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Place Mattered: The Social Geography of Dutch-American Immigration in the Nineteenth Century

Robert P. Swierenga, Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department

November 17, 1998

Next spring the New York publishing house, Holmes & Meier, will bring out my book Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820-1920. It reports on the findings of more than 35 years of research, which began in earnest when I was a history professor here at Calvin in the 1960s.

One of my research goals has been to uncover the overall patterns of Dutch migration. Migration is a process that is played out at the local level in the prime sending and receiving localities, where people were pushed to leave and pulled to certain American destinations?

The research rests on three linked sources--Netherlands emigration lists, U.S. ship passenger manifests, and U.S. census records. To create the individual files, which total more than 200,000 cases, I read more than 2,000 rolls of microfilm. Then I linked the records by family to create a merged file of 55,000 cases.

Emigration fields

Migration is very place-specific. Only a few regions and localities in the Netherlands were emigration hot-spots; large areas had little or no emigration for decades. The same is true in the United States. The Dutch were concentrated in a few regions, particularly around the Great Lakes.

In the Netherlands, the emigrants originated in a very few villages. Of the 1,156 administrative units (gemeenten) in 1869--the equivalent of U.S. townships--only 134, or 12 percent, provided nearly three quarters of all emigrants in the period from 1820 through 1880; 55 municipalities (5 percent) sent out one-half of all emigrants; and a mere 22 municipalities (2 percent) furnished one-third of all emigrants.

The color-differentiated map shows the major emigration fields. In the east the Gelderse Achterhoek on the German border early became a prime source region, as did the Veluwe east of the Zuider Zee. In the north it was the coastal farming regions of Groningen and Friesland; in the southwest the Zuid-Holland island of Goeree-Overflakkee and the three Zeeland islands; and in the southeast the Brabantse Peel centered in Uden. I'll say more about these areas in a few minutes.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Dutch emigration patterns is that they were determined by a mix of culture and soils. Culturally, the dominant Reformed regions north of the Rhine River and the southwestern islands sent out three-quarters of the emigrants. One third of the Reformed emigrants were from Afscheiding villages. The Afscheiding was a reform movement in the liberal Hervormde Kerk, the national church, that resulted in a secession in 1834 and the creation of a free church, the Christian Seceder Church. Seceder congregations were major recruitment centers for emigration in the 1840s.

The culturally distinct Catholic provinces in the southern Netherlands, by contrast, had little overseas emigration. Their priests railed against it and Catholic laborers crossed into Germany or Belgium for seasonal work rather than go overseas permanently. Considerably fewer emigrants, relatively, also left the urban provinces: Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland, and Utrecht. This population center of the country, which boasted the major seaports and government center, sent out less than one-fourth of the total emigration.


Soils are a key to emigration patterns. Dutch soils are broadly of three main types--clay, sand, and peat; and agricultural systems differed accordingly, as one might expect (see soil map). Heavy sea clays (both old lands and the new polders) predominated in the north of Groningen and Friesland, and in the southwest in Zeeland and the southern part of Zuid Holland. River clays are found along all the river systems. Farmers on the clay raised commercial grain crops for export, mostly wheat and corn. The farms were large and labor intensive.

The sandy loam soils of the eastern interior featured small family farmers who practiced the traditional three-field agriculture. In the sand dunes and heather along the western sea coast, farmers cultivated bulbs and flowers. The low-lying peat meadows ringing the Zuider Zee had good pasture grasses to support dairying, especially in southern Friesland. Another large peat area of thin soils ran along the German border of Groningen, Drenthe, and Overijssel.

I found that the clay soil areas of Zeeland, Friesland, and Groningen had heavy emigration, sandy regions had less, and peat meadows had almost none. The export crops on the clay soils suffered from growing international competition. Dutch farmers could not compete with efficient North American farmers who could raise wheat far more cheaply on the fertile Great Plains. This forced Dutch commercial farmers, the "groote boeren," to consolidate their holdings and buy new machinery to try to catch up with falling world prices. As a result, they laid off their day laborers and hired hands by the tens of thousands. The farm crisis reached epic proportions in the 1880s when Dutch emigration rates peaked. Many farm laborers went to America in hopes of finding farm work and possibly climbing the agricultural ladder to farm ownership. They actually had little choice but to emigrate, because the Dutch industrial revolution had not yet begun in earnest and there were few factory jobs available.

The interior sandy soil provinces of Drenthe, Overijssel, and Gelderland had fewer people forced out, because the reclamation of heath land and the introduction of fertilizers raised productivity. This allowed farmers to subdivide lands among their sons and keep them at home. An exception was the Achterhoek region of Gelderland. This backward farming area experienced very heavy emigration from the earliest years, probably under the influence of German emigrants who passed through on the way to the seaport of Rotterdam. It is a well-known principle that the sooner an emigration stream began, the stronger was the outflow over time. This was because the earlier migrants sent back word to family and friends about opportunities in America in the so-called "bacon letters" or America letters, which are legendary for their effectiveness in promoting chain migrations.

Dairying on the meadowlands was a very stable industry and immigration was minimal from the dairy regions.

Emigration patterns

Dutch emigration began in the mid-1840s in conjunction with an agricultural crisis caused by the failure of the potato and rye crops due to diseases, and the government persecution of religious Seceders from the State church. The confluence of these factors triggered an emigration movement among rural folk who had long suffered from poverty, land hunger, and a pinched future.

Among Dutch emigrant family heads, 60 percent were farmers, farm hands, and day laborers. This was twice the national average.

Seceders comprised only 1.3 percent of the national population in 1849, but they made up nearly one-half of the total emigrants in the crucial early years of 1846-1849 and one-fifth of all emigrants in the years to 1880. At least a dozen Seceder clerics, notably Albertus Van Raalte and Hendrik Scholte, emigrated with some or all of their congregations in 1847, which led to the founding of Holland and Pella. That same year the Catholic priest, Theodore van den Broek, led a similar group migration from Noord-Brabant to the Fox River valley of Wisconsin. These pastors and priests played crucial roles in the decision to migrate and in determining the places to settle.

The Dutch were unusual in the degree of family migration and America-centeredness. Until 1880 fewer than 10 percent of emigrants went as singles, and afterward the proportion increased only slightly to about 30 percent by the First World War era. Until the 1890s over 90 percent of all Dutch overseas emigrants went to the USA. Emigrants from the populous urban provinces, however, had much lower percentages choosing the States. They preferred professional and business opportunities in the Dutch colonies of the East and West Indies. The North American migration clearly was a folk migration of families, compared to the single young men going to the Indies.

USA Settlement Patterns

Immigrants from the same Old Country villages preferred to settle together in order to lessen the emotional shock of leaving the homeland and to ease the adjustment to a new environment. In the classic example of this phenomenon, nearly every village and town in half a dozen townships surrounding the largest Dutch colony of Holland in Ottawa County, Michigan, boasted a Dutch place-name derived from the province or town where most of the first settlers originated. The central city of Holland consisted largely of people from Gelderland and Overijssel. New arrivals soon founded villages within a ten-mile radius bearing names of their places of origin and where they spoke the local dialect and perpetuated dress and food customs. It required the passing of the first generation before regional allegiances broke down and a general sense emerged of being plain Hollanders rather than Groningers, Drenthers, Gelderlanders, and Zeelanders. Frisians, of course, always remained Frisians.

Frontier settlements in the 1880s and 1890s were mirror images of west Michigan. In Charles Mix County, South Dakota, for example, Frisians and Overijssellers in 1883 established separate communities five miles apart, bearing the names of their respective provinces. Each insisted on their own church congregation and edifice, although they belonged to the same denomination and shared a minister between them.

In American cities and villages that predated Dutch occupancy, the new immigrants likewise clustered in neighborhoods with kin and friends. Herbert Brinks has estimated that three-quarters of the Netherlanders who arrived from 1847 to 1900 settled in ethnically homogeneous colonies. In Grand Rapids, the quintessential Dutch-American large city, where 40 percent of the population was of Dutch birth or ancestry in 1900 (the largest population of Dutch in any American city over 25,000), the Dutch isolated themselves not only from the west-side Poles but also from each other. David Vanderstel, in his dissertation on the Dutch in Grand Rapids from 1850 to 1900, identified twelve distinct neighborhoods and noted: "Even though each neighborhood could easily be characterized as a 'little Holland,' it would be more accurate to identify each residential cluster as a 'little Zeeland,' 'little Groningen,' or 'little Friesland,' thereby affirming the provinciality of the particular settlements." I found the same behavior in Cleveland where the Gelderlanders settled on the West Side and the Overijssellers on the East Side. Both founded CRC congregations in 1872, sharing the same pastor, but cultural differences forced them to go their separate ways.

This behavior was not unique to the Dutch, but their concentration in a very few localities was remarkable and gave the Dutch a greater presence in America than their relatively small numbers warranted. The 1870 federal census numbered 70,000 Dutch-born; 60 percent lived in only 22 counties in 7 midwestern and 2 mid-Atlantic seaboard states, and 38 percent lived in only 46 townships and city wards). This funneling pattern, like a megaphone, amplified the Dutch visibility in America.

The primary settlement field was within a fifty-mile radius

of the southern Lake Michigan shoreline from Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Holland, and Kalamazoo on the east to Chicago, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Green Bay on the west side (Figure 3.3). Secondary settlement areas were in central Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, and in New York City-northern New Jersey (Figure 3.4). In subsequent decades, the Dutch spread over a wider area of the Great Plains and Far West in search of cheap farm land. But few immigrant groups, if any, have clustered more than the Dutch. And their colonizing created a choice environment in which to nurture and sustain a strong sense of "Dutchness" for many generations.

Migration Streams

My linked data file reveals the intricate migration streams that connected particular Dutch municipalities with their American counterparts. Each municipality deserves its own detailed description, but I can only mention the most salient, subregional findings. I will take you on a quick trip that loops the country by province from the southwest to the north and back. Zeeland

Emigration from the southwestern province of Zeeland was the heaviest in all of the Netherlands in the years 1835-1880, both in raw numbers (14,300) and per capita (88 per 1,000). Geographically, Zeeland consisted of three distinct regions; Zeeuws Vlaanderen (Zeeland Flanders) on the Belgian border and two island clusters: Walcheren-Beveland (Zuid and Noord) lying between the Eastern and Western Schelde rivers, and Schouwen-Duiveland-Tholen lying between the Eastern Schelde and the Brouwershavenschvat. The middle islands of Walcheren-Beveland had the most emigrants--5,300; Zeeuws-Vlaanderen had nearly as many--5,000, but the northernmost islands of Schouwen-Duiveland-Tholen had only 3,000 emigrants.

The Western Schelde River served as a clear demarcation line--emigrants to the south went primarily to New York and Wisconsin and those to the north went to Michigan. Two-thirds of the emigrants from Zeeuws Vlaanderen settled in Rochester, Clymer, and Buffalo, and one-third settled in southeastern Wisconsin (Oostburg, Sheboygan, Alto, and Milwaukee). Two-thirds of all Zeelanders in New York originated in Zeeuws Vlaanderen; one-third hailed from only three municipalities-- Groede, Zuidzande, and Cadzand. In Wisconsin, 15 percent of the Zeelanders came from one municipality, West Kapelle (Walcheren). Zeelanders from north of the Western Schelde, led by Zierikzee and Goes, went almost exclusively to Zeeland, Michigan; most were persecuted Seceders.

The economic and religious history of the region helps to make sense of its emigration patterns. The potato disease struck the area hard and grain prices at the same time slumped to fifty-year lows and many farmers faced eviction. Zeeland's sea clay area, especially Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and Noord-Beveland, was a premier wheat region. Farmers retrenched and some locales needed only a third of the workers as previously. In the villages of Westdorpe and Zaamslag in 1849, 20 percent of the population became paupers.

One quarter of Zeeland immigrants before 1849 were Seceders. They formed an emigration society led by the Reverend Cornelius Van der Meulen, "the apostle of Zeeland," and his financial backer, the wealthy farmer Jannis van de Luyster. Van de Luyster sold his farm for $24,000 and paid for the journey to Zeeland, Michigan of his family, plus 77 destitute Seceders.


The 7,500 persons who emigrated from the large and populous province of Zuid-Holland were centered in two rural localities: the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, south of the Haringvliet, which was tied economically and culturally to the Zeeland islands; and the river-clay regions of the Hoeksewaard and Alblasserwaard, a wheat growing area "between the rivers"--Lek, Waal, and Maas.

More than half of all Zuid-Holland emigrants (4,200, 56 percent) came from Goeree-Overflakkee, where changes in agriculture forced the expulsion of farm laborers, as in Zeeland and elsewhere. This backward, self-contained island had the highest per-capita emigration in the Netherlands; indeed, it was three times higher than anywhere else. The polder villages of Ouddorp and Goedereede had per capita rates of overseas migration more than one hundred times the national average (7.2 per 1,000).

The Flakkeër farm laborers, who were noted for their religious piety and social conservatism, went straight to Paterson, New Jersey, where they found jobs in the thriving silk mills; 70 percent settled there and they comprised 97 percent of the Zuid-Hollanders in the entire Garden State. This was by far the most focused emigration from any of the islands of the southwestern Netherlands.

While Flakkeërs flocked to northern New Jersey, emigrants from the wheat growing region of the Hoeksewaard and Vijfheerenlanden favored Pella, where 90 percent settled. Half the emigrants from Noordeloos went to the village of Noordeloos, Michigan. From the eastern Alblasserwaard and Vijfheerenlanden, 40 percent of the emigrants settled in the market gardening village of South Holland, Illinois. Flakkeërs accounted for another 25 percent. Thus, pioneer South Holland was dominated by people from "between the rivers" and from Overflakkee. Altogether, over 90 percent of Zuid Hollander emigrants settled in four colonies--Paterson, Noordeloos, Pella, and South Holland.


Noord-Holland, the most populous province, contained very few emigrant centers. Only 5,406 persons emigrated, mostly white-collar workers and skilled craftsmen from Amsterdam 42 percent) and the nearby cities of Haarlem and Zaandam, and fully one-third went to Asia and South America. Two rural emigration centers were the North Sea islands of Texel and Terschelling, and the regions of Geestmerambacht and Den Helder lying thirty to forty miles north of Amsterdam.

In the years before 1850, emigration was clearly a response to religious forces. Seceders made up 20 percent and Jews 20 percent, although their share of the provincial population in 1849 was less than 1 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Many Amsterdam Seceders followed Dominie Scholte to Pella. One-third of Amsterdam emigrants were Jews--three times their proportion of the population--bound primarily for New York and other east coast cities. Dutch Jews in New York City accounted for nearly 20 percent of all Noord-Hollanders in the Empire State.

In the sparsely populated islands of Texel and Terschelling, Texel emigrants favored northern New Jersey, where one-third settled. Another fifth went to North Holland, Michigan, and yet another group of thirty people accompanied the wealthy capitalist, Paulus den Bleyker, to Kalamazoo. Terschelling emigrants went to the prairies of Iowa in Grundy and Butler counties in the 1860s.

The rural Geestmerambacht region, especially the villages of Schoorl and Zijpe, sent emigrants mainly to the village of Roseland, a market-gardening region south of Chicago. Pieter de Jong, the schoolmaster of Schoorl, led the group to Roseland in 1849.

The distribution of Noord-Hollanders in the United States was 33 percent in Michigan, 19 percent in Illinois, 14 percent in New York, and 11 percent in New Jersey. Half of the Noord-Hollanders in Michigan originated in three municipalities (Texel, Den Helder, and Amsterdam), and half of those in Illinois, mainly in Roseland, came from the villages of Schoorl and Zijpe.


Utrecht was the least important emigration area. Only 1,171 persons left by 1880, nearly two-thirds were residents of the provincial capital of Utrecht. The one focused migration was a band of Scholte's followers who went to Pella. Indeed, half of all Utrecht emigrants settled in Pella. West Michigan was a secondary destination for 20 percent.


Friesland also had little emigration before 1880; fewer than 4,000 persons emigrated, mostly after 1865; this was less than half the number from Groningen. The prime source area was the sea clay wheat region; three-fourths originated in the ten municipalities of the north coast from Harlingen to the Lauwerszee, centered in Het Bildt and Ferwerderadeel. The Seceder influence was strong in the beginning but soon economic forces prevailed. Northern Frisian emigrants came from the ranks of rural day laborers and more than a quarter were on the public dole.

Their preferred destination was western Michigan, especially Grand Rapids and Rev. Martin Ypma's village of Vriesland. One-half of the northern Frisians settled in Michigan, including 80 percent of the emigrants from Ferwerderadeel, 70 percent from Barradeel, and 60 percent from Kollumerland. The "Frisian Hoek" on the north edge of Pella primarily attracted people from Het Bildt and Westdongeradeel. The remaining north coast emigrants settled in two Wisconsin Frisian colonies--New Amsterdam (La Crosse) and Friesland; and in Lancaster, New York, and Goshen, Indiana. The latter were a colony of Mennonites from the village of Balk.

A unique pattern is evident among emigrants from the adjacent municipalities of Ooststellingwerf and Weststellingwerf. Over 80 percent from the former place settled in Michigan and 75 percent from the latter place went to Iowa.

Generally, the independent-minded Frisians dispersed themselves in America more than other Netherlanders. Their colonies were small and several lacked the glue of religious institutions to enable them to retard the inevitable process of Americanization.


The province of Groningen ranked second behind Zeeland in its emigration rate, with the center in the cash-grain region known as the Hunsingo, which ranged north and west of Stad Groningen. [Hunsingo had 5,900 emigrants (68 percent), Fivelingo had 1,000 (12 percent), and the Westerkwartier on the Frisian border had only 800 emigrants (9 percent), for a total of 8,700].

Groningen boasted the richest, most productive clay soil in the Netherlands. The agricultural revolution struck early here and with great impact on the excess farm laborers who emigrated to America in large numbers. Of Hunsingo emigrants, 84 percent were farm workers, mostly single men who had to delay marriage because they could not obtain steady work or a farm in order to support a wife and family.

Two-thirds of Groningers settled in west Michigan (Grand Rapids and Muskegon), [mainly from Leens, Ulrum, Uithuizen, Warffum, Bedum, and Adorp], but Chicago's west side was the main secondary destination [from Uithuizermeeden, Usquert, Middelstum, Stedum, Eenrum, Baflo, and 't Zandt]. More than one-third of 't Zandt emigrants and over one-quarter of Stedum emigrants settled in Chicago. The area of 14th Street and Ashland Avenue was known for years as the "Groninger Hoek." Henry Stob tells about growing up there in the 1920s in his autobiography, Summoning Up Remembrance.

Drenthe, Overijssel, and Gelderland

Of the three eastern provinces, all sandy soiled--Drenthe, Overijssel, and Gelderland, Drenthe was the most isolated and least densely populated province. It ranked fourth in total emigration (1,537) and double the national per capita rate. Drenthians are a stand, conservative people who emigrated very reluctantly, but a convergence of religious and economic forces drove them out. The potato blight caused an "acute pauperization," and religious turmoil tore villages apart. In the 1840s 82 percent of all Drenthe emigrants were Seceders, mainly farmers, several of whom were very wealthy. Almost 90 percent went to Drenthe, Michigan.

Overijssel, like Drenthe, had small family farms on sandy soils, but it also boasted a major textile industry in the Twente district on the German border which provided work for excess farm laborers. Some 2,300 persons emigrated from Overijssel, mainly from the central farming region that stretched from Staphorst at the north, which had the heaviest emigration in the entire province, to Diepenham on the southern border of Gelderland.

Emigration began in earnest in the Staphorst vicinity in 1846 among followers of the Seceder pastor, Dominie Van Raalte of Ommen, and his understudy Seine Bolks at Hellendoorn. In 1847 Bolks led twenty-three families from his congregation to Holland, Michigan, where they founded the village of Hellendoorn (later Overisel).

A lesser emigration center was the Twente district, from where Roman Catholics, mostly skilled craftsmen, emigrated to Cleveland and Bay City, Michigan. Catholics from Twente consistently made up a quarter to a third of Overijssel emigration.

The focal point in America for Overijssel emigrants was Overisel, Michigan; 92 to 100 percent of all emigrants from Staphorst, Den Ham, Hellendoorn, Nieuwleusen, and Zwolle, went to western Michigan. Staphorsters alone numbered 30 percent of the Overiselers in western Michigan. Over 60 percent of the Michigan Dutch originated in Overijssel. This was not as concentrated an emigration stream as that from Drenthe, where 90 percent went to Michigan, but it exceeded that of all other provinces except the Noord-Brabant Catholic migration to Wisconsin.

The large province of Gelderland ranked second behind Zeeland in total emigrants (12,400). More than half the Gelderland emigrants (6,300) came from the Achterhoek, and particularly one community, Winterswijk, the seat of municipal government. Winterswijk had the third highest emigration of all Dutch municipalities, behind Ouddorp and Goedereede. Religiously, in the 1840s over one-half were Seceders. The Achterhoekers settled primarily in Dutch colonies in western New York in Monroe County (Ontario, East Williamson, and Palmyra) and in Sheboygan and Alto, Wisconsin.

The Betuwe and Veluwe areas equally shared the remaining half of Gelderland emigrants, about 3,000 each. The Betuwe region included the entire meadowlands between the Rhine and Waal rivers in the vicinity of Nijmegen. Emigrants from Herwijnen and Vuren were Seceder followers of Scholte who accompanied their leader to Pella, while those from neighboring Haaften followed Van Raalte to Holland. The northern sector, known as Overveluwe, was also oriented heavily toward western Michigan. From Ermelo, Dornspijk, Harderwijk, Oldebroek, and Apeldoorn, half to three quarters of the emigrants went to western Michigan.

The Catholic Provinces

The southern Catholic provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg formed a unique cultural region and had a total emigration of 5,300. Migration from Noord-Brabant centered in the northern municipalities of Uden, Boekel, and Zeeland.. This area experienced the demise of the cottage textile industry in the 1840s just as the potato and rye crops failed. The result was Father Van den Broek's large colonization effort to Little Chute, Wisconsin in Brown and Outagamie counties, south of Green Bay. More than three-quarters of all Brabant emigrants settled there. Limburg migration was even more concentrated. One can draw a line bisecting the province near the center immediately south of the city of Roermond. Emigrants north of the line settled in Wisconsin on the fringe of the Fox River settlement of fellow Catholics from Noord-Brabant. Emigrants south of line, in the region known as Middle Limburg, went exclusively to Carver County, Minnesota. The emigration from Middle Limburg was so concentrated in time and place that in one municipality, Montfort, 13 percent of the populace emigrated in one year. Nowhere else in the Netherlands is the local character of emigration so clearly demonstrated as in the demarkation line in Limburg between Wisconsin and Minnesota destinations. Never did the twain mix.


Dutch emigration in the 19th century was region-specific and concentrated. Each region had its own history, but two main factors were salient: the religious Afscheiding and the modernization of agriculture in the sea clay grain regions. These religious and economic forces sparked migration early and continued it long and strong. And since moving to America was a risky and permanent venture, the migrants used the information chain of family, friends, and neighbors already there. As a result, strong links were formed between specific Dutch and American localities.