Home  Publications

Robert P. Swierenga -- Publications

Robert P. Swierenga, Douglas Firth Anderson, and Robert Schoone-Jongen "Iowa Letters, A Review Essay"

Personal letters are the lodestone for scholars of American immigration. Letters provide a first-hand telling of the gut-wrenching experience of transplanting families across the ocean and resettling in a strange land. Herbert Brinks, former director of the Calvin College Archives, collected more than 100,000 Dutch immigrant letters and published two books based on them--Write Back Soon (1986) and the hardback tome Dutch American Voices: Letters from the United States, 1850-1930 (1995). As the titles suggest, both books contain letters from the United States to the Netherlands and not vice versa. The same is true of Ulbe Bakker's wonderful book, Sister, Please Come Over (1999), which included hundreds of letters from South Dakota to relatives in the homeland.

Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier is unique in terms of Dutch immigrant letter collections.[1] It includes correspondence both ways between Iowa and the Netherlands. The book is also special in that the correspondence is regular and extends over a quarter century, until the immigrants and their Netherlands friends all died. Even then, the next generation carried on the correspondence for a while longer. There is no similar run of immigrant letters for any other Dutch immigrant community in North America.

History of the book

The history of this book is an interesting tale in itself. In 1973 H.A. Höweler, a great-grandson of the Amsterdam correspondent Johan Adam Wormser (1807-1862) and former director of the library of the Free University of Amsterdam, offered his successor, Johan Stellingwerff, a collection of letters that Wormser had received from fellow Amsterdam religionists who had immigrated with the Reverend Henry P. Scholte to Pella, Iowa in 1847.

Twenty-five of the letters were from Wormser's brother Andries, who had gone to Pella with his family and then returned to Amsterdam six months later in bitter disappointment about the dismal prospects on the Iowa frontier. Jan Berkhout, a book dealer in Pella, sent five letters to Amsterdam before he too and his family returned in deep disappointment. Diedrich and Christina Budde of Burlington penned some sixty letters, mostly to the Wormser family in Amsterdam. The Buddes were Ost Frisians who had resettled in Amsterdam many years before immigrating to America, but they remained more German Reformed than Dutch Reformed. Interestingly, the Wormser and Scholte families were originally Lutherans from Germany who after migrating to Amsterdam joined the Restored Evangelical Lutheran Church, until the religious movement of the 1820s known as the Reveil, swept them into the separatist Christian Seceded Church.

Höweler, a nursing home resident in 1973, agreed to donate the collection to the Free University Archives, if Stellingwerff would edit and publish them. He did so in 1976, under the title Amsterdamse Emigranten: onbekende brieven uit de prairie van Iowa, 1846-1873 [Amsterdam Emigrants: Unknown Letters from the Prairies of Iowa]. The title was a bit misleading, since Stellingwerff in a research trip to Pella and Central College found letters of Jan and his son Hendrik Hospers of Hoog Blokland, Province of Zuid Holland, plus seven letters of the Rev. Scholte and two of the Rev. A.C. Van Raalte. Stellingwerff decided to include these letters of non-Amsterdammers, because of their relevance to the founding of Pella and the fact that all came from the same small circle of religious dissenters, known as Seceders.

In 1997 the Dutch American Historical Commission, a consortium of four West Michigan institutions--Hope and Calvin colleges and Western and Calvin seminaries, decided to publish an English-language edition of Amsterdamse Emigranten. The Commission, whose purpose is to publish crucial historical works concerning Dutch immigration to America, had just completed reprinting an expanded edition of Henry Lucas' Dutch Immigrant Memoirs and Related Writings (1955, 1997). It was casting about for a new project and these personal accounts of Pella's founding filled the bill; they are a key primary source and needed to be made available in English.

Iowa Letters is the Commission's most ambitious project. It required more than $20,000 for translation work and a publication subsidy. A $10,000 challenge grant from the Gaass Kuyper Foundation of Pella (Pella Window Corporation) was critical in launching the project. The four institutions contributed most of the matching funds, with help from Ralph and Elaine Jaarsma, proprietors of the Pella Bakery. The late Walter Lagerwey, professor emeritus of Dutch language, literature, and culture in Calvin College, took on the three-year translation project in his retirement years. It was his last major effort.

The initial goal was simple--to translate and publish Amsterdamse Emigranten. But after Lagerwey had completed the translation, Swierenga, the project director, learned about the existence of some sixty "mirror letters" to those received by Johan Wormser. These were written by Wormser, his wife Janke, and daughter Jansje, to Burlington and Pella in response to the letters from America. The collection was yet in private hands, those of another descendent, Professor Jan Peter Verhave of the University of Nijmegen , who was in the process of publishing a history of the Wormser family based on the letters. Verhave agreed to provide a copy of the new letters and Lagerwey translated them.

The enlarged manuscript was set in page proofs and scheduled for publication. But then Swierenga while in the Netherlands learned from Nico Plomp, director of the Central Bureau for Genealogy, of another set of some forty-five Pella letters exchanged between Jan Hospers of Hoog Blokland and his son Hendrik in Pella. All are in the library of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. These included complete texts of several letters that Stellingwerff had included in fragment form in his 1976 book. With this cache, Iowa Letters expanded yet again, to 215 letters, more than doubling the size of its Dutch-language progenitor. The wider array required reorganizing the chapters, selecting new photographs and illustrations, and above all, choosing a new title. Iowa Letters places the focus on the main theme, the story of the Dutch in Iowa, rather than on their compatriots in Amsterdam. However, the additional Wormser letters included here actually flesh out the original title.


Pronunciation is the place to begin. In one of the letters of Jan Hospers to his son Hendrik, the father asks, perhaps with a bit of frustration, “How do you pronounce the word ‘Iowa?’” (130). Jan Hospers is not alone in his quandary. Pronouncing Iowa, or spelling it, or having much of any idea about the specificity of Iowa as a place, are problems for many. Iowa is a “flyover” or "drive-through" state midway between metropolitan coasts and international borders.[2] The spelling was fixed by 1846 when Iowa became a state. The word “Iowa” refers to an American Indian nation. In their Siouan language this people called themselves Paxoche (dusty noses/gray snow), but Algonquin-speaking nations called them Ioway (bone marrow). The French phoneticization of Ioway included Aiaoua, Aiauway, and Ayoës.[3]

The correspondents in Iowa Letters report on almost every aspect of pioneering on the Iowa frontier--farming, politics, social conditions, and church life. But the most important reasons for writing were to maintain as close a connection as possible across three thousand miles of ocean and landmass and to encourage kith and kin to immigrate too. In that sense, these are typical "America letters." The missives reported on sickness and health, activities at home and on the farm, Sunday worship and church activities, and, above all, on spiritual struggles in the face of death and privation. Yet most letters are amazingly upbeat, especially those of the Hospers and Budde families. But others were far more negative than is customary in such letters. Andries Wormser and Jan Berkhout explicitly warned their Seceder friends in the Netherlands NOT to come to Pella unless they wanted an early grave. They repeated every negative rumor about Pella and its inept leader Rev. Scholte. The Buddes remained in Burlington precisely because they believed the carping about Pella and Scholte.

Iowa’s Boom Time

Iowa Letters is set in the boom time of the infant state. The year of the Pella colony’s founding, 1847, was only one year after Iowa gained statehood, and it already counted 96,000 inhabitants. This number doubled by 1850 to 192,000. Ten years later, in 1860, as the Buddes and Hospers were noting in their letters the political divisions that would shortly erupt in civil war, Iowa’s population was 674,000, a threefold growth since 1850.  And, in 1870, by which time Johan Adam Wormser and Henry Scholte were dead and Diedrich and Christina Budde were in their last few years of life, Iowa’s population almost doubled again, to 1,194,000.[4]

Immigrants formed an increasingly significant proportion of the Iowa population.  In 1850, there was one foreign-born among every nine Iowans (20,900 foreign-born).  By 1870, the ratio was one among every five (204,600 foreign-born).  Immigrants from the Netherlands were far outnumbered by immigrants from Germany, Scandinavian nations, Ireland, the British Isles, and Canada. Nonetheless, the 1,100 Netherlands-born Iowans in 1850 and the 4,500 in 1870 outnumbered new Iowans from, for example, Wales, Switzerland, Belgium, France, and Bohemia.[5]

                Over the same period, the populations of Marion and Des Moines counties, the sites of Pella and Burlington, respectively, were also booming.  Marion County grew from 5,400 in 1850 to 24,400 in 1870, and Des Moines County from 12,900 to 27,200. Pella itself had 1,600 people in 1860 and 1,900 in 1870; and Burlington, where the Buddes spent most of their years, grew from 4,000 in 1850 to 14,900 in 1870.[6]

Iowa has not seen such a growth rate since. Iowa Letters falls solidly within this early statehood boom time in Iowa’s history. The volume is thus of considerable importance for Iowa historiography, for it is a set of immigrant sources that, since they are helpfully edited, lucidly translated, and meticulously indexed, can help us understand some of the social and cultural dynamics of this boom time.

Civilization and Wilderness

                Indian peoples—Ioway or others—are overtly absent from the letters of this volume, with one significant exception. Hendrik Hospers wrote to his parents in June of 1848 about a band of some 30 Indians "oddly dressed, brown in color” and with the men’s faces painted red and blue, who passed through Pella on the way west in the summer of 1848. “When they arrived in Pella,” Hospers noted, “especially the women were terrified.” Fears, though, were mingled with widespread fascination: “All of Pella was present, standing in Washington Street to watch the parade" (179). The Indians were perhaps a band of Mesquakie (Fox). Treaties with the U.S. government had forced the Ioway out in the 1830s, and the Sauk (Sac) and Mesquakie were in the process of being removed in the mid-1840s.

The namelessness of the Indian band that Hospers described, together with the fear and fascination with which the people of Pella observed them, suggests that, in some respects, Dutch immigrant sensibilities about the settlement of Iowa paralleled those of most native-born Americans. Iowa—a place difficult to pronounce and a bit difficult to locate—was, on the one hand, “not Holland, as far as civilization is concerned” and “still so young and so new” (271).  Iowa was the borderland, the frontier of civilization; rough, but not wild, already conquered and merely waiting for cultivation. Indians, it was understood, were not a part of civilization, and they were not assumed to be a part of Iowa. Hence the silence of the letters about Indians. On the other hand, perceiving Iowa as young, new, and only beginning to be civilized presupposed not only a trans-Atlantic standard of civilization, but also one that was anti-civilizational, a place of wildness and savagery. A comment by housewife Henriette Bousquet reflects a civilization-wilderness polarity that was probably implicit more than explicit among the Dutch in frontier Iowa. “Everything here is still so young and so new, and still there has been a remarkable development when you consider that only six years ago the Indians were still living here" (379). The wild Other—savage, exotic, and thus frighteningly fascinating—became palpable for a day in Pella as the townsfolk observed Indians on the move. The Ioway and other American Indians may have been overtly absent from the correspondence of the Dutch immigrants to Iowa, but their cultural if not geographic proximity was subliminally pervasive nonetheless.

Pastoral Urbanism

                 Fixing Iowa in spelling, pronunciation, statehood, and especially civilized life had a special importance for the letter writers of Iowa Letters. These were not peasants, but rather self-consciously middle-class, city folk.[7] As the school teacher Jan Hospers wrote, “Were I a farmer, I would have gone too; but what can a man like myself do, with a large family and no income in my line in America?” (125). Diedrich Budde noted: “There is a lot of work and effort connected with preparing unimproved land, which may be less of a problem for country folk, but it is very problematic for people like us” (123). Andries Wormser declared: “As of now I have changed from a solid, well-situated citizen to something less than a dockhand” (298). And merchant Jan Berkhout explained: “We have been running the store for eleven weeks now; business is still very slow, but things seem to be slow all over the country. There is very little money in circulation right now, and every day there is a line of Americans wanting to buy merchandise on credit, because they do not have any money. In general, they look like poor Jews, plucked and in tatters.  This, however, is not a consequence of American freedom. In that regard things here are just as they are in Holland; if one prospers, he dresses the part” (363).

These comments clearly show that Iowa history involved much more than agriculture. Indeed, with these letters one can begin to construct an urban history of Iowa. For from the beginning of Euro-American settlement, towns and cities have been important in re-shaping Iowa into a particularly modern place.

                Decades ago, American religious historian Sidney E. Mead observed that “in America space has played the part that time has played in the older cultures of the world.”[8] Iowa’s “newness,” its civilizational youth, while immediately problematic for the urban Dutch correspondents of Iowa Letters, was balanced by its space—its physical and moral room for re-forming a community in but not of the world. The combination of religious, cultural, and economic aspirations that drew the correspondents to Iowa in particular are perhaps most explicit in the letters of Diedrich Budde. In reflecting on the 4th of July celebrations in Burlington in 1847, he wrote:

The festivities in this city were of a wholly different character from those in Amsterdam. There we saw people who debased themselves lower than beasts; here everything was done in good taste—quiet and demure—so that as we reflected on the day’s events, our hearts could be active in praise and gratitude to God. In Holland we did not enjoy this kind of freedom, the freedom to do your own thing in matters religious and civil. One is free in everything here, except to do wrong (72).

Three years later, Budde wrote: "So far we have no regrets about being here, and we have given no thought to going back. The change is very great, but once you have gotten somewhat used to it all, there are so many wonderful things about an outdoor life, and especially so when you do without all the sinful turmoil of the world" (354).

What Budde felt and tried to express was not enough for Andries Wormser, especially since he followed the Buddes in trying to farm near Burlington. “America is indeed equally available to all people,” Wormser wrote in 1849, “but it is not equally good for all. It is better for a German than a Hollander, and better for a farmer than a city dweller who is not used to heavy physical labor” (300). But for the Buddes in Burlington and the Hospers in Pella, the opportunity to construct communities of family and church that interconnected farms and towns was satisfying enough to be worth the effort.

Such aspirations amounted to a sacral pastoral urbanism—a civilization of rural and urban market commerce and industry centered in Protestant community and individual piety. This inchoate ideal could lead, for example, to the platting of Pella with north-south avenues named, among other things, Patience, Confidence, and Expectation—names which, as Henry Hospers explained in 1847, were meant “to express the different stages in which a sinner finds himself when he is converted to God” (177). The north-south streets now bear more prosaic names such as Broadway, Main, and East First.

The change in street names, along with controversy over the ideas and practices of the colonial leader, Hendrik Scholte, indicate that there was a gap between the hopes and the realities of constructing community among the first Dutch immigrants to Iowa.  The gap, though, was not extreme. The Dutch immigrants were not extremists, and neither was Iowa a place of extremities, as was the case in states further west. Iowa was and remains a moderate or “middle” place of the Middle West. Its climate is temperate and the land fertile, and, while Iowa has not evoked a large literature praising the sublimity of the prairie landscape, it has evoked a pervasive, foundational attitude of quiet confidence.[9]  The correspondents in Iowa Letters had their difficulties and disillusionments, but they also, for the most part, found that they could begin to make Iowa a place in which town, farm, and church developed together.

Power of Preconceived Notions

                Reformed cleric Norman Vincent Peale is famed for his all-time best seller, The Power of Positive Thinking. In this same vein, Iowa Letters might be considered as the "power of preconceived notions" in at least three ways--the disconnect between the expectations of the emigrants and their actual experiences, the ambivalence toward clerics who did more than preach the gospel, and the redefinition process that immigration thrust upon these folks consigned to the Iowa frontier.

                As a general observation, many of these letters reflect one central fact--some people have too much time on their hands. Today they write angry letters to the editor; in 1849 Iowa they wrote voluminous epics to their relatives. And the angrier they waxed the more eloquent the venom, and the more fun to read. But, without exception, the letters in this collection provide a treasure trove of insight and information on the process of immigration, the internal disputes, and the dynamics of self-identification that molded immigrant communities, especially those driven by overtly religious motivations.

The mindsets of the correspondents betray two contrasting notions of immigration. Some moved to America, others moved from the Netherlands. The former fared better than the latter, who like Lot’s wife constantly looked back. To mix biblical metaphors, they also were the ones who murmured against their leaders, like the Israelites in the desert against Moses. Examples of these two attitudes are the Hospers and Budde letters on one side and the Andries Wormser and Jan Berkhout missives on the other.

Rev. Scholte’s surveyor, Henry Hospers, the future godfather of Sioux County and financial angel of Dutch settlements in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska, corresponded with his relatives in the Netherlands during the late 1840s. His parents assigned young Henry to find good land, business opportunities, and accommodations in Iowa.  As Scholte’s assistant and the family scout, Hospers saw immigration as moving to America. This did not mean he abandoned his roots; he simply transplanted them in new soil with the understanding that this meant adaptation and living under new ground rules, looking ahead while glancing back.

At least in the early days, Hospers believed some things simply had to come from Holland, as practical necessities. Even in Iowa good Dutch cheese recipes required good Dutch rennet (the fourth stomach of calves), so he asked his father to send the animal parts in the same shipment with cloth for clothing and books for Pella’s first general store (154). And life could not go on without a generous supply of that sovereign cure-all Haarlemmer Oil, a folk medicine consisting of turpentine and linseed oil. Most important, Henry from the Netherlands brought a willingness to adapt. His mother assured him that God was drawing the good people away from the Netherlands, to preserve the true religion in a freer place, a country unsullied by the influences of liberal theologians and autocratic ecclesiastical authorities (198). Hospers praised American egalitarianism: "All farmers or whatever they may be address each other as Sir, that is as gentlemen.  Everyone rides a horse, and in the saddle; when the women visit each other for coffee, they go on horseback; unmarried women wear no hats at all, only the married women wear bonnets" (128).

Hospers related how things worked in America without comparing them to the Netherlands, or condemning all the newness as strangeness. In one letter he noted factually that personal baggage received rough treatment at the transfer points in America, so his parents must pack their fragile items carefully and choose a route inland with the fewest transfer points (143).

                The letters that Diedrich Budde and his wife Christina wrote from Burlington, while often more critical of American culture than was Hospers, reflected much the same practical attitude and the need to adapt to the new environment. Budde and other correspondents wanted seeds from the Netherlands that produced “better” fruits and vegetables. He also wanted a hat and communion service from the old country (104). The Buddes seemed to understand American society, even while preferring Dutch Calvinist religious practices. They worked diligently to create and sustain the short-lived Burlington Reformed Church. But they never expressed remorse at immigration, or the desire to return across the sea. Dietrich especially liked seeing ministers doing their own marketing in Burlington. “The grandiosity of the gentlemen of the cloth in Amsterdam is unknown here” (71).

                In stark contrast are the letters from Andries Wormser and his wife Maria. The Wormsers came in the second wave of settlers in 1848, not the first in 1847. They made it as far as Burlington, where they boarded with the Buddes. The Wormsers never failed to recount what they lost in leaving the Netherlands. Consequently, they never saw a new home, only an alien place very different from their native habitat. Bitterly dissatisfied with their new surroundings, the Wormsers perceived universal dissatisfaction among other immigrants, and relayed only disappointment back to the Netherlands in Jeremiads running on for page upon page. Maria wrote: "There are plenty of rats and mice here. We have a good view of the land, but it feels like we are the only people alive…. We have yet to meet anyone who does not regret having come here, even the Germans, but then it is too late.  And for children too, life here is just plain rough.  This is not Holland, as far as civilization is concerned" (270-71).

                When Andries compared work on the American frontier to life in the Netherlands, he observed: "A horse for example eats in the morning and works till midday, eats and goes back to work, in the evening he gets his fodder and goes to sleep, and the next day he goes through the same routine.  The same applies to human beings (277). In the same letter he denounced the American habit of putting children to work at a very young age. “It is true that if they are brought up this way from childhood on, they do not know any better than this is the way it’s supposed to be. But I can only describe their situation as anything but pleasant” (277).

                Amid his misery Wormser searched for scapegoats. He pinpointed the source in clerical conflicts of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Rev. Antony Brummelkamp had deceived everyone in pamphlets encouraging the faithful to flee to America. If America was so wonderful, why had Brummelkamp himself remained in the Netherlands? In terms foreshadowing the Watergate scandal, Wormser demanded answers to the questions: what did Brummelkamp know, and when did he know it? (273-79). Wormser surmised that everyone would leave America and return to Europe if they could. Four things held them back—the journey to America consumed all their money, their former homes and positions no longer awaited them, embarrassment constrained them, and another hazardous sea voyage daunted them. (290).

Van Raalte, Scholte, and Brummelkamp gulled their gullible, pathetic minions in these dreary American colonies through deliberate deception. Wormser resorted to a parable to make the point:

Two brothers (Germans)…had conceived the plan to go to America. The one was to go ahead, and if in truth he found everything to be as people had written, then the other one would also come over. The first brother arrives in America and finds everything to be quite the opposite, but he does not have the means to go back, and he also dreads the sea journey, because Germans are not exactly heroes at sea.  For a long time he thinks about what to do. If he writes the truth his brother will not come, and he does not care to be alone either; after long hesitation he decides to have his brother come over and sends the most lovely and enticing report. His brother comes over, but he is disappointed, and as a result they come to blows.  Presently they are still living in America. Now that they have more or less forgotten their former condition, they are more content (290).

It is common for people to say, “We surely can’t stay here alone, can we?” They say, “You must have lived here a few years before you get used to it.” That is not correct; it is not a matter of getting used to things but of forgetting them, and that takes time, for in time everything wears away.  One must forget that once he lived in a fairly decent house; one must forget that he ate pleasant and tasty foods; one must forget that he lived on a well-ordered and well-worked piece of land and that he enjoyed a mild climate, etc. Some people, like the Germans, adapt to such things much faster than others. It is easy enough to get used to anything that is better; it does not take a poor man years to become accustomed to better clothes, food, and shelter. Conversely, it takes a rich man many years to get accustomed to poor housing, food, and clothing, or, I should say, it takes him years before he has forgotten his former circumstances (290-91).

And so Andries Wormser arrived at the bottom line:

Dear Brother, I believe that I have answered the main points and objections raised in your letter. Now it is up to you to decide what you think of our present situation; it seems to me that things look pretty miserable for us; we have been misled. This journey has already cost us a lot of grief, sacrifices, and money, but it is only right that the truth has been exposed and that those who seek to plunge others into disaster have been unmasked. This does not do us any good, but someone else may profit from it (295).

                Like an ancient Israelite drubbing Moses, Wormser singled out the dominees as the source of all misery. He was not alone in this regard. A sense of ambivalence courses through the letters about the clergymen who led these expeditions onto the American frontier. Many of the letters, even ones from Henry Hospers, questioned the motives and wisdom of their spiritual leaders (283). Invariably these suspicions arose from the financial arrangements the ministers made to secure land for the new settlements. Scholte’s land speculations were an especially tempting target. In the little world of Pella, little remained secret, and where fact failed, rumors and gossip abounded. Scholte might see himself as an agent of God, creating a haven for the persecuted, yet his financial machinations inspired Jan Berkhout, poetically to label this haven “Kwella Pella” [oppressive Pella] (352).

These letter writers were overtly pious folks and they took their religion very seriously. Consequently, most upheld the ministers as mighty men of God. Henriette Bousquet-Chabot recounted hearing Scholte preaching in 1849. His apocalyptic visions of the Second Coming thrilled the good lady. Prompted to examine the state of her soul, she remained convinced that her entry into eternity would follow the conventional path (343). Berkhout, while pious, did not appreciate these visions of the end times; instead, he sarcastically denounced any fixation on the Second Coming. "With all their crazy talk about the return of Christ as King upon the earth that one would almost be inclined to get ready to travel to Jerusalem; and by the time you get there, Christ would probably also be there" (347). 

Then there were those galling clerical peculations. Diedrich Budde did not mince words in describing why he would never move to Van Raalte’s colony in West Michigan: "I know no place less suited for the intended plan and the advantages spelled out in such detail by Van Raalte, if not exaggerated, certainly 90 per cent are. The Black River is not navigable, and they are completely isolated from other communities, so that everything is much more costly than here" (79-81). In another letter, Budde complained that Van Raalte in his efforts to attract settlers had already become thoroughly American. "I hope I am never that persistent, and in my opinion a good place for a settlement does not commend itself so much by telling people what could be done there, but rather by what already has been done and is presently being done. Good locations get populated very rapidly as soon as there is a settlement" (63-64).

Budde’s wife, Christina, commented on Scholte’s dual roles: "When I read the headings like the following [advertisement] in the [Sheboygan] Nieuwsbode: 'Scholte & Grand, Bankers, Land Agents, Notaries Public, U. S. Agents for a life insurance company in New Jersey, Editors and Publishers of the Pella Gazette' and still more, all this contrasts very strangely with being a shepherd and pastor" (415).

The difference between American land valuation methods and the familiar traditions of the rural Netherlands proved a constant bone of contention. Van Raalte and Scholte adopted the new calculus, while the settlers clung to the dying peasant tradition of fixed prices based solely on productivity. When the dominees added the value of surveying services, houses, physical improvements, and legal fees to the cost of the land, buyers accused them of gouging and blatant profiteering. Apparently Andries Wormser saw financial manipulation as another proof that Van Raalte had gone native in the States, abandoning the economic principles that had made Dutch rural society so strong for so long. Money drove America, producing all this shoddiness and skullduggery. Wormser wrote, “Things here are not like they are in Holland. There money tends to remain concentrated, here it flies away, far and wide, and so usually one is without money" (308).

Understanding this foreign-ness formed the third thread woven into the letters, the immigrants’ process of redefinition. They saw themselves as religious people. Many had been persecuted for joining the Seceders during the 1830s. They were a people shunned. Respectable people feared that their “children might come into contact with Reformed Seceders and that they would catch cold and get tuberculosis” (29). These letters contain persistently apocalyptic analyses of current events. The potato famine, the revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, the Panic of 1857, and the American Civil War were all manifestations of the coming of the Lord. In the floodwaters inundating the Netherlands in 1855, Christina Budde’s correspondent saw God’s curse on "comedies, concerts, lotteries. Even the churches where the Lord’s death was proclaimed in the morning, there was a benefit organ concert in the evening for the [victims of the] flood.  People are blind to those kinds of things these days. Where are we headed?" (409).

Some people noticed that as Scholte became more immersed in visions of the Four Horsemen, his notions of church order deteriorated. He and his consistory tolerated baptisms without the presence of fathers, something tantamount to reducing the mothers to whores before the entire congregation. Even the perseverance of the saints was up for grabs in Scholte’s Pella. Berkhout wrote: “Alas, that is what happens to a human being when he wants to understand God.” Pella needed a real preacher from the Netherlands to combat “the host of heresies here” (348).

But the immigrants were also Dutch. To them there could be no distinction between that and Calvinism. The letters are rife with references to the will of God, grace, mercy, providence, regeneration, conviction of sin, and all the other Calvinist keywords.  The authors took their preaching seriously and demanded that their children know the Catechism. But, to many, being Dutch required them to isolate other Dutchmen deemed less desirable types. Overijssel farmers were, at best, marginally Dutch, at least in the estimation of Andries Wormser. He noted that America was so bad “it is even disappointing to the Overijssel farmers, who are quite accustomed to wallowing in their own filth; but [there I go] reasoning so much from a Dutch point of view” (234). An American house, “a kind of warehouse” was so bad that an Overijssel farmer living in it would “surely write that he was living in a freestone house, and that is correct” (242).

                Wormser, the re-migrant, advised anyone visiting St. Louis to avoid publicizing his Dutch roots. “Hollanders are not highly regarded in America, and Rev. Scholte and his gang have finally dealt them the deathblow” (277). Given this sense of being hunted, doomed to ostracism by the wanton acts of conscience-less dominees, it is little wonder that Wormser could not survive the rigors of immigration.

But the vast majority of the immigrants in Iowa stayed, even if under duress.  Christina Budde-Stomp wrote to her closest friend:

Much as your desire for another country [America] is also ours, and being in your midst in this life, we rest and trust in the Lord that whatever way he leads you is for the best.  Even if we should meet each other again on this earth, it will be trouble and grief.  When I behold the great changes and difficulties that accompany a change in one’s familiar patterns of living, I could wish to see you spared all that, but if it should be the Lord’s will, then follow him even if the path leads to Golgotha.  He knows what of trouble or of happiness is most profitable for his own (357).

Rev. Scholte had purchased as much land as he could to regulate who settled in the Pella area. He wanted his Dutch people to remain distinct. Yet he also wanted them to be involved in their new country. During the 1850s he became active in the Democratic Party, before switching allegiance to the Republicans in 1860. Henry Hospers served as Pella’s mayor, and later sat in the Iowa State Legislature. When Van Raalte came to Pella he made religious separation permanent by organizing a Dutch Reformed congregation, to stand within sight of Scholte's independent church. So the Pella Dutch came to see themselves in dual terms, not either/or but both Dutch and American with the Reformed Church as their talisman.

So who were the Iowa Dutch founders? They were people with Dutch roots replanted in prairie soil. The pioneers of 1847 arrived with preconceived notions about their new country, their religion, and their own identity. They all lived in various stages of transition: from Europeans to Americans, immigrants to settlers to citizens (or returnees). They were folks looking for religious freedom and the imminent end of the world. They admired the dominees while remaining highly skeptical of their talents and motives. In short, they were much like their great-grandchildren—human beings with foibles and contradictions, slogging through life, and guided by their preconceived notions. 

Iowa Letters provides an intimate portrait of early Pella that is not always flattering. Yet the book is an essential primary source for the study of nineteenth century Dutch immigration to America, and it is a milestone to have it available in English. Here we get to know the Iowa pioneers through the thoughts they recorded in letters the recipients decided to preserve. So what will they know of our preconceived notions when all the email accounts are erased?


[1] Johan Stellingwerff, Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier, Robert P. Swierenga, ed., Walter Lagerwey, trans. (Grand Rapids, Wm B. Eerdmans, 2004), enlarged English-language edition of Johan Stellingwerff, Amsterdamse Emigranten: onbekend brieven van de prairies van Iowa  (Amsterdam: Buijten & Schipperheijn, 1976).

[2] Iowa’s problem is not unlike that of other Midwestern states.  See James H. Madison, “Diverging Trails: Why the Midwest is Not the West,” in Frontier and Region: Essays in Honor of Martin Ridge, eds. Robert C. Ritchie and Paul Andrew Hutton  (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 49-50.

[3] Martha Royce Blaine, The Ioway Indians, with a new preface  (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 3-4, 16-28.

[4] Table 3.1 in Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land  (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996), 48.

[5] Table 6.1 in Leland L. Sage, A History of Iowa  (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1974), 93, and also 94.

[6] State Library of Iowa, State Data Center, Iowa Census Data Tables: State of Iowa, “Total Population and Rankings for Iowa’s Counties: 1850-2000,” <http://www.silo.lib.ia.us/specialized-services/datacenter/datatable/CountyAll/copopulation18502000.pdf, pp. 4, 5  (20 May 2005), p. 39  (23 May 2005).

[7]The Iowa letters are worth contrasting with peasant letters from German Mecklenburg. A cache of such letters were reworked into a fascinating epistolary narrative in 1916-1917 and recently made available in a fine translation: Johannes Gillhof, Letters of a German American Farmer: Jurnjakob Swehn Travels to America, trans. Richard Lorenz August Trost  (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000). See also Walter Kamphoefner, German Letters

[8] Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America  (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 6.

[9] Schwieder in Iowa: The Middle Land, ix-xii, and James R. Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989); Susan Rhoades Neel, “A Place of Extremes: Nature, History, and the American West,” in A New Significance: Re-Envisioning the History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 105-24.