Robert P. Swierenga, Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department

November 17, 1998

Next spring the New York publishing house, Holmes & Meier, will bring out my book Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820-1920. It reports on the findings of more than 35 years of research, which began in earnest when I was a history professor here at Calvin in the 1960s.

The research rests on three linked sources--Netherlands emigration lists, U.S. ship passenger manifests, and U.S. census records. To create the individual files, which total more than 200,000 cases, I read more than 2,000 rolls of microfilm. Then I linked the records by family to create a merged file of 55,000 cases.

Emigration fields

Migration is very place-specific. Only a few regions and localities in the Netherlands were emigration hot-spots; large areas had little or no emigration for decades. The same is true in the United States. The Dutch were concentrated in a few regions, particularly around the Great Lakes.

In the Netherlands, the emigrants originated in a very few villages. Of the 1,156 administrative units (gemeenten) in 1869--the equivalent of U.S. townships--only 134, or 12 percent, provided nearly three quarters of all emigrants in the period from 1820 through 1880; 55 municipalities (5 percent) sent out one-half of all emigrants; and a mere 22 municipalities (2 percent) furnished one-third of all emigrants.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Dutch emigration patterns is that they were determined by a mix of culture and soils. Culturally, the dominant Reformed regions north of the Rhine River and the southwestern islands sent out three-quarters of the emigrants. One third of the Reformed emigrants were from Afscheiding villages. The Afscheiding was a reform movement in the liberal Hervormde Kerk, the national church, that resulted in a secession in 1834 and the creation of a free church, the Christian Seceder Church. Seceder congregations were major recruitment centers for emigration in the 1840s.

The culturally distinct Catholic provinces in the southern Netherlands, by contrast, had little overseas emigration. Their priests railed against it and Catholic laborers crossed into Germany or Belgium for seasonal work rather than go overseas permanently. Considerably fewer emigrants, relatively, also left the urban provinces: Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland, and Utrecht. This population center of the country, which boasted the major seaports and government center, sent out less than one-fourth of the total emigration.


Soils are a key to emigration patterns. I found that the clay soil areas of Zeeland, Friesland, and Groningen had heavy emigration, sandy regions had less, and peat meadows had almost none. The export crops on the clay soils suffered from growing international competition. Dutch farmers could not compete with efficient North American farmers who could raise wheat far more cheaply on the fertile Great Plains. This forced Dutch commercial farmers, the "groote boeren," to consolidate their holdings and buy new machinery to try to catch up with falling world prices. As a result, they laid off their day laborers and hired hands by the tens of thousands. The farm crisis reached epic proportions in the 1880s when Dutch emigration rates peaked. Many farm laborers went to America in hopes of finding farm work and possibly climbing the agricultural ladder to farm ownership. They actually had little choice but to emigrate, because the Dutch industrial revolution had not yet begun in earnest and there were few factory jobs available.

Emigration patterns

Dutch emigration began in the mid-1840s in conjunction with an agricultural crisis caused by the failure of the potato and rye crops due to diseases, and the government persecution of religious Seceders from the State church. The confluence of these factors triggered an emigration movement among rural folk who had long suffered from poverty, land hunger, and a pinched future.

Among Dutch emigrant family heads, 60 percent were farmers, farm hands, and day laborers. This was twice the national average.

Seceders comprised only 1.3 percent of the national population in 1849, but they made up nearly one-half of the total emigrants in the crucial early years of 1846-1849 and one-fifth of all emigrants in the years to 1880. At least a dozen Seceder clerics, notably Albertus Van Raalte and Hendrik Scholte, emigrated with some or all of their congregations in 1847, which led to the founding of Holland and Pella. That same year the Catholic priest, Theodore van den Broek, led a similar group migration from Noord-Brabant to the Fox River valley of Wisconsin. These pastors and priests played crucial roles in the decision to migrate and in determining the places to settle.

The Dutch were unusual in the degree of family migration and America-centeredness. Until 1880 fewer than 10 percent of emigrants went as singles, and afterward the proportion increased only slightly to about 30 percent by the First World War era. Until the 1890s over 90 percent of all Dutch overseas emigrants went to the USA. Emigrants from the populous urban provinces, however, had much lower percentages choosing the States. They preferred professional and business opportunities in the Dutch colonies of the East and West Indies. The North American migration clearly was a folk migration of families, compared to the single young men going to the Indies.

USA Settlement patterns

Immigrants from the same Old Country villages preferred to settle together in order to lessen the emotional shock of leaving the homeland and to ease the adjustment to a new environment. In the classic example of this phenomenon, nearly every village and town in half a dozen townships surrounding the largest Dutch colony of Holland in Ottawa County, Michigan, boasted a Dutch place-name derived from the province or town where most of the first settlers originated. The central city of Holland consisted largely of people from Gelderland and Overijssel. New arrivals soon founded villages within a ten-mile radius bearing names of their places of origin and where they spoke the local dialect and perpetuated dress and food customs. It required the passing of the first generation before regional allegiances broke down and a general sense emerged of being plain Hollanders rather than Groningers, Drenthers, Gelderlanders, and Zeelanders. Frisians, of course, always remained Frisians.

Frontier settlements in the 1880s and 1890s were mirror images of west Michigan. In Charles Mix County, South Dakota, for example, Frisians and Overijssellers in 1883 established separate communities five miles apart, bearing the names of their respective provinces. Each insisted on their own church congregation and edifice, although they belonged to the same denomination and shared a minister between them.

In American cities and villages that predated Dutch occupancy, the new immigrants likewise clustered in neighborhoods with kin and friends. Herbert Brinks has estimated that three-quarters of the Netherlanders who arrived from 1847 to 1900 settled in ethnically homogeneous colonies. In Grand Rapids, the quintessential Dutch-American large city, where 40 percent of the population was of Dutch birth or ancestry in 1900 (the largest population of Dutch in any American city over 25,000), the Dutch isolated themselves not only from the west-side Poles but also from each other. David Vanderstel, in his dissertation on the Dutch in Grand Rapids from 1850 to 1900, identified twelve distinct neighborhoods and noted: "Even though each neighborhood could easily be characterized as a 'little Holland,' it would be more accurate to identify each residential cluster as a 'little Zeeland,' 'little Groningen,' or 'little Friesland,' thereby affirming the provinciality of the particular settlements." I found the same behavior in Cleveland where the Gelderlanders settled on the West Side and the Overijssellers on the East Side. Both founded CRC congregations in 1872, sharing the same pastor, but cultural differences forced them to go their separate ways.

This behavior was not unique to the Dutch, but their concentration in a very few localities was remarkable and gave the Dutch a greater presence in America than their relatively small numbers warranted.


Friesland had little emigration before 1880; fewer than 4,000 persons emigrated, mostly after 1865; this was less than half the number from Groningen. The prime source area was the sea clay wheat region; three-fourths originated in the ten municipalities of the north coast from Harlingen to the Lauwerszee, centered in Het Bildt and Ferwerderadeel. The Seceder influence was strong in the beginning but soon economic forces prevailed. Northern Frisian emigrants came from the ranks of rural day laborers and more than a quarter were on the public dole.

Their preferred destination was western Michigan, especially Grand Rapids and Rev. Martin Ypma's village of Vriesland. One-half of the northern Frisians settled in Michigan, including 80 percent of the emigrants from Ferwerderadeel, 70 percent from Barradeel, and 60 percent from Kollumerland. The "Frisian Hoek" on the north edge of Pella primarily attracted people from Het Bildt and Westdongeradeel. The remaining north coast emigrants settled in two Wisconsin Frisian colonies--New Amsterdam (La Crosse) and Friesland; and in Lancaster, New York, and Goshen, Indiana. The latter were a colony of Mennonites from the village of Balk.

A unique pattern is evident among emigrants from the adjacent municipalities of Ooststellingwerf and Weststellingwerf. Over 80 percent from the former place settled in Michigan and 75 percent from the latter place went to Iowa.

Generally, the independent-minded Frisians dispersed themselves in America more than other Netherlanders. Their colonies were small and several lacked the glue of religious institutions to enable them to retard the inevitable process of Americanization.


Dutch emigration in the 19th century was region-specific and concentrated. Each region had its own history, but two main factors were salient: the religious Afscheiding and the modernization of agriculture in the sea clay grain regions. These religious and economic forces sparked migration early and continued it long and strong. And since moving to America was a risky and permanent venture, the migrants used the information chain of family, friends, and neighbors already there. As a result, strong links were formed between specific Dutch and American localities.