, and were later murdered in the vicinity. There can be little doubt that they were killed by Eskimos: some of the murderers were actually pointed out to later missionaries. At this time the Eskimos made summer voyages to southern Labrador to trade with or plunder Europeans, as opportunity afforded. Erhardt’s slight knowledge of Eskimo was probably insufficient for him to make clear to the natives the ultimate purpose of his mission. When the Eskimos encountered Erhardt’s trading party in an isolated position, they simply took advantage of it as they had done with French and English traders in the past.

The idea of a Labrador mission did not die with Erhardt. A Moravian carpenter, Jens Haven*, was stirred by a strong desire to carry the Gospel to Erhardt’s murderers. He took a leading part in the Moravian expeditions of the 1760s which led to the establishment of the first mission post in 1771. Haven and others of his colleagues were fluent in Eskimo and had nothing to do with the trade themselves. They were thus able to demonstrate convincingly that they were not as other Europeans, and so gain the confidence of the Eskimo people.

William H. Whiteley

Memorial University Library (St John’s), Moravian missions, Labrador, Papers relating to the exploratory voyages, 1752–70 (mfm reel 4), pp.1–13. PAC, MG 17, D1, Diary of Kunz, Post, Krum and Golkowsky, May–November, 1752 (mfm 4–548). David Cranz, The history of Greenland: including an account of the mission carried on by the United Brethren in that country, from the German of David Crantz; with a continuation to the present time, illustrative notes, and an appendix containing a sketch of the mission of the Brethren in Labrador . . . (2v., London, 1820); The Moravians in Labrador (Edinburgh, 1833). J. W. Davey, The fall of Torngak; or the Moravian mission on the coast of Labrador (London, 1905). W. G. Gosling, Labrador: its discovery, exploration, and development (London, 1910). J. K. Hiller, “The foundation and the early years of the Moravian mission in Labrador, 1752–1805” (unpublished ma thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1967).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

William H. Whiteley, “ERHARDT, JOHN CHRISTIAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/erhardt_john_christian_3E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/erhardt_john_christian_3E.html
Author of Article:   William H. Whiteley
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   September 30, 2023