The Bilingual U.S. – Dutch Iowa and Michigan

The brief existence of New Netherland in the 17th century coincided with the Dutch Golden Age, a period in which the Netherlands enjoyed economic prosperity and the world’s most modern society. Religious and civil freedom as well as abundant work in Old Amsterdam meant that few Dutchmen had pressing reasons to leave it all behind and make the move to a tiny colony on an island across the ocean, risking such unknowns as a capricious climate and savage, Indian neighbors. By the end of their period of colonization, the Dutch in New Netherland numbered only 10,000 while the Puritans in New England-victims of religious intolerance on the Old Continent- numbered 50,000.

By the early 19th century, the situation had drastically changed. When Holland was created in the post-Napoleonic reorganization of Europe, King William I had instated a series of religious reforms which essentially transformed the Dutch Reformed Church into a state-controlled oligarchy. The “Separatist” congregations which sprung up as a result were heavily persecuted and, like the English Puritans two centuries earlier, looked for a place where they could practice their religion peacefully. The United States was the obvious choice.

However the US had grown substantially since the Pilgrim times, and the only places having the broad tracts of land necessary to host an entire colony were on the American Frontier. Two centuries after the first settlements at New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, three Dutch colonies were founded in the United States-  at Holland in Western Michigan and in Iowa, first at Pella in the South-Central area and then in Sioux County in the Northwest.

The Dutch Separatists were a tight-knit group who believed that eendracht maakt macht – unity makes might. In 1847 one of the leaders of the Separatist movement led a first group of colonists the site which they christened Holland, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Dutch presence grew quickly in the thick Michigan forest and spread to surrounding settlements in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Kalamazoo.

Meanwhile another Separatist leader brought his part of the flock to the virgin prairies of Pella in South-Central Iowa. Here, when it came time for the next generation of young men and women to leave the family farm and set out on their own, there was no more land to be found at a reasonable price in the vicinity; it had been gobbled up by speculators hoping to make a profit. The jongeren of Pella were left with only one option; they had to set out as their parents had in search of a site for a new colony.

The new settlement was located in Sioux County in the nearly uninhabited northwestern corner of Iowa, with its center at Orange City. Dutchmen flocked to Sioux County from Pella, from Michigan, from smaller Dutch communities in Wisconsin, and directly from the vaderland. In 1895 one third of Sioux County’s 21,405 inhabitants were foreign-born, predominantly from the Netherlands.

Almost all of the teachers at Orange City’s Northwestern Classical Academy were graduates of Holland Michigan’s Hope College, and many of its students went east to do their college studies at Hope College. The Academy included the study of Dutch in its curriculum, as “it is altogether fitting that it should be so, considering that many of our students come from Dutch homes, that the language will doubtless be used … and that no one, who counts the Dutch his mother tongue, should, while seeking the advantages of a higher education, fail to have or seek an interest in the extensive and rich literature of this people (sic).” Today the Academy is Northwestern College, and although the Dutch language is no longer on the curriculum, it can be studied at Dordt College in nearby Sioux Center, Central College in Pella, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at Hope College.

When Dutch photographer René Clement visited Orange City in 2004 he was shocked to find himself transported into a Dutch alternative universe. In 2011 he published Promising Land/Land vol Beloften, a collection of photographs which romantically capture the unique promise of this tiny corner of the US.

Northwestern Iowa was the site of the last successful Dutch colony on the frontier. Future generations would move further westward, but they did not maintain the eendracht which had given strength to their parents’ settlements. Today the Dutch-American cities and villages of Iowa and Michigan are a testament to the strength which is to be found in unity.

Interested in learning Dutch? We teach it at The Boston Language Institute!

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