Dutch in Michigan
has always attracted more Dutch than any other state. Most Dutch immigrants in
the 19th century headed for Michigan. By 1900 Michigan
counted one-third of the Dutch-born in the USA. Most Dutch lived in five
Southwestern Michigan was truly the
Dutch center, centered in Grand Rapids.
One-third of the Dutch in Michigan
in 1900 lived in that city, where they totaled 40 percent of the population.
1990, nearly 300,000 residents of Dutch ancestry lived in the five-county
region, making it the largest Dutch settlement area in the United States.
The breakdown was 35 percent in Ottawa
County, 22 percent in Allegan County,
19 percent in Kent County, 12 percent in Kalamazoo
County, and 10 percent in Muskegon County.
In brief, the Dutch like West Michigan.
Dutchness of Michigan raises a number of questions. First, why was West Michigan the favored Dutch destination for more than
one hundred years? Second, what accounts for the Dutch clustering in this
region? And third, what are the implications of this "Dutchness" for
Van Raalte chooses Southwest
We have the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte to
thank for Michigan's
Dutch character. He chose Ottawa
County in 1847 for his
colony of religious Seceders from the Dutch national church, and like a piped
piper, he lured many to follow him. The immigrants had other choices after
mid-1848, especially the Pella (Iowa) colony of his
erstwhile associate, the Reverend Henry P. Scholte. But Van Raalte proved to be
a better promoter. Holland quickly outgrew Pella. By 1930 Pella totaled only 8,300 residents of Dutch ancestry,
compared to 17,000 in Holland and 30,000 in Grand Rapids.
That Van Raalte chose to locate his colony
in Southwest Michigan was strictly a fluke.
This leader of the vanguard of thousands of Hollanders, all fleeing religious
persecution and economic distress, was bound for Fond du
Lac, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Winnebago. But in early December of 1846, when Van
Raalte's party reached Detroit on the lake
steamer Great Western from Buffalo, bound for Milwaukee
over the Straits of Mackinac, the word came that the Straits had iced over and
the shipping season was closed for the year. The only alternative was to
continue by rail. But the railroad at this time only ran as far west as Kalamazoo, and Van
Raalte's party could not afford the tickets in any case. So they had to winter
unexpectedly in Detroit,
then the state capitol.
The "icy hand of winter" stopped
the Dutch cold in Detroit, and the delay gave Michigan boosters and promoters in the capitol city time
to persuade Van Raalte that the Wolverine
State was far preferable to the Badger State.
attorney Theodore Romeyn (of Dutch ancestry) introduced Van Raalte to his
pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Duffield, and to officials in
Governor Epaphroditus Ransom's office.
Romeyn and Duffield put Van Raalte in
contact with Rev. Ova Hoyt of Kalamazoo's
First Presbyterian Church, who in turn introduced him to Allegan Judge John
Kellogg. Kellogg personally took Van Raalte to Allegan and showed him the lands
around the mouth of Black Lake in Ottawa
County used by a small band of Ottawas at the Old Wing
Mission. Van Raalte was impressed and declared, "This is the place."
was quite a turnabout for Van Raalte; he had previously confessed to harboring
"many a bias against Michigan."
"I would have chosen another place to live," he wrote his
brother-in-law and associate in the Netherlands. His new friends had
convinced him otherwise. Van Raalte confided to his wife that he trusted the
"God-fearing, upright gentlemen" he had met in Michigan.
The most convincing arguments of the Michigan boosters were
religious and economic. Lower Michigan was peopled by English and Scottish
Calvinists who were theological cousins of the Dutch Reformed; southern Wisconsin was full of
German Catholics. And there was no love lost between Calvinists and Catholics
in the Netherlands since the
Wars of Religion against Spain.
Second, the boosters explained that Michigan
was more economically advanced and already linked by rail to New
York City, whereas Wisconsin residents had to rely on the Great Lakes and shipping stopped every winter. So Michigan beat out Wisconsin
for the primary Dutch colony in North America.
Dutch ethnic clustering
The first generation of Dutch immigrants
spoke in regional dialects and preferred to live among family and friends. They
thought of themselves as Zeelanders, Groningers, Frisians, etc., and not as
Dutch. Witness the villages in the Holland Colony: Borculo, Collendoorn, Harlem, Harderwyk, New Groningen, Nijkerk (Niekerk),
Noordeloos, Hellendoorn (Overisel), Staphorst, and Zutphen. It was the second
generation that first thought of themselves as a single ethnic group (except
for the Frisians).
Even in the cities, the Dutch settled in
neighborhoods with kith and kin. David Vander Stel, in his (1983) dissertation
on the Dutch in Grand Rapids
from 1850 to 1900, identified twelve distinct neighborhoods. "Even though
each neighborhood could easily be characterized as a 'little Holland,'
said Vander Stel, "it would be more accurate to identify each residential
cluster as a 'little Zeeland,' 'little Groningen,'
and 'little Friesland,' thereby affirming the
provinciality of the particular settlements."
On the southwest side, Zeelanders were
clustered in the Grandville Avenue
area, Overijssellers (mainly from the famous village
of Staphorst) and more Zeelanders
lived along West Fulton and Straight streets.
In the West Leonard-Alpine Avenue
district on the northwest side, Zeelanders and later Frisians were
concentrated. On the northeast side,
along Canal and Bridge streets, and further west at Plainfield Avenue, were other pockets of
Zeelanders, as well as groups of Zuid Hollanders and Frisians.
On the southeast side, the Dutch made up
more than one-third of the total populace. Zeelanders were again dominant in
the South Division-Lafayette district, with Groningers a growing presence. In
the Wealthy-Logan district further east, 70 percent were Dutch in 1880, and of
these 85 percent hailed from Groningen.
This area was known in Dutch circles as the "Groninger buurt"
Park was another
"Brickyard area" of East Fulton-Lake streets had the highest
concentration of Dutch in Grand Rapids
in 1880 at 75 percent. In this real "Dutchtown," nearly two-thirds
brief overview shows that Dutch in Grand Rapids
mainly came from the provinces of Zeeland and Groningen,
with lesser numbers from Overijssel, Zuid Holland, Friesland,
and Drenthe. Very few came from Noord Holland and the Catholic province of Noord Brabant,
and none came from the Catholic province
Catholics in Grand Rapids
are easily overlooked, because they did not cluster. In 1887 Father Henry
Frencken organized St. Joseph
the Worker Parish on Ramsey Street
(on the southwest side). Under his nineteen-year tenure (1887-1906), the church
gathered in 120 Dutch families in the Furniture
City, all from the province of Noord Brabant.
Although the parish church was the focal point, the members were spread across
the city and did not form distinct Dutch enclaves, like the Reformed Dutch.
This meant that members were drawn into non-Dutch parishes in their
neighborhoods. Significant, too, is that instruction in the parish school was
in English, not Dutch, and the Mass was celebrated in Latin. So the children
did not learn Dutch. By contrast, in the Reformed churches, worship services
and catechism instruction continued in Dutch until the First World War.
Father Franken returned to the Netherlands
in 1906, the bishop assigned as his successor a priest who could not speak
Dutch. So Franken's departure meant the end of the Dutch era at St. Joseph
Parish, and the congregation quickly lost its ethnic uniqueness. Over time, the
Dutch Catholics in the city were absorbed into other parishes and quickly
became Americanized. Thus, the Dutch parish did not flourish beyond the first
Kalamazoo, which the Dutch muck farmers transformed into
the celery capital of America,
also had its unique neighborhoods. Groningers lived on the north side and
Zeelanders on the south side. These were the two dominant provincial groups in
the city and they lived and worshipped very much apart. The late history
professor, John Izenbaard of Western Michigan University,
enjoyed telling me the story of growing up Zeeland
neighborhood on the south side but marrying a north side Groninger. In 1853
one-eighth of Kalamazoo's
population was Dutch.
In the village
of Holland, immigrants from the Province of Overijssel predominated at first,
because Van Raalte had itinerated throughout that province planting Seceder
churches in the decade before he immigrated. For this he earned the title
"Apostle of Overijssel." Later other provinces were represented as
well. South of Holland stood the villages of Graafschap and Bentheim, founded
by fellow German Reformed immigrants from County Bentheim.
These Germans were as tight religiously and culturally as the Dutch.
and environs the Dutch were virtually all Groningers. The same is true of the Grand Haven-Spring
Lake area. The men found
work felling trees and turning the wood into lumber in the sawmills.
As the provincial distinctions broke down,
the Hollanders began to intermingle, largely within their churches. Reformed
and Christian Reformed congregations dotted every neighborhood and village,
usually facing one another across the street. Since the churches were the focal
point of each community, and worship services were uniform throughout, it was
easy for the Dutch to move within the West Michigan
region following job opportunities or family members. Indeed, it was at church
that news was spread about job possibilities elsewhere.
Church membership records show a great
degree of circulation between Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and points
in-between. Chicago was not too far either, and
many families moved between the Windy City and West Michigan.
Kalamazoo versus Holland
In the early years, there was considerable
rivalry between the Holland Settlement and Kalamazoo in recruiting fresh immigrants.
This was because a main travel route from New York
to the Settlement passed through Kalamazoo,
where the local Dutch tried to persuade the newcomers to remain. Andries
Steketee of Zeeland claimed in a letter to prospective immigrants in the Netherlands not to listen when the Dutch in Kalamazoo
"slandered" the Settlement by stressing its hardships and poverty,
compared to the high wages and settled life in the city. "Don't let
yourselves be led," Steketee warned, "to become hewers of wood and
drawers of water in Kalamazoo."
Travel to Holland by water directly from Chicago, Steketee urged, and avoid Kalamazoo altogether. The implication of
Steketee's warning was that Americans would take advantage of the Dutch
Van Raalte himself sang that tune. In
trying to recruit Paulus Den Bleyker of Kalamazoo,
the first Dutch capitalist in West Michigan, to bring his talents and capital
to Holland, Van
Raalte in 1851 wrote a frank letter, marked “confidential.” In it he warned Den
Bleyker that it was "strictly unsafe, even dangerous, for you to
intermingle with Kalamazoo
people. My reasons are these: Americans usually do not possess openheartedness
and mutual understanding of each other, which the Dutch possess. An impossible
chasm of language, character, and custom separates you from the Americans.
Among them you will be helpless as a child in its mother's arms. They will
carry you wherever they choose, and you will not even understand the reason
"Above all," Van Raalte continued
in this most revealing missive, "Americans are disposed to despise
Hollanders, and we Hollanders naturally become embittered against them because
of their cold selfishness. They may approach us with bold flatteries, but in
reality they are after our money and influence. Yes, they actually despise us.
They take us for a dull, slow, uncultured people, and boldly boast of their own
superior intelligence. Much of this I have learned either by close personal
experience, or by profiting from the experience of others.... I thank God that
I may dwell in the midst of my own people.... You should also think about the
kind of situation your wife and family would face if you should die....
After this emotional and overwrought appeal,
Van Raalte came to the bottom line. Den Bleyker, "Do your business among
our own people in a community which is developing internally and contains very
few Americans.... You will become a member of the Dutch circle and enjoy the
privileges amid God's congregation."
Although Den Bleyker was a fellow Seceder
like Van Raalte and just as pious, he spurned the offer, although he did come
to visit the Colony and invest in a flourmill. But he sold it two years later
at a loss of $4,200 and that was the end of his dealings in Holland. Den Bleyker, like many Hollanders in
and Grand Rapids,
enjoyed the economic advantages of the city. They liked living among Americans
and not under the scrutiny of the "pope and his cardinals," meaning
Van Raalte and his ministerial associates in Classis Holland. With the
immigrant mentality that Van Raalte expressed, one can little wonder that many
Dutch preferred to live among themselves in homogeneous colonies.
Over time, however, Dutch farmers and their
sons had to spread outside the Holland Settlement in search of farmland. Some
moved south of Overisel toward Hamilton
and east to Forest Grove. Others went north of Zeeland
into Beaverdam, Blendon, Rusk, Olive, Allendale, Polkton, Eastmanville, and
Coopersville. Yet others went east of Zeeland to Hudsonville and Jenison. In large stretches of this region, especially in
the townships of Laketown, Fillmore, Olive, Blendon, Jamestown,
the Dutch drained the swamps and farmed the rich bottomlands. Draining wetlands
was a unique Dutch skill and they thrived in the muck soils.
Dutch impact on society
Given the Dutch prominence in West Michigan, it is no wonder that they had a great
impact. Sunday was set aside for worship, but from Monday to Saturday the Dutch
left their mark on the land. The truck farms testify to the Dutch skill in
reclaiming wetlands and supplying vegetables for urban tables. The distinctive
Dutch farmhouses with their red and buff-colored brick from the kilns of
Veneklasen Brick Company in Zeeland, still dot
the countryside. The architectural features are reminiscent of Dutch folk art.
Fewer than one hundred of these historic homes remain today.
In no endeavor have the Dutch had a greater
part than in their Christian schools and colleges. And the disproportionate
number of teachers and professionals among them is legendary. The Holland Christian
School system is larger than half the
public schools systems in Ottawa
"The Hollanders are celebrated for
their industry, frugality, and hospitality," declared a Grand Rapids newspaper in 1876. In 1966 Z.Z.
Lydens, the Grand Rapids
journalist and historian, observed that "success in business and
accumulation of wealth were never an offense to Calvinism." No wonder that
West Michigan has a rich history of
entrepreneurship and family-owned businesses. "Giving back to the
community" was part of the Dutch Reformed social ethic. Thus, many public
buildings in downtown Grand Rapids
bear the names of Dutch benefactors, Jay Van Andel and Richard De Vos.
On the farm and the factory floor, the
strong work ethic among Dutch employees in Southwest
Michigan is legendary. The obverse is that the Dutch Reformed
spurned labor unions. And when strikes occurred, like the 1911 furniture strike
in Grand Rapids,
the Dutch were found among the strikebreakers. Union leaders miscalculated in
that one. More than half the 7,000 furniture workers were Dutch Calvinists,
almost none unionized. The union members were the Polish Catholics, but they
only made up one-quarter of the workforce. Catholic priests endorsed the union
cause, while Reformed clerics condemned it. Joining a secular union was to
"be unequally yoked" with a brotherhood of unbelievers.
Southwest Michigan was tough for big labor, it
has been equally difficult for Democrats. The Dutch and their Yankee allies
have kept West Michigan in the Republican
column since the 1860s. Even Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did not change the
long-term alignment. In the 2004 presidential election, Ottawa
voted for George W. Bush by 71.5%, and Ottawa
was the most Republican county in the state.
Another example of the Dutch impact is the
prominence of Christian social service agencies like Pine Rest Christian
Psychiatric Hospital, Bethany Christian Services, the Holland Homes, and the
Holland Deacons Conference, all of which spring from the Dutch Reformed
Dutch are no longer the largest element of the population in West
Michigan. Yet, the cultural norms, the social ambience, the work
ethic, and the attitudes of the movers and shakers are still largely shaped by
the Reformed vision of "a city on a hill," a place where faith plays
an integral part in all of life. Van Raalte could never have imagined in his
wildest dreams how his decision to locate his colony in Holland
could have had such a long-term impact on West Michigan.