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From Zeeland to Zeeland in 1847

Robert P. Swierenga

Presented to the Zeeland Historical Society, February 6, 1997


Many of you know far more about than I do about the history of the founding of Zeeland and the important part played by the pioneer families. I'm a newcomer to the area and am soaking up its rich history and traditions for the first time. Fortunately, I have great guides in Bill and Ruth Tuinstra and my colleagues at the Van Raalte Institute at Hope College.

For more than 30 years I have studied the larger picture of Dutch migration to America in the 19th century. I want to share with you today some of what I learned about the situation in the Dutch province of Zeeland that led to the migration of Zeelanders to Michigan and elsewhere. To understand the Zeeland pioneers, we must know the place from which they came. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," you know. You will also get a brief geography lesson about the delta region of the Netherlands.

Religious Conservatism

The most important characteristic of Old Zeeland was its religious conservatism. Protestants there had the reputation for being arch conservatives and traditionalists. They were echte Calvinisten, genuine Calvinists and staunch defenders of the old creeds. Zeeland was the heart of the "Bible-belt" in the Netherlands that stretched inland "between the Rivers" to Gelderland. The most famous Dutch religious teachers of the 17th and 18th centuries were Zeeuws [Franciscus Gomarus, Willem Teellinck, Bernardus Smijtegeld, and Jean de Labadie], and at one time or another, most filled the pulpit of the Dutch Reformed Church at Middelburg, the capital city.

No wonder that pious elders in the church, such as the gentleman farmer Jannis Van de Luyster of Borssele, became increasingly disturbed by the spirit of unbelief and rationalism that pervaded the Netherlands Hervormde Kerk in the early 19th century. King Willem I even made the church an arm of the government and required that all public officials affiliate, thus making it impossible to discipline nominal members who neglected worship, lived scandalously, or were free thinkers.

Pietistic evangelicals such as Van de Luyster simply walked away from the national church in the early 1830s and began meeting for worship in their homes and barns where they read sermons of the old writers.

Soon the dissidents gathered around the few orthodox clerics still found in the national church--J.W. Vijgeboom of Axel, H.J. Buddingh of Biggekerke (both in Zeeland), and H.P. Scholte of Genderen in Noord-Brabant. In 1834-1835 the protest movement came to a head and gained a name, the Afscheiding or Secession. The government quickly expelled the Seceder clerics and fined them f100 ($40) every time they conducted an unauthorized worship service. In four years of preaching throughout the islands of Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland, Buddingh was fined more than f40,000 ($16,000). Counting it a joy to suffer for Christ, he refused to pay the fines and spent seven months in jail until the King pardoned him.

Jannes van de Luyster, the founder of this city, knew Buddingh personally and he too resigned as a presiding elder in the church in 1836 and joined the Seceders, who immediately elected him elder. The police fined elders and deacons f50 ($20) each per service, and Van de Luyster was fined f100 for allowing the use of his barn. At first, he too thought to follow Buddingh's example of civil disobedience, but finally he decided to pay. Fortunately, income from his lands totaled f7,000 in 1836 and he could easily pay his own fines and those of others. Dominie Buddingh also converted Cornelius Van der Meulen, a young civil engineer, who went to study for the ministry with Scholte. (Most Zeeland Seceders followed Scholte in the early years; Van de Luyster did not meet Rev. A.C. Van Raalte for eight years, until 1844.)

By 1840 Van der Meulen was preaching "with great edification and effectiveness" in Van de Luyster's barn. On June 21, 1,000 people came to hear him preach. The spiritual hunger was so great that the young dominie had to be an itinerant preacher for twelve congregations, which earned him the title, the "Apostle of Zeeland." The Seceder church grew rapidly and by 1900 the proportion of Zeelanders who were Gereformeerd was twice the national average (12.5 percent compared to 8.2 percent nationally.)

Social and Economic Conservatism

Geographically, Zeeland consisted of an array of diked mudflats or islands lying in the estuaries of Europe's great rivers, the Rhine, Maas, and Schelde. These swift flowing waterways made travel difficult between the islands and cut the inhabitants off from the mainland.

By 1835 poldering had reduced Zeeland to two main islands clusters--Schouwen-Duiveland-Tholen, lying between the Ooster (Eastern) Schelde and the Brouwershavenschvat; and Walcheren-Beveland (Noord and Zuid), lying between the Ooster and Wester (Western) Schelde. (See the maps). The third major area, Zeeuws Vlaanderen (both West and Oost), was south of the Wester Schelde bordering Belgium. Zeelanders lived in small isolated villages, usually dominated by either Calvinists or Catholics, and they worshiped and worked together. (Catholics made up 25 percent of the population and were concentrated in Oost-Zeeuws Vlaanderen.)

The Zeeland Calvinists were also social and economic conservatives. They trusted in God's Providence so strongly that they opposed contraception, small pox vaccinations, any type of insurance, loans at interest, and all things artificial, including animal insemination and chemical fertilizers.

Not surprisingly, Zeeland had some of the highest birth rates in the country, but even so, enough people emigrated that the rate of population growth was cut by one-third. Zeeland also had alarming death rates due to its notoriously polluted drinking water and the popular resistance to scientific advances.

The Zeeuws religious mentality, it has long been argued, hindered economic progress. Zeeland was an agricultural backwater in which 60 percent of the people worked the soil--the national average was only 40 percent. Tenancy rates were the highest in the nation. Massive floods, as in 1825 and 1953, repeatedly took a terrible toll in lives and property. The stoic Calvinists accepted the ravaging waters as God's just punishment for sin.

Zeeland soils were heavy sea clay in Zeeuws Vlaanderen and Noord-Beveland where farmers raised cash crops of wheat and modder; in Walcheren, Zuid-Beveland, and Schouwen, farmers specialized in dairying. Modder plants or rape seed produced a red dye needed for coloring textiles. By 1830 French modder mills were able to undersell the Dutch mills and the price of modder fell precipitously, often to a point below production costs. But conditions improved after 1850 when the English textile industry grew rapidly and could absorb both the French and Dutch madder production. After the introduction of synthetic dyes in the early 1870s, however, madder lost its market within two years, creating a crisis in Zeeland.

Wheat farmers prospered by modernizing their operations and buying new machines like McCormick reapers, but this meant laying off excess day laborers. In some villages a third of the field hands became permanently unemployed. In the villages of Westdorpe and Zaamslag in 1849, paupers comprised 20 percent of the population; in Groede they numbered 10 percent. When the potato and rye crops--the food of the poor--also failed in the mid-1840s, Zeeland was hit harder than anywhere else and its poor relief rolls were twice the national average.

Conditions improved in the wheat areas after 1850, as they did with rape seed. Prices climbed and land values rose by the 1870s. But in the 1880s world wheat priced dropped when farmers opened up the North American, Australian, and Argentine prairies to wheat. This brought on a full-fledged agricultural crisis in the Netherlands because the Dutch wheat growers in Zeeland, Groningen, and Friesland could not compete. Land prices in Zeeland plummeted by one-third; elsewhere in Holland they declined by a quarter. Farm hands had no alternative but to leave, and the American Midwest with its free land beckoned. Eighty percent of Zeeland emigrants were farm laborers; only 5 percent were farm owners. Skilled craftsmen and a few ministers, teachers, and other professionals made up the other 15 percent.

Economic stagnation and the stern, even fatalistic brand of Calvinism in Zeeland seemed to go hand in hand. The economy lagged so badly for so long that in 1959 the national government designated the entire province a "developing area" and earmarked special funds to develop it, like the U.S. government did in the 1930s with the TVA program for Appalachia.


Because of these push factors, Zeeland led the Netherlands in the rate of overseas emigration. Zeelanders emigrated at a rate nearly six times the national average. From 1835 to 1920 34,000 people left; 96 percent went to the United States.

Emigration was wide-spread and intense; nearly a third of the 105 municipalities in the province sent out 100 or more emigrants in the years before 1880. The map shows that the middle island cluster of Walcheren-Beveland (Zuid- and Noord-) had the heaviest emigration, totaling over 5,300 persons, led by Middelburg (53), Westkapelle (47), Goes (61), Wissekerke (32), and Borssele (22). Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (West- and Oost-) had nearly 5,000 emigrants, led by Groede (80) with a thousand, and Cadzand (81) and Zuidzande (83) with more than 800, Schoondijk (90), and Retranchment (82) with over 500, and Nieuwvliet (4) and Oostburg (86) with over 400. These were clay soil villages in West-Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the cockpit of Zeeuws emigration. Duiveland in the north, another wheat region, also had heavy out-migration; over 500 left Zierikzee (66) and 400 emigrated from Zonnemaire (62) and Oosterland (69). But overall, only 3,000 emigrated from the northernmost island cluster of Schouwen-Duiveland-Tholen. Notice that there were some areas with almost no emigration in the years before 1880, notably the dairy regions of Walcheren and Tholen, and the Hulst area in Oost-Zeeuws Vlaanderen.

The heavy emigration from Zeeland was impossible to predict in 1844, given the conservative mentality. The Seceder leaders all strongly opposed it at first. They considered emigrants as traitors to the community, rebels against God's established authorities, and slaves to material goals. Nevertheless, in the years 1844-1846 several hundred families quietly slipped away and settled in and around Rochester, New York, and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.

In the fall of 1845, the Reverends Van Raalte and Antony Brummelkamp, his brother-in-law, began to change their minds on the subject. Letters from Seceders who were prospering in America convinced them. As Brummelkamp recounted:

I read, and was amazed. We had known the writers as extremely poor people and they spoke of an abundance such as was no longer to be found in the fatherland. We were entirely dumbfounded. Then a light rose up before us. Now it dawned upon us: there was enough room on God's earth, we needed only to move over to have this room.

Thus, the leaders discovered America and saw that emigration might offer an escape from poverty and unemployment.

Over the winter of 1845-1846, the Seceder leaders decided to form Christian emigration societies in order to keep the people from scattering and falling into apostasy in America. The emigrant train was moving and they had better board it if they hoped to lead it and build colonies. There were three societies--that of Brummelkamp and Van Raalte at Arnhem, Scholte's at Utrecht, and Van der Meulen and Van de Luyster's at Goes. The Goes group went one step further and organized the Society into a congregation complete with a consistory, which called Rev. Van der Meulen to shepherd them.

For Van der Meulen and Van de Luyster to emigrate took a lot of persuasion. At first, the Apostle of Zeeland warned against it. "Let us pray," Van der Meulen wrote, "that the Lord keep his children from leaving the land of their birth to go out to strange lands for worldly reasons in order to make a better living under the pretext, 'We can then earn our daily bread honorably with our hands, something which we can't do here anymore.'"

Van der Meulen and other critics raised any number of objections to going to America. The Indians might kill them, the climate was too harsh, land was expensive, doctors were scarce, and mail service and the roads were so poor they would be cut off forever from contact with family and friends at home. Also, America, they charged, was coming under the same godless thinking of the French enlightenment as in the Netherlands, thanks to leaders like Thomas Jefferson. If the Netherlands was Babylon, so was the United States. In the end, the critics declared, the emigrants would come to their senses and return home impoverished, like Naomi in Moab, who left Bethlehem full and returned empty-handed.

After a year of intense debate among the Seceder leaders and in the congregations, they concluded that it was God's will to emigration. In September 1846, Van Raalte decided to go himself and lead the people, after he became convinced that the Dutch economy was an abomination to God because it could not provide steady work. In America people could earn their daily bread honorably. Notice that Van Raalte voiced the very argument that Van der Meulen rejected as worldly. No wonder that Van der Meulen at first opposed Van Raalte's opinions to his face at Arnhem.

Scholte finally convinced his former pupil, Van der Meulen, to emigrate by using the argument that most Seceders were motivated by a desire for religious freedom rather than material gain. Van der Meulen then persuaded Van de Luyster, the baas of Borssele, to join him by preaching a missionary sermon in Van de luyster's barn on New Year's Day of 1847 that melted the elder's heart.

Using Scholte's rationale that God was punishing the Netherlands, in order to scatter its people so that the gospel might be extended like the sun from east to west, Van der Meulen declared that God's word must be brought to America as the Apostle Paul carried it to Rome after the Jews rejected the message. The sermon made such an impression on Van de Luyster that he called out after the amen: "Come on, children. All who wish to go along to Zion, come along." In February 1847 the two leaders helped form the Zeeland Association for Emigration to the United States of America.

Van de Luyster then prepared himself to depart. In his dairy, he noted that God had freed him "from all earthly ties." He proved it by selling his entire landed estate--worth f60,000 ($24,000)--and for the rest of his long life he donated and lent his capital to fellow believers. His generous spirit earned him the accolade here in Zeeland, "banker of the forest." Van de Luyster advanced f6,000 to pay the passage to America on the Kroonprins von Hanover for 10 poor families with 77 members. He also advanced money to pay off their debts. "Children," he declared, "we may not go to America as bankrupt people. Anyone who has debts must let me know about them, and I will pay them."

Jan Steketee likewise paid the fares for 12 of the 72 passengers on the ship he organized, the Wilhelm von Wolgast. Johannes Kaboord and Van der Meulen headed up the third vessel, the Princess Sophia. Steketee's ship from Antwerp sailed first (April 16) but arrived at New York second (June 18), because it took 63 days to cross the ocean. Van de Luyster's group departed second from Antwerp (May 4) but arrived first (June 6); it took only 35 days. Van der Meulen sailed last on May 27 from Rotterdam and arrived at New York July 6. Thus, about 460 members of the Zeeland congregation departed in the spring of 1847. Some 30 persons died en route, mainly on Van Der Meulen's ship. We do not know how many of the 430 survivors settled in western Michigan, but more than three fourths did so.

Since Van de Luyster arrived first, by prior agreement he had the responsibility to select the site for the colony. The choices were to join Van Raalte, who had already planted his colony in Holland, or to accompany Scholte to Iowa, where he was heading at that very time to select land. Both Van Raalte and Scholte did their best to recruit the Zeelanders.

Scholte had an edge, because many Zeeland Seceders followed him from the outset and Van der Meulen studied with him. In the early 1840s, however, there had been a falling out with Scholte over issues of church governance and other matters, and the Zeelanders gradually went over to Van Raalte. But the situation was still very fluid in 1847.

Before leaving the Netherlands the Association members agreed to join Van Raalte, and Van de Luyster sent a letter to Holland ordering the construction of four shelters for the arriving Zeelanders. But Scholte met the Zeelanders at the dock in New York to try to change their minds. He had the good fortune to find Van de Luyster arriving first and convinced him that Van Raalte made a big mistake in choosing Holland. The climate was unhealthy, the land was swampy and densely forested, and food shortages were inevitable because the place was so isolated and there were no good roads. Iowa had better prairie land that could be put to the plow immediately without the Hollanders having to master the axe, in which they were totally unskilled.

Van de Luyster was persuaded and he even contracted with railroad companies for tickets to Iowa for his entire party. Scholte then left for St. Louis, believing the Zeelanders were following him. But members of the group, led by the Reverend Cornelius Van Malsen, who had studied under Brummelkamp, had second thoughts about Iowa and they appointed Van Malsen head of a small committee to investigate more fully the question of where to settle.

The committee consulted with Rev. Isaac Wyckoff, pastor of Second Reformed Church at Albany, who had taken a deep interest in helping the Dutch immigrants. In Buffalo they also met with a Dutchman named Van der Pool, who was supposedly knowledgeable about the Midwest. The committee then concluded that Michigan was preferable to Iowa. Van de Luyster accepted the decision and managed to break the transportation contract to St. Louis without penalty and arrange instead for tickets to Holland. Thus, after a series of wavering decisions, due largely to a lack of good information, Van der Meulen's congregation ended up in Zeeland.

The reasons for this momentous decision require more study. Church controversies and leadership struggles among Seceders in the years preceding emigration are certainly factors in Scholte's loss of influence. And, as a practical matter, Iowa was 500 miles farther than Michigan and hence more expensive to reach. Iowa also had a higher "uncertainty factor" because Scholte had yet to pick a site. Perhaps the fact that Van Raalte had a more irenic personality helped his cause. Van Malsen's sister, Cornelia, in a letter to her father in the Netherlands, reported that Scholte had convinced Van de Luyster to change plans "in a none too Christian manner." The letter does not elaborate on this cryptic comment.

But in the early years, at least, Scholte's bill of indictment against Holland was valid. Pella prospered and Holland floundered. Only in the decades after the Civil War did Holland far outstrip Pella in population, industrial development, commerce, and wealth.

Migration Streams

Another interesting question in the settlement of Zeeland is to ask which Zeelanders came here. What were their home villages? I linked the Zeeland emigration records with the American census records in order to identify the sister communities.

The Wester Schelde River served as the clear demarcation line--emigrants from municipalities to the south went primarily to New York and Wisconsin and those to the north chose Michigan. Two-thirds of the emigrants from Zeeuws Vlaanderen settled in Rochester, Clymer, and Buffalo, and one-third settled in southeastern Wisconsin, mainly Oostburg, Sheboygan, Alto, and Milwaukee. Two-thirds of all Zeelanders in New York originated in Zeeuws Vlaanderen. In Wisconsin 15 percent of Zeelanders came from only one place-- Westkapelle.

Zeelanders from north of the Wester Schelde went almost exclusively to Michigan. Nearly 40 percent came from the islands of Zuid Beveland and Schouwen and 20 percent originated in Duiveland and Tholen. No one village predominated. Indeed, 66 municipalities contributed people to the Michigan frontier, led by Zierikzee, Goes, and Borssele.

Despite the many villages from which the settlers in Zeeland came, they shared a common religious bond--almost all were Seceders or their sympathizers who had remained in the Hervormde Kerk. For the latter, emigration was a way to join the Seceders and yet avoid the persecution and social opprobrium commonly visited on religious dissenters in the Netherlands. Indeed, one quarter of all emigrants from the province of Zeeland before 1849 were Seceders, even though they comprised only 1.5 percent of the total population. Almost half of all Zeeland Seceders who emigrated did so in the 1840s.

The first immigrants were strongly influenced by religious ideals. More than half expressed the desire for "religious freedom" when they registered to emigrate with municipal clerks. Clearly, leaders such as Van der Meulen and Van de Luyster had made their mark.

I close with a question posed by Reverend Henry Beets in 1949 in his biography of Van de Luyster: "Can Zeeland's posterity ever give enough honor to the father[s] of our colony? . . . There ought at least to be [a] statue erected to the memory of Van Raalte in Holland, and in Zeeland a monument that would do honor to Van der Meulen and Van de Luyster." Van Raalte will have his monument this year and today we have gathered to remember the Apostle of Zeeland and the baas of Borssele? I leave it to you to build monuments, which need not be cast in bronze.