Dutch Colonial Immigration

Dutch Colonial Immigration in the United States

Immigration During the Colonial Period: The Dutch and Swedes

Introduction to Dutch Colonial Immigration

In the early 17th century settlers from other Western European countries also established themselves on the Atlantic Coast of North America. The Dutch established the colony of New Netherland in the region of present-day New York in 1614 and began settlement of the area in 1624. There they founded the city of New Amsterdam, now New York City, in 1626. Sweden established a colony known as New Sweden in the area of present-day Delaware in 1638. The Dutch absorbed New Sweden in 1655, only to lose all of their North American colonies to the British in 1664. These early colonies were often quite cosmopolitan, drawing settlers from many nations. When the English seized New Amsterdam, the city was home to perhaps 1500 residents, including Walloons, Huguenots, Swedes, Dutchmen, and African Americans.” [1]

First Dutch Settlers

The first group of Dutch settlers did not stay for long on the new continent and they can hardly becalled settlers. It had not been their choice to stay there: their ship, the Tyger (tiger) had caught fire sailing on the Hudson. Captain Adriaen Block was commanding one of the ships that came looking for trade on the American coast in the years after Hudson’s voyage. They bartered beads and knives for furs from the natives. When Block came in the winter of 1613-1614 he lost his ship in a fire and had to spend the winter in America. He let his crew build a couple of huts and then they began building a sloop, the Onrust (unrest). In the spring Block and his men did some explorations along the coast of Long Island (Het Lange Eiland). Block Island still bears his name. Finally they were sighted by another Dutch ship and Block and his crew were off again.
But Block’s maps created a new interest in America. A group of thirteen merchants acquired a charter from the Staten Generaal – the dutch equivalent of the US Congress – for exclusive trade on the American East Coast in what would be called “New Netherland”. This group of thirteen decided that an island just below present-day Albany would be the ideal place to serve as a centre of trade.

The Dutch had no tradition of colonization. Usually they would found a stronghold in distant territory, which they called a factorij. They would put a garrison in it and would trade with the locals from there. They had fortresses on the west and east African coast, on the Cape, on Ceylon, on the Indian coast, and in the East Indies. Some of these were captured from the Portugese and some had been built by the Dutch themselves. Allthough there was a very high mortality rate in the factorijen, this policy was still cheaper than having to provide for a real settlement. Since the colonial activities were in the hands of privately owned enterprises, empire building was not one of their aims. Only Cape of Good Hope and Surinam were more extensive settlements.

So a fort was to be erected which would bear the name Fort Nassau – named after the family of quasi monarchs that served the United Provinces as Stadholders – , becoming one of the first permanent European settlements in what later became the United States. It was 1614, six years before the Mayflower would bring the Pilgrim Fathers to the new continent. [2]

Nieuw Amsterdam

The Dutch trading companies had no policy of “colonizing”. Usually they built fortifications on foreign shores, where they placed a garrison and from there they would trade with the local potentates. There were a number of reasons for this attitude.

First of all the push factor was missing:

  • The Dutch Republic was doing very well. The war with Spain was almost won, business was booming and Amsterdam was emerging as the centre of world trade. Riches from all over the world flowed to the Republic and the avarage standard of living was not as low as it was in some other European Countries.
  • The Republic followed a policy of religious tollerance, except towards catholics, who were seen as potential allies of Spain. But even catholics were – unofficially – free to believe what they wanted as long as they did not practice their religion to overtly. So churches had to be disguised as normal houses, of which there are still some left in Amsterdam.
  • Allthough not as liberal as has been suggested, the Republic had almost complete freedom of speech. Many books that could not have been printed elsewhere were printed in Amsterdam. Leaving the country because of beliefs or convictions held was not necessary.
  • The colonial trade was not a national enterprise: it was completely private enterprise. The souvereignty over the colonies was not held by the Staten Generaal, but by the companies of merchants that were involved in the actual trade.
  • And finally, the Dutch population simply was not large enough to supply colonists for all the holdings of the companies. The Netherlands were densely populated (about two million inhabitants) and immigrants were streaming in attracted by the opportunities the booming Dutch economy seemed to offer. Quite a large number of the employees of the Dutch East and West India Companies came from Germany and Scandinavia.

The pull factor may not have been strong enough either.

  • Colonization offered only slow returns from crops and was no match for the fast returns of trade.
  • Though densely populated there was still arable land available to be bought in the Dutch republic.
  • Compared to other nations, quite a high proportion of the Dutch population lived in urban areas.

The group of thirteen merchants continued their trade at Fort Nassau for nine years. They seemed to be doing well in their fur-trade, because when in 1621 the Dutch West-India Company was formed, the group of thirteen were absorbed into this new company, which was modelled after the successful Dutch East India Company. The Staten Generaal, always generous when it came down to giving aways things they did not own, granted the company the monopoly for trade on the American continent as far as the Dutch were concerned.

Just like the East India Company it became some sort of state within the state, receiving complete souvereignty over the territories under the monopoly.

This company was a trading firm and only interested in colonization in sofar as it was necessary for the trade. Trading post had to be protected by soldiers, soldiers had to be fed, so farmers were needed to provide those things when they could not be provided from the fatherland.

On March 31, 1624 a ship carrying settlers left Holland. It was the Nieuw Nederland and aboard were thirty families who were going to cultivate the land overseas. It was the first Dutch emigrant ship, and these were the first Dutch immigrants to North America.

Willem Verhulst was the name of the man who directed this venture. The Nieuw Nederland anchored near Fort Nassau in the Hudson, at a place called Maeykans, which means `Home of the Mohicans.’ The same year, 1624, another fortress, Fort Orange, was built on the shore not far from there.

In 1625 , eleven years after Fort Nassau was founded, a fort was put up on Manhattan Island and ships brought farmers from Holland who were to supply the food for its garrison. (…)

A year later Governor Pieter Minuit concluded one of the best deals in history. He bought the whole island from the Indians for sixty guilders about twenty-five dollars worth of merchandise. [3]

The Dutch In British America

In the hundred years under British rule that followed the take-over of New Netherland, Dutch immigration to America came to an almost complete standstill. The only important group of organized settlers in those years was a colony of two hundred people who founded what is now Germantown, in the year 1683. Most of these settlers were Quakers who had come over in response to the appeal of William Penn. To win immigrants, Penn, whose mother was Dutch, had paid three visits to Holland, and published several pamphlets there which were translated into Dutch. The Germantown settlers also included `Lutherans, Mennonites and Papists,’ who `met lovingly every Sunday.’ Germantown is now generally thought to be of German origin (logically enough), but it remained almost exclusively Dutch until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Only then did German immigration gain momentum, and soon dominated the area. Germantown is now a suburb of Philadelphia and has a population of one hundred thousand. The distinction of Germantown and of its settlers is the declaration which was issued there on February 18, 1688. In it the leading local citizens put themselves on record as protesting against slavery. That statement was the first of its kind in America.

At this point it is necessary to mention a common misunderstanding. The Pennsylvania Dutch are Germans, the word `Dutch’ here being just a corruption of Deutsch, which means German. Dutch is the language of Holland. `Holland Dutch’ is therefore a pleonasm.

The original settlers of New Netherland continued to play an important role in the colony. In New York they dominated social life, and they became prominent in business paradoxically, after they had been released by British rule from the bonds of the Dutch West India Company. Under the Regulations of 1664 England had promised not to interfere with the Dutch Reformed Church, but when it failed to live up to that promise many Dutch families moved from New York to New Jersey to exchange New York rule for the more liberal one across the Hudson. A migration to the Raritan Valley, in particular, was caused by an early 18th-century attempt to force the Anglican Church upon the Dutch. Other Reformed Dutch farmers left for St. James Island, South Carolina, in two shiploads, and this migration is still traceable in the Dutch family names of that region. Nevertheless, at the end of the British period, out of a hundred thousand people of Dutch origin in the colonies, 85,000 still lived within the boundaries of former New Netherland.

In 1764 Dr. Archibald Laidlie preached the first English sermon to the Dutch Reformed congregation in New York City. Ten years later English was introduced in the schools. In Kingston, Dutch was used in church as late as 1808.

A few years before, a traveler had reported that “on Long Island, in New York, along the North River, at Albany, Low Dutch was in general still the common language of most of the old people.”

Francis Adrian van der Kemp, who had come to this country as a refugee in 1788, wrote that his wife was able to converse in Dutch with the wives of Alexander Hamilton and General George Clinton. Much later, in 1847, immigrants from Holland were upon their arrival welcomed in Dutch by the Reverend Isaac Wyckoff of New York, a descendant of one of the first settlers in Rensselaerwyck, who only in school had learned to speak English; and until very recently many communities in New Jersey adhered to the tradition of a monthly church service in Dutch. As late as 1905 Dutch was still heard among the old people in the Ramapo Valley of that state. [4]

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. [5]

Modern Emigration

Holland (Michigan), Pella, and the other towns and settlements of those years were to be the last Dutch `colonies.’ From then to the present day, Dutch emigration has continued, but it is an emigration of individuals. The federal statistics give a figure of 220,000 for immigration of people from Holland in the century 1820 till 1920. The actual figure must be somewhat higher, for doubtlessly people came in, from Canada, or by jumping ship, who were never counted. From 1920 until 1950 another 50,000 immigrants came.

After World War II, in 1945, Holland found itself the most densily populated country in the entire world, and faced with the destruction wrought by the German occupation during that war, there was mass emigration to Canada, Australia, and the United States. In those days, the Dutch immigration quota was filled for two or three years ahead. But this did not last for long.

In 1963, the U.S. Congress abolished the quota system which had been heavily in favor of the countries of West and North Europe. By that time, Europe itself had recovered from the wartime damage. Thus when the attraction by the wealth of the US disappeared, Dutch emigration to the U.S. dropped sharply, and presently runs at less than a thousand people a year. The official total from 1820 till 1980 is 370,000, but the number of people of Dutch descent is of course many times higher.

When we say this was an emigration of individuals, we mean this in every sense of the word. The individualism of the Dutch — for good or for bad — is no myth. You may remember how the West India Company had a hard time trying to unite the colonists in the building of settlements. In the days of the reverends Scholte and Van Raalte, it was the fierce religious temper which led to group emigration, but that was the only occasion, after the very beginnings, to stimulate colony formation within the United States. Different from some other nationalities, the Dutch not only didn’t stick together, they positively avoided and avoid each other when they could or can help it. The efforts of politicians in cities and counties of the Midwest, for instance, to organize something like a `Dutch vote’ have always failed and often backfired. The fact that a candidate was of Dutch descent did not endear him in the least to his former compatriots, who wanted to become real Americans as soon as possible. So many immigrants americanized their family names: De Wit became Dewit, Van Der Bilt became Vanderbilt. [6]


Notes and References

  1. Information about Dutch Colonial Immigration in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. By George M. Welling
  3. Id.
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.

See Also



, ,



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *