The Founding Of The Last 'Colonies'

During the Napoleonic period, the European continent was virtually cut off from the Atlantic, and contact between Holland and the United States was reduced to a minimum, but did not stop completely, like some historians claim. However, it was in those years that there was an awakening of interest in everything Dutch on the US.

Many prominent New York families began tracing their ancestral line back to New Netherland and the era of Peter Stuyvesant. In 1804, the New York Historical Society was founded, which still maintains excellent material on the Dutch past. In the next decade, Van der Kemp was commissioned to translate the colonial records of New Amsterdam and New Orange into English from the original Dutch. And the writer Washington Irving contributed more than anyone else to this vogue with his Knickerbocker's History of New York.

After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, The Netherlands became a kingdom under the House of Orange. But not until 1848 did the monarchy become a constitutional one and the country a parliamentary democracy in the modern sense of those words. The first king was William I, who was an authoritarian. It was under his rule that a movement started in the Dutch Reformed Church which was to lead to the last mass emigration from Holland to the United States.

This movement originated in literary circles and was called `the Revival.' It was inspired by the desire to break away from the religious indifference of the day and restore the ardor of seventeenth-century Protestantism. The Reverend Hendrik de Cock was the first to take up the battle against the relaxation of dogma from the pulpit. When he referred in a sermon to some church authorities as `wolves in the sheepfold of Christ,' he was promptly suspended. After his appeal failed he left the Reformed Church, a part of his congregation following him. That was in 1834, and it marked the beginning of what is known in Holland as `the Secession.'

De Cock's separatist movement was-soon joined by the ministers Hendrik P. Scholte, Albertus C. van Raalte, and others from the Revival Movement. They organized a form of Calvinistic worship along strictly dogmatic lines. The seceders had a hard time. The Dutch Constitution recognized freedom of religion for the existing churches, but King William refused that privilege to a newly formed congregation. Religious meetings of the separatists were suppressed and some leaders imprisoned. Naturally such oppression gave further impetus to the movement.

Only after the abdication of William I did the situation improve, and the new Constitution of 1848 ruled out such discrimination once and for all. By then however an important group of separatists had already emigrated to the United States and even more had made up their minds to do so.

There has been considerable dispute as to whether the migration of the seceders was prompted by religious or by economic motives. Economic conditions in the forties were certainly grim. The failure of the potato crops of 1845 and 1846 was a major disaster in Holland as well as in Ireland and Germany. In Holland, however, it never reached sufficient proportions to cause a mass exodus. Nor does the stress placed on food problems in the correspondence of the immigrants provide conclusive evidence, as some historians have said. Travelers of all times have always written home at great length about their food.

The truth probably is that both reasons were of equal importance, and that to many seceders the two could not even be separated from each other. In their intense religious awareness they saw the economic misery as a sign of the decadence and sin of the times. `They are seeking a place... where through cultivation of the earth they might earn their temporal subsistence for the rescue of this generation from the miseries of a collapsing society,' Van Raalte wrote in a letter of 1846, `To the faithful in the United States.'

The first thought of the separatists had not been the United States, but the island of Java in the East Indies. The Dutch government refused to give them permission to settle there. A great debate was raging in those days on the subject of the United States. Many regarded it with horror as the hotbed of liberalism and `the source of all the revolutionary movements in Europe.' Newspapers described at length the terrors of the lawless West and even the climate which caused most foreigners `to pine away and die.' But many believed in the American dream. Everhardus J. Potgieter, a leading Dutch author, wrote: `America, what more does not the world still expect from you? ... Our eye rests with pleasure upon you, the rapidly expanding, happy, free State...' It was the United States that the seceders finally agreed upon as their destination and future homeland.

A first group of separatists, led by the Reverend van Raalte, started off in the autumn of 1846, sailing from Rotterdam, their objective Wisconsin, a `booming new state.' Fares to New York in those days averaged $14. The traveler provided his own food during the voyage, which cost about $8, bringing the grand total to $22. Even so, some of the wealthier emigrants had to pay the passage of less fortunate ones.

When the group arrived in the United States, winter made a crossing of Lake Michigan impossible, and Van Raalte decided on the Black Lake region in Michigan instead of Wisconsin. In February of the following year he led the first group to the chosen site, near the mouth of the Black River, to which a path had to be cleared through the woods. The next day they began building the first log cabin, which took two weeks to finish. When that was done, the women and children were sent for. Thus was started the first succesful Dutch colony in America since the days of the West India Company. The Van Raalte immigrants worked under true pioneer conditions. In fact, their housing in those days was curiously similar to the huts in which Adriaen Block and his men braved that first American winter in the year 1613.

From a beginning marked by hardship the town of Holland emerged, now with twenty-six thousand inhabitants and proud of its Hope College, its schools and industries. Holland is surrounded by towns and villages, some bearing the names of Dutch provinces: Zeeland, Vriesland, Groningen, all of which were started by later arrivals who joined Van Raalte. These are now completely American communities, but their Dutch background is still evident and not only during the spring Tulip Festival but at all times. Of those who later chose city life, a majority settled in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids had forty thousand inhabitants of Dutch descent; it is the center of Dutch Calvinism in the United States. Calvin College educates ministers for the Christian Reformed Church.

The second large group of immigrants was brought over by the Rev. Hendrik P. Scholte, who was a late convert to the necessity of leaving The Netherlands. Scholte's group was better off economically than the men who came with Van Raalte, and the woods of Michigan had little appeal for them since they could afford to buy farmland. Van Raalte's hope that the two colonies would be united was therefore not fulfilled. Scholte's men started out under less primitive conditions, some in log cabins and others in farmhouses they had bought from Americans. The chosen site was in Marion County, Iowa. Here Scholte laid out his new city in the summer of 1847, naming it Pella for the town to which the disciples of Jesus fled after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Two years later it found itself in the path of the California gold rush, and `from East to West, as far as one could see, there was an unbroken line of wagons and horses' traveling through the settlement. Business was so good that only a few of the new settlers joined the rush to the California gold hills. With the opening of the railroad Pella became a trading center of the region. In turn it has sent a wave of second-generation Dutch immigrants to the North, to Orange City and Sioux County, and today it is a prosperous community. By 1860 half of the then thirty thousand Netherlands-born residents of the United States were living in Michigan, in Iowa, or in Wisconsin where Dutch Catholic immigrants had settled in the fifties.