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Robert P. Swierenga, "The Dutch and the Ottawas: A Unique Cultural Interchange"

Dutch-American Heritage Day, Pinnacle Center, Hudsonville, Mich. 20 Nov. 2008

Everyone knows that the Dutch under Governor Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24 worth of baubles and blankets. It was one of the greatest real estate bargains ever.

Did you know that Rev. Albertus Van Raalte also bought land from the Indians? The Dutch dominie paid $26 to Chief Wakazoo, head of the Black River Band of Ottawas, for the chapel at the Indian Village (where the Heinz plant is now located on Lake Macatawa). Van Raalte bought the building to house Hollanders as they arrived in the colony. Van Raalte also purchased farmland from several Indian widows for $5.20 an acre. This was four times what the Indians had paid ten years earlier at the government land office. Unlike Minuit, Van Raalte drove no hard bargain; he paid the market price.

Old Wing Mission

How was it that Van Raalte and his followers ended up buying land from the Indians? Because he located his colony near an Indian mission up the Black River about four miles. Nine years earlier, in 1838, Chief Wakazoo had gathered his band under a missionary couple, the Rev. George Smith and his wife Arvilla, Yankees from Vermont, and founded the Old Wing Mission (named in honor of the Chief's recently deceased older brother, The Wing). The Mission was under the auspices of an Allegan-based Indian mission society funded by the Presbyterian Church of Michigan. George and Arvilla kept daily diaries and these tell the Mission story and make up the bulk of the book.

The Mission is the oldest building in the Holland region and is listed on the National Historical Register. It stands on 40th St., a half mile east of Waverly Rd (120th St.).

Chief Wakazoo's band for many decades had spent summers in the Little Traverse Bay region north of Harbor Springs, and winters in the Lake Macatawa watershed. Birchbark canoes carried the families on this seasonal migration along the shores of Lake Michigan. Up north, Jesuit priests had baptized them in the Catholic faith, which the Indians had blended with their spirit religion.

Michigan became a state in 1837 and white settlers were pouring in. Federal policy was to push all the Indians west of the Mississippi River to make way for settlement. This included Chief Wakazoo's band of Ottawas, who had been forced to sign a treaty in 1836 giving up all their lands to the Straits of Mackinac. President Andrew Jackson initiated this removal policy. He had no love for Indians. As he put it, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Being a wise and clever leader, Wakazoo saw only one way for his band of 150 souls (30+ families) to stay in Michigan. That was to go through the motions of becoming civilized, as the government wanted. Wakazoo, who had recently converted to the Protestant faith, recruited Rev. Smith, the first Congregational minister in Michigan, to found a Christian mission. Smith and Wakazoo then got permission from Congress for each Indian family to buy a tract of land and settle down to farm. Smith taught the children the three R's and preached from the Bible to the families. He also could hire an American to teach the Indians how to farm. Isaac Fairbanks was the main Indian "farmer."

It turned out that the Indians did not like to farm; it was "squaws' work." In ten years, they had cleared trees from less than 20% of their farms. The Indians rather pitched their tepees at the Village on Lake Macatawa, where they had a church and cemetery.

Rev. Smith tried to wean his charges from both the Catholic faith and the whiskey bottle. He made little headway on either front. "I told the Chief I knew from the Bible that those who follow the Catholic priest cannot go to heaven," Smith declared. But most of the Indians clung to their blended Catholic/Spirit religion, and the traders always seemed to be one step ahead of him in plying the Indians with whiskey. Alcohol was a constant problem in Wakazoo's band. In short, the Mission was hardly a rousing success.

Coming of the Dutch

The coming of the Dutch in 1847 completely changed the scenario for the Indians. Within eight months, some 1,500 settlers were at work cutting down trees and turning livestock lose to forage in the woods. This obviously disrupted the natives' hunting and gathering way of life. By 1849, there were 3,000 Dutch in the colony. Said Rev. Smith: The Indians "are not prepared to defend their fields against the large number of cattle and hogs the Dutch are bringing in, especially as they [the Indians] have to be absent and cannot watch them." Of the eleven Indian missions in early Michigan, Old Wing was the only one to be overrun by such a large immigrant group. This makes the Dutch-Indian interchange unique.

Smith's daughter Etta voiced another complaint. The Dutch immigrants, she said, were so "filthy" that the Indians "could not live near them." The Dutch women polluted the wells when they drew water. And, even more disgusting, Etta noted: "In the morning the good vrouws would empty out their night vessels, wash them, and stir up their pancake batter in them." Worse than filth and indelicacy, from the Indian standpoint, was the smallpox epidemic that broke out among the Dutch the first summer. The Indians "fear it as they do death," said Rev. Smith. At the first word, the entire clan fled north of Grand Haven for awhile.

Van Raalte knew about the Indians from day one, but seemingly did not anticipate problems settling among them. He arrived at the Mission on New Years' Eve of 1847 and spent the next two weeks scouting the area, while living with the Smith and Fairbanks families. Meanwhile, his own family and some fifty followers waited near Detroit for news as to where the dominie would plant his colony.

Van Raalte never once mentioned the Indians in letters to his wife in Detroit and brother-in-law Brummelkamp in Arnhem, He did keep an eye on their lands, however. In Sept. 1847, he wrote the Ottawa County clerk: "How is it with the lands of the Indians? I wish that they would come for sale."

Smith's diary shows that the two clerics, Van Raalte and Smith, got along quite well. George and Arvilla gave the Van Raalte family the use of their parlor for several weeks, while the dominie's log cabin was being built. Van Raalte reciprocated and invited Smith to conduct English-language services in the Log Church for Americans living in the area.

The Dutch and Indians had a harder time of it. As pioneer Egbert Fredericks recalled, "our neighbors were Indians" and we could not understand each other's tongues or cultures.

When the Dutch vanguard arrived in the spring of 1847, the Indians had finished making maple sugar cakes for the white men's tables--their main source of cash income, and they had gone north for the summer. A few

desperate immigrants, seeing the copper kettles, brass pots, sap buckets, and maple troughs lying about, marveled at their good fortune in finding what they assumed to be abandoned goods. They took the utensils for cooking and the buckets and troughs to slop the hogs or for firewood. Later in the summer, some Dutch also harvested Indian crops of corn, beans, and squash, rather than let the perfectly good food go to waste.

When the Indians came back in the fall, you can imagine the scene. They cried to Rev. Smith about the Dutch being thieves. Smith went to Van Raalte and asked him to educate his congregation about Indian ways. Engbertus Van Der Veen tells us what happened next. "One Sunday our dominie announced from the pulpit that a chief had complained that the settlers had taken away their sugar troughs, and that the Indians were revengeful. He demanded that we punish the guilty persons and that the troughs be returned. The dominie told him [Rev. Smith] that this happened perhaps by mistake or through ignorance."

In any case, Van Raalte set things right. He named his right-hand-man, Bernardus Grootenhuis, as the go-between and the offenders had to reimburse the Indians for property they had "appropriated". They gave back the pots and buckets, but the troughs were ruined. One Hollander paid $13 for 800 troughs, and his son added $4 for taking 5 axes. Another paid $12 for 500 troughs. Smith noted in his diary: "The man is very poor and did not intend to do anything wrong" So the sticky matter was resolved.

Misunderstandings went both ways. The Indians also helped themselves at Dutch corncribs, pigsties, and smokehouses. Grootenhuis had two hams taken from his smokehouse by an Indian woman; he found the hams at her wigwam simmering in a pot over a fire.

Anje (Mrs. Klaas) Hofman found a better solution; she traded venison and wild turkey for coral beads, after the Indians requested "Wampum." Anje obtained the beads from her family in the Netherlands. Dutch housewives bought fresh fish from the Indians and traded eggs for wicker baskets, but they were reluctant to buy sugar cakes from the Indians; they thought the cakes were "vies."

Van Raalte helped build goodwill by saving the life of an infant son of Shashagua, an Indian medicine man. The opportunity came about in an unexpected way. Van Raalte was walking through the woods to bring cornbread to the widow Sterk, who was sick with malaria. On the way, he saw Rev. Smith sitting against a tree weak from hunger. Smith was going to treat Shashagua's sick baby. (Both Smith and Van Raalte practiced medicine as best they could.) Van Raalte volunteered to go in Smith's place, although Smith warned him of the Indians' lingering ill will from the Dutch thievery of their sap buckets. "God will take care of me," Van Raalte declared.

When he entered the Indian's hut, Shashagua's wife angrily tried to push him out. "Papoose sick? Will try to make it better," insisted the good doctor. "White man love papoose." The woman relented and after Van Raalte gave the baby some quinine--a sure remedy for malaria, the infant improved. Shashagua arrived home just then and was about to throw the dominie out. But just then he saw that his papoose was much improved, and he grasped Van Raalte's hand in gratitude, muttering, "He make papoose better. Dutchman, stay, eat. Indian no hurt you now. Be medicine man's best friend till die."

The Dutch adjusted quickly to living among Indians. When Kornelis Swartwolt arrived in the colony in 1848, the settlers told him: "If you meet any of them on the road, be friendly to them, and do not shoot any wild animals like bear or deer, the larger of the wild animals. They hunt them for that is their livelihood. As long as we did that and were friendly to them, they were friendly back to us."


In January 1848, Chief Wakazoo convened a council of his band and recommended that they move the Mission next spring to a place "where the Dutch cannot find us." The Indians said: 'The Bad Spirit says shoot every Dutchman, but the Good Spirit says, go away, let Dutchman be.'" "God wished his people to live in peace and love," the chief declared, and he urged his band to unite "heart and hand, and go forward with the work of the mission." The men agreed, and with Rev. Smith's help, they relocated to Northport in June 1849.

Rev. Smith and Chief Peter Wakazoo made this decision for the best of reasons. Wakazoo's small band could not continue to live around Lake Macatawa, no matter which whites settled the area--Dutch, Yankees, or other immigrant group. The position of the Ottawa band was untenable. They had to go north if they wanted to save their mission and their culture.

One would assume from contemporary accounts that the Wakazoo band left Holland on fairly good terms with the Dutch. Fifty years later, however, it was different story, at least as told by Arvilla's nephew, Edgar Mills, who lived at Old Wing Mission as a youngster when his father was the agricultural agent. In the late 1890s, Mills was editing a radical labor newspaper in Grand Rapids (The Workman). He claimed to speak for the Indians when he published a stinging diatribe against the Dutch:

They [the Dutch] came, they saw, they conquered; yea, they met the enemy and in a little while the enemy were theirs--lands, houses, and all, and were kicked out into the cold world to shift for themselves by the soulless persecuted Christians from the land of dykes.... The Hollanders had been gradually closing in around the Indians for the purpose of crowding them out and getting possession of their lands. To further their selfish ends, they instituted a series of persecutions upon the savages. They beat them, cheated them, imprisoned them for alleged theft, and finally, compelled them to give up their lands to their persecutors.

Mill's screed bends the truth, at best, and at worst, is full of untruths.

His aunt Arvilla would only say that "a bitter animosity" had arisen between the Dutch and Indians, while Rev. Smith's granddaughter in a biography of her grandfather, stated that relations had become "strained."

Based on Rev. Smith's diary entries for the years 1848 and 1849, I can find no evidence to support these bad memories of fifty years later. You can read the book and judge for yourselves.

Several of Smith's associates agree with me. The aged Isaac Fairbanks, in his "Recollections," rebutted Mills directly. The Indians, Fairbanks declared, "were not forced to give up their lands, but sold them for a good price." They were not "persecuted or imprisoned."

Col. William Ferry of Grand Haven, who spoke the Indian language and had first-hand knowledge of the Mission, agreed with Fairbanks. "The Indians and the Dutch had no clash, no more than on Manhattan [Island]. They did not harmonize as well, though, as the French in Lower Canada [who] inter-married." Not one Hollander married an Indian.

Elvira Langdon, Holland's first schoolteacher in 1849-50, recalled that the Ottawas "were friendly and often brought us presents of fish; . . . we had no fears of mischief."

The two cultures--European and native American, were incompatible. But the Dutch did not beat, cheat, chain, or intoxicate the Indians, and the Indians treated the Dutch with respect and shared their knowledge and skills with them. Van Raalte and his people appreciated the Indians' help in felling trees and they paid a fair price for their lands.

It is telling that, after relocating the Mission, many members of Wakazoo's clan returned to the Holland area for the next twenty years to trade, fish, and hunt. They pitched their wigwams at the old Indian Village. If the Dutch has mistreated the Indians so badly, why would they keep coming back?

Once, in the early 1860s, the Indians found themselves completely out of food and in great need in the dead of winter. Jan Ebels, who had befriended them, reported this to his Zeeland congregation, who immediately gathered several boxes of food and blankets, and he and Cornelis Swartwolt delivered them. "They treated us as if we were angels from Heaven," Swartwolt recalled. "Their children were dancing in the road. They wanted us to know that we would always be their friends and that we would always be welcome. Several weeks later the Indian chief came to our church on Sunday morning and personally thanked us, and told us how much his people appreciated the food and blankets."

I think we can conclude that the Dutch and the Indians were not suited to live together, but they got along as best they could under the circumstances. That both were Christians helped prevent any violence and nudged them toward mutual understanding. But the cultural differences were too much to overcome in the two short years together.