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(October 5, 2000, Gazette)

A step back in time

Cornerstone of Moravian mission houseThe cornerstone of the Moravian mission house with a clay pipe.

By David Sorensen

With the 250th anniversary of the first Moravian mission to Labrador drawing near, researchers have uncovered archaeological evidence of that first attempt at settlement. What’s fascinating is the remains of the 1752 mission house near Makkovik matches key archival material gleaned from the journals of the very missionaries who planted the cornerstone.
Sketch of the mission house from 1752.  Sketch of mission house

The discovery of the mission house was the result of Dr. Hans Rollmann’s meticulous research into the Moravians’ Labrador presence. The religious studies professor had collected reels of microfiche containing the records of Moravian missionaries since the 18th century.

But details of the 1752 voyage were stored in the archive in Herrnhut in the former East Germany, before 1990 not the most friendly location for Western researchers.
But with the fall of the Berlin Wall came the availability of reams of additional records. Of particular interest was the journal of Johann Christian Erhardt, the mariner and trade agent who led four missionaries to Labrador in 1752.

 Dr. Hans Rollmann, Henry Cary, Harvey Best, Ted Andersen and Steve Mills The team that uncovered the house (L-R) Dr. Hans Rollmann, Henry Cary, Harvey Best, Ted Andersen, and Steve Mills.

“At that time, the Moravians had in mind to settle as many as 500 couples in Labrador and they were looking for a suitable locale and to establish contact with the Inuit,” explained Dr. Rollmann.

That’s what brought them to Nisbet Harbour, what is today called Ford’s Bight, where they spent a month building the mission house.

After the construction, Erhardt left the missionaries and travelled north to trade for whalebone.

“It was near what is today Anton’s Island that Erhardt was asked to follow some Inuit men behind the island,” said Dr. Rollmann. “They were never seen again.”

Ted Andersen and Henry Cary Ted Anderson and Henry Cary.

The ship waited for three days before returning to Nisbet Harbour, picked up the missionaries, left supplies in the event that Erhardt and the missing crew made their way back to the mission house, and sailed back to St. John’s.

Among the supplies left behind were two kegs of gunpowder. Curious Inuit quickly discovered the purpose of gunpowder, blowing themselves and the house to bits. A search party looking for the men the following summer found the house in shambles. They also found one body near Anton’s Island, which they buried.

Jens Haven, who was eventually credited with starting the permanent Moravian mission to Labrador, had heard about the Erhardt voyage. In 1771, he helped establish a Moravian presence in Nain and “from then on they have been a cultural force in Labrador,” said Dr. Rollmann. “Today, you still have 2,412 Moravians in Labrador.”

Excavation site of Moravian mission house Excavation at the site of the mission house near Makkovik.

Local tradition always placed the mission house in Nisbet Harbour, but some Western researchers had decided it lay elsewhere.

However, when a student of Dr. Rollmann’s from Makkovik, Pam Andersen, showed Erhardt’s journal entries to her father, Ted Andersen, he knew exactly where it was.

Dr. Rollmann contacted Steve Mills of the Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program – part of the Department of Anthropology’s Archaeological Unit – and they recently visited the site, discovered the remains of the mission house, and found some archaeological items including clay pipes, glass windows and musket balls dating from the middle of the 18th century.

“The measurements fitted to what we knew from the diary,” said Dr. Rollmann.

“They were spot on,” said Mr. Mills. “It was recorded as being 16’ by 22’ and we measured it at 16’ 8” by 22’ 8”.”

Now the outreach program plans to raise funding to do a complete archaeological dig next year. Graduate student Henry Cary will lead an excavation with the help of a local crew. He expects it will take six weeks to excavate the site.

The match of a very detailed historical archive – there are two diaries that record day-by-day activities of the mission party – is exciting for the team.

“There’s hardly ever been a site in the province that has such an archival record that documents what took place,” said Dr. Rollmann.

Through the outreach program, the group was able to get the community museum, the White Elephant, involved in the project as well.

“They have a very, very dedicated group of volunteers and they registered with the outreach program,” said Mr. Mills.

“The community is gung-ho,” said Dr. Rollmann, adding that while in Labrador, the group taught four classes in the local high school.

The group thanked the archaeology office of the provincial Department of tourism which supported the recent expedition, as well as the Labrador Institute.

The Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program is made possible by a grant from SSHRC.

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