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!


The Bilingual U.S. – Dutch New York

New York

Modern New York

Here’s something that’s not news to anybody but is always surprising to think about: New York was originally founded as the Dutch colony of Nieuw-Amsterdam.

The early 17th century gave rise to Dutch settlements all along the North American Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Rhode Island under the jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company. This cut-throat predecessor of the modern multinational corporation, however, concentrated its investments in the Hudson Valley, where the trade of beaver pelts spelled profits for shareholders back in old Amsterdam. Their major centers of operation were an outpost at the navigational height of the river, Fort Oranje, and the population and governmental center at the river’s mouth, Nieuw-Amsterdam. In modern times these two Dutch settlements have changed names and swapped roles. Fort Oranje has become Albany, the state capital, while Nieuw-Amsterdam has become New York City, “trading” center of North America and much of the world.

Is it really any surprise that it was a corporation that founded the Big Apple?  The Dutch New World colony was run much more like a business than the English colonies that neighbored it. In 1626, Director General Peter Minuit “bought” the island of Manhattan for the price of 60 guilders, a deal English colonists would have settled with a few gunshots. In a further foreshadowing of our modern capitalistic society, the Dutch colonial land didn’t belong to the ruler, as New England belonged to the king of England; it belonged to the company and its middle-class shareholders.

It was perhaps the commercial orientation of the Dutch that led to the avant-garde climate of religious tolerance that reigned in the province. The pressure put on Director General Peter Stuyvesant by Jewish stockholders in the Dutch West India Company, for example, allowed a group of Sephardic Jews to settle in the colony in 1654. The First Cemetery of the Congregation Shearith Israel in downtown Manhattan dates to 1683 and is a testament to the Dutch tolerance of other cultures and religions, which, like the cemetery, has become a part of modern-day New York City. The freedom of conscience allowed by the Dutch was revolutionary in the 17th century, when Galileo was being tried for heresy in Italy and witches were being burned in Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, the Flushing Remonstrance, a complaint submitted to the West India Company by the residents of Vlissingen (now Flushing, Queens) on behalf of the religious freedom of Quakers in the settlement, is often cited as the historical antecedent of the freedom of religion that our Founding Fathers provided for in the Constitution.

Although New Netherland thrived, it was destined for a short life. The troops of the Duke of York descended upon New Amsterdam in 1664 and, finding no real army to oppose them, turned Nieuw Amsterdam into New York without firing a single shot. Most of the original colonists remained, however, and evidence of the Dutch presence can still be found, such as in the Stockade District in Kingston (formerly Wiltwyck). Culturally, the Big Apple still runs on a trade economy and an attitude of “you can do whatever you want as long as you aren’t bothering me.”

Linguistically, it took over two centuries for the Dutch language to disappear completely. Born in 1782 in Kinderhook (near Albany), President Martin Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch and learned English as a second language. In 1858, another president born to a Dutch-American family, Theodore Roosevelt, heard Dutch at home but never learned the language himself. All Americans, however, know the words cookie (koekje), boss (baas), dollar (daaler), Yankee (Janke), stoop (stoep –– as in the architectural feature), and coleslaw (koolsla). New Yorkers know that a kill is a stream and a kruller is a fried, twisted pastry.

The close linguistic relationship of English and Dutch, a West Germanic language often described as being between English and German, makes Dutch loanwords blend invisibly into our own language. The same might be said for Dutch culture: did you know that it is the Dutch Sinterklaas who flies his slee all over our country on Christmas Eve? Though their moment of colonial glory in the Hudson Valley was short-lived, the Dutch have had an important and lasting influence on many aspects of American life.

Image credit: xjrlokix