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Lecture of Dr. Robert P. Swierenga, Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute for Historical Studies, Hope College, Holland Museum Sesquicentennial Lecture Series, Holland, March 13, 1997

"By the Sweat of our Brow:" Economic Aspects of the Dutch Immigration to Michigan

For food but by faith

The Dutch emigrated for economic reasons primarily, but religious considerations strongly affected the migration itself. Nine out of ten immigrants told government officials as they registered to depart that they were leaving for economic reasons. A strong desire for religious freedom, however, caused them to unite behind their dominies and settle together in colonies. Church leaders guided the newcomers to certain destinations and helped shape their lives in the new land. In historian Jacob Van Hinte's words, religion "gave a definite and peculiar character to this emigration.... It was because of religious considerations that many left the fatherland in groups rather than individually."

That economic motives were paramount is clear from the words of the leaders. The Reverend Albertus Van Raalte and his brother-in-law and associate, Anthony Brummelkamp, in a pamphlet defending their decision to promote emigration to America, said that the national economy was so bad that able-bodied men had to rely on church charity. "Among those who we supported from the deaconal chest, there were those in the full strength of their lives," they declared. "Didn't they want to work? Oh, so much; of this we were convinced, but there wasn't any work or not enough to sustain a living.... When a farmyard was for rent or came up for sale there were twenty or forty people speculating on it. If a house had to be built, twenty carpenters wanted the work, otherwise they would be without work." These breadwinners could not fulfill the Biblical injunction: "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, which contained a promise and a duty." Work was a duty and bread the promise.

Therefore, the two leaders continued, we are acting out of the "most vivid conviction that this is the way, the only way, to alleviate their dire needs and the needs of many thousands who shall follow and whose needs increase daily as long as they stay here. They are faced every winter by a more fearful future and their hearts are tormented by the sober and humiliating support of parochial welfare!" In short, Van Raalte and Brummelkamp declared, "We need a place where work waits for workers, not where workers wait for work."

While economic conditions made it difficult to obey God in the Netherlands, America offered that opportunity freely. The Dutch poet, Everhardus Jan Potgieter, said it best: "Go to the United States, my friends. Westward the Star points the way." America was a place of rising expectations, while the Netherlands was declining. Its "golden age" was in the past.

Letters from recent Dutch immigrants confirmed the promise of America. After reading some of these letters, Brummmelkamp declared, "Now we saw that on God's earth there was plenty of room, one only had to move over a bit!"

When critics charged that the dominies were being too materialistic, Brummelkamp replied in defense: "We have indicated the material aspect as the cause why many must move, but we have also pressed the point that this is to be achieved in a religious and God-glorifying manner." Thus did the leaders of the migration blend economic and religious purposes.

Economic conditions in the Netherlands 1800-1845

General conditions

That the dominies were responding to genuine economic problems is clear from a review of general conditions in the Netherlands.

1. French annexation (1795-1813)

The Netherlands faced a series of setbacks after 1800. First, the nation lost its independence when Napoleon, the French military dictator, incorporated it into the greater French empire. He put his brother Louis on the Dutch throne, and in 1810 formally annexed Holland to France. French revolutionary troops, which the Dutch political liberals had first welcomed in 1795 as liberators from the Dutch monarchy, had become oppressors.

Louis Napoleon modernized the antiquated Dutch bureaucracy, but at the cost of many new taxes and a host of intrusive regulations, including the disestablishment of the Netherlands Reformed Church, the first national census, universal military conscription, secularization of the public schools, and a law that required everyone to adopt a family name and register it with authorities.

2. United Kingdom and Belgian revolution 1815-1839

Secondly, after Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1814 joined Belgium and Holland to form the United Netherlands. But Belgium was largely Catholic and French speaking and the union was not a happy one. In 1830 the southern provinces declared independence, and for nine years the Dutch army fought on and off to prevent secession. The war caused high taxes and unemployment and, finally in 1839, with the treasury bankrupt, King Willem I gave in and allowed an independent Belgium. The failed effort, which cost the Netherlands the most industrialized half of its kingdom, lowered Dutch national prestige and prompted the king to abdicate the throne in 1840.

3. Religious Secession of 1834

Thirdly, the religious Secession of 1834 had serious economic consequences for the Seceders, who were fined, ostracized, boycotted. and blacklisted. The authorities punished the Seceders for demanding reforms in the Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk), which they felt had succombed to the influence of rationalist thought. Government leaders in the French period disestablished the Hervormde Kerk, made the public school curriculum nonsectarian rather than Calvinist, and generally tried to secularize the culture. This rapid pace of change troubled the pious folk. Then in 1816 the restored monarch Willem I issued a royal decree that again provided public funding to the national church, but at the price of making it an arm of the state. This undermined the historic and much revered church order adopted at the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) and caused many devout members to rebel. Some they began meeting for worship in homes and barns under lay teachers who read sermons of the old fathers.

In 1834 a half dozen conservative clerics began openly challenging the new rules and soon they formed many new congregations of seceders. The movement became known as the Afscheiding or Secession. The government considered these actions illegal and even treasonous, and called out troops to break up the services. Clerics were fined, jailed, and forced to quartered soldiers in their homes. Van Raalte joined the Seceders in 1835 and over the next few years he preached throughout the province of Overijssel as an itinerant and was fined over f40,000 ($16,000) and jailed for a week.

Persecution only made the church revolt spread. By 1844 the Seceders numbered 40,000, mostly lower class farmers, laborers, and village craftsmen. Official persecution generally ended by 1840 but social harassment continued for years. As a result, Seceders emigrated at a rate 15 times greater than their proportion of the population.

4. Economic stagnation

The 1830s and 1840s were marked by persistent poverty and pauperism, with high population growth, cheap factory imports that undercut handcraft workers, and fluctuating employment for rural laborers. In these years 10-15 percent of the population lived on public welfare. The Dutch economy was working at a low level of productivity and industrial modernization was lagging. There were only 364 steam engines in the entire Netherlands in 1853, compared to 2,000 in Belgium and Germany, and more than 20,000 in England. One reason was that Dutch economic policy featured high taxes and heavy regulation, at the same time that Great Britain and the USA were moving toward free trade and low taxes. This stifled Dutch economic growth, especially of modern industries. Dutch developments were so retarded that its industrial revolution did not come until the 1890s, more than 100 years after England and 50 years after the USA.

The Dutch also had too many farmhands working on too little farmland. To compete in world markets, farm owners consolidated lands into bigger farms, introduced labor saving machinery, and laid off workers. The grain farmers in the sea-clay regions led the way in modernization. Here the excess farm workers were cast off in large numbers and they had difficulty finding factory jobs in the cities. An attractive alternative was to emigrate to America.

In summary, the political and religious turmoil, lackluster economic growth, and agricultural change, all created a climate of despair about the future that prompted people to consider emigration. Then in the mid-1840s the failure of the potato and rye crops, which were mainstays in the diet of the lower class, pushed many over the edge.

Immediate causes: The potato and rye crisis of 1845-1846

Dutch peasants lived on potatoes, sometimes 3 meals a day. The Dutch were second only to Ireland in potato consumption. For fifty years potatoes were cheap and abundant. But in 1845, a fungus blight wiped out three-quarters of the crop. In 1846 two-thirds were lost. Potato prices shot up 250 percent. Rye, the cheap grain of the poor, also had rust disease in 1846 and rye prices doubled. It was a double whammy.

Poverty, pauperism, and vagrancy seemed to be systemic, a permanent condition. In some regions 40 percent of the people needed government help for food or fuel. It was much like the Great Depression in the United States. In 1847 the king proclaimed a day of prayer to ask God to deliver the people from their "deep suffering." Food riots broke out in cities. By 1850 27 percent of the population needed public assistance. Taxes were crushing burden on those still employed. Taxes on the poor workingman, who earned only 45 cents per day, $56 (f140) per year, were $8 (f20) on food alone (that is one-seventh of all income, besides license fees and other taxes. Sharply dropping birth rates also indicate the hard times; the number of live births declined in the 1840s by nearly 20 percent.

The developments I have described so far were all push factors. But pull factors in the USA were even stronger. Farmland was cheap and abundant, wages of $1 a day were more than double those in Holland, food was abundant, social class distinctions were minimal, and people could worship freely and establish Christian schools without government hindrance.

The Decision to Go

Van Raalte decides to encourage emigration

Beginning in 1844 and 1845 Dutch laboring families began emigrating to America, following the example of Germans who in increasing numbers were moving down the Rhine to the port of Rotterdam. The decision the Seceder dominies faced was whether to try to discourage emigration or get aboard and take control of the moving train that was gathering momentum. At first every Seceder cleric strongly opposed overseas emigration. Indeed, so did most Netherlanders. Emigrants were viewed as disloyal citizens, deserters of the fatherland, and pariahs in their communities.

Cornelius Van der Meulen, the leading Seceder preacher in the province of Zeeland, voiced the typical view. "We pray that the Lord may spare his children from leaving the land of their birth because of worldly-mindedness and go to foreign lands to find a better living under the pretext, 'We can earn our daily bread honorably with our hands, something which we can't do here anymore.'"

This was precisely the justification that Van Raalte used to support his decision to support emigration. But it was the fall of 1845 before he gave any thought to it as a solution for his suffering followers. The turning point in his thinking came when a personal acquaintance decided to emigrate and made a farewell call, carrying glowing letters from Seceders in America who were already prospering.

When Van Raalte and Brummelkamp read these America letters, they could scarcely believe what they heard. As Brummelkamp recounted:

I read, was amazed, and full of emotion, I sent for Van Raalte. We both knew the writers of these letters had been poor as church mice; but these lines spoke of an abundance such as was no longer imaginable in the Fatherland. We were speechless. A light dawned on us in the darkness of the diaconate's welfare program. God opened our eyes.

Indeed, the poorest Dutch emigrants were living as well in America as the Dutch upper class. America might be the answer to their prayers for a way of escape from poverty and unemployment! As they put it: "We hope North America will provide them a place where they can make a living, where living in quiet obedience to God, they can eat their bread, earned by diligent labor and honest sweat."

&#Throughout the winter of 1845-1846, the Seceder leaders debated the question of whether to encourage emigration, which they described as a "great moving force," a "wide-spread movement... with thousands ready to go." Many a congregational meeting was devoted to discussing the issue. Finally, as I noted earlier, the leaders became convinced that work was a God-given duty and since the Dutch economic engine was stalled and unemployment was endemic, it was necessary, however reluctantly, to leave the Fatherland.

Listen again to the words of Brummelkamp and Van Raalte:

Let us plumb the depths of our misery.... The future of the land of our fathers is most pitiable! No our pen is not dipped in gall.... We have to write the truth, the plain truth,... because we may not say that misery and distress are glory and joy.... The cry of the laboring man ascends to the ears of the Lord.... Oh observe, that the common people, the salt and backbone of the nation, is being made ready to leave you!

The two leaders then listed their bill of indictment against the Netherlands, beginning each complaint with the question: "Is it not true that" unequal taxes oppress the middle class? "Is it not true that" that laborers are often unemployed or underemployed? that greedy employers exploit their labor? that public welfare of f20 million is yet not enough? that Christian schools and religious worship are not allowed? and that the Fatherland in under God's imminent hand of judgement because of injustice and worldliness?

Emigration associations

By the spring of 1846, emigration fever, "like a breath of God,...ripened simultaneously [and] moved over the entire country," Van Raalte noted. Seceder leaders formed three Christian emigration societies in order to channel the movement to America--that of Brummelkamp and Van Raalte at Arnhem, Hendrik P. Scholte at Utrecht, and Cornelius Van der Meulen and Jannes Van de Luyster in Zeeland.

The constitution of Van Raalte's society, entitled "Foundations of the Society of Christians for the Emigration of Hollanders to the United States of America," clearly stated the purpose--to plant a Christian colony "salted" by a majority of true believers, for which monies would be pooled and the wealthy would help the poor. All it took was f500 ($200) to enable a needy family to "make a go of it," Van Raalte promised. The goal was to nurture the spiritual and social well-being of all. Brummelkamp donated f1000 ($400), Van Raalte f500 ($200), and others gave lesser amounts. Altogether, the Society raised f3,000 ($1200) in Dutch "Willempjes" (2 1\2 guilder coins) to purchase land in America.

Members who borrowed passage fare and monies for land in America from the Society pledged to devote one-fifth of their income or profits from land sales to pay it back, with 5 percent interest added. Only when the loans were repaid would they obtain title to the lands. This provision enable many poor families to emigrate, but it also limited their land dealings once in America.

"The Appeal to the Faithful in America" (May 1846)

To prepare for the arrival of the newcomers, in May 1846 Van Raalte and Brummelkamp sent a letter to leaders of the Old Dutch Reformed church in America appealing for help. The "Appeal" explained the reasons for the Secession and recounted the sufferings of the believers and the harsh economic and social conditions in Holland. "Our heart's desire and prayer to God is, that in one of those uninhabited regions in America there may be a spot where our people...may find their temporal conditions secured.

Two Reformed Church ministers answered the call, Thomas De Witt of New York City, who had visited the Netherlands only a few months earlier and meet with Seceder leaders, and Isaac Wyckoff of Albany, who was fluent in Dutch. These men formed Dutch emigrant aid societies, warmly welcomed Van Raalte and all of the immigrants, and helped send them on their way inland to the colonies.

Van Raalte himself decides to emigrate (Aug-Sept 1846)

Once the Seceder leaders decided to encourage emigration in May 1846, each one faced the individual question of whether God was calling him to go along. Van Raalte decided to go in August and September of 1846, following a severe bout of typhus, which made him face his mortality. Soon after his recovery, the congregation at Arnhem, which was paying his salary as teacher at the Seceder Theological School there, notified him that because so many members had gone to America, they could no longer afford his salary. He was free to "look elsewhere," they told him. Being unemployed added to Van Raalte's financial woes because several of his business investments had soured. He had for several years invested in various businesses to provide jobs for Seceders, tapping funds his wealthy wife had inherited. In 1839, he bought a fishing vessel at Scheveningen to help several men to support their families. In late 1841 he purchased three earthenware factories in Ommen, worth f50,000 ($20,000), for the same reason. He took in as partner his sister's husband, Dirk Blikman Kikkert, who was a wealthy Amsterdam ship broker. Blikman Kikkert provided one-half of the capital, secured by a mortgage on the property, and took over the active management of the company. One factory, a brick plant, employed 30 men, women, and children at wages substantially above prevailing rates. But the businesses did not go well and Van Raalte lost heavily.

This, coupled with the fact that the Arnhem congregation released him in the summer of 1846, indicated to him that God was saying "yes" to America. "In my own heart," Van Raalte recalled later, using the imagery of Christ's sacrifice, "I was able to bring myself to drink this cup--in the conviction that this step was equivalent to breaking ice in order to open a broad and deep stream of emigration." The final hurdle was to convince his wife. "Look at the children," he told her, "we must go to America," especially for the boys. With that, she agreed. (Their sons were Albertus, Benjamin, and Dirk, aged 9, 5, and 2 years.) Thus did Van Raalte mix religious and economic motives in his own decision to emigrate.

To America

A. Voyage across (October 4-November 17, 1846)

Van Raalte left Arnhem in late September and with a party of 110 followers and boarded at Rotterdam a three-masted sailing vessel, The Southerner. The people traveled in steerage but Van Raalte, as befitting his high station, had a cabin berth with his wife Christina Johanna, 5 children, and a maid. Van Raalte was 35 years of age and bore a tremendous responsibility. He spent much of the time on the 45 day ocean crossing trying to read and speak English, which he had studied a bit at Leiden, but it took several years for him to master the language.

Arrival in America (November 1846)

Since Wisconsin was the intended destination for his colony, Van Raalte secured from Rev. Thomas De Witt at New York specific travel directions to Wisconsin over Albany, Buffalo, and the Great Lakes. De Witt urged speed because the lake steamers were due to stop running for the winter.

To save precious time, Van Raalte bought train tickets from Albany to Buffalo instead of the cheaper but slower Erie Canal boats. The party was unavoidably delayed at Buffalo for three days by a winter storm, and on November 27 they sailed for Detroit, then the state capital, on the lake steamer Great Western. This turned out to be the ship's last voyage of the season because of early ice at the Mackinaw straits. Since the cost to proceed across Michigan by rail was prohibitive, and funds were running low, Van Raalte decided to winter in Detroit.

Van Raalte chooses Michigan

December 1846 and January 1847 was the crucial time of decision. Van Raalte could hardly speak English, he knew little about America, and he had to act quickly or his followers would scatter. But to make an informed decision, he had to learn about the flora and fauna of the region, judge soil quality and transportation routes, master the methods of buying government lands and the rectangular land survey system that mapped them out, and learn of the prospects for economic growth. Clearly, he must rely on new friends he could trust.

New friends

Van Raalte received from a Presbyterian minister near Buffalo letters of recommendation to fellow clerics in Detroit and points west. Van Raalte felt comfortable with the Presbyterians because the Reformed Church in America worked closely with them in home mission projects in the west.

The key people that Van Raalte came too rely upon in Michigan were: in Detroit, the prominent attorney Theodore Romeyn (of Dutch ancestry), Romeyn's pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Duffield, and Judge Shubael Conant. In Kalamazoo were the Presbyterian minister Ova Hoyt and attorney M.L. Colt, friends of Duffield and Romeyn; in Grand Rapids RCA pastor Andrew Taylor and land dealer John Ball; in Grand Haven the Presbyterian minister William Ferry and Ottawa county treasurer Henry Pennoyer, and most crucial of all, Judge John R. Kellogg in Allegan.

All were Michigan boosters and promoters who served on the board of directors of state banks, canals, and railroads. When they learned that Van Raalte was the vanguard of a huge stream of devout Hollanders, they were determined to snare them for Michigan. Van Raalte also showed his mettle by winning the confidence of these prominent men. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Van Raalte told his brother-in-law that Romeyn "often paves the way for me to the highest officials in the government of the state."

The Michigan boosters worked extra hard to get the Dutch. Michigan's reputation in Europe had suffered in the 1830s because of the activities of land speculators and the bankruptcy of several canal projects. The word among immigrants was to avoid Michigan. But Van Raalte already in New York had heard otherwise. A well-traveled Zeelander there advised him to consider Michigan because it had already passed the early stages of development, and it had railroads. This may have planted the seed. Van Raalte later wrote Brummelkamp, "I had many prejudices with regard to the state of Michigan, and in my heart I would have chosen another place to live, but in many respects I have received another view with regard to the state of affairs. From the first moment of my arrival in America I had distrust in my choice, that is to say: Wisconsin. And a few hints from friends, whom I met, made me think a lot about the geographical location of these states."

At a meeting in Judge Conant's office in Detroit, it was also acknowledged that Van Raalte was "prepossessed" against Michigan and "inclined to go elsewhere." But the pledge of help from the Americans, fellow Calvinists all, made him "disposed to commence his colonization here." These men won the dominie's confidence and heart. They were "God-fearing, upright gentlemen," he wrote his wife. For their part, the promoters claimed to be acting from "disinterested and philanthropic motives," and without any "selfish impulse."

Van Raalte's exploratory trip (Dec 21, 1846-Jan 19, 1847)

In late December Van Raalte left Detroit alone for a month-long scouting trip to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Michigan still did not figure prominently in his plans, but that changed in a wink after he spent a day or two with Rev. Ova Hoyt at Kalamazoo. Hoyt, Van Raalte learned, was a wise and "experienced man, a man of influence, and with a cordial interest in the Holland immigration." Hoyt convinced him to postpone his plans to scout further west, and instead to investigate the area of western Michigan, where government land was still available in large blocks.

Hoyt put Van Raalte in contact with Judge Kellogg of Allegan, who happened to be in Kalamazoo just then. This was the critical link-up. Kellogg offered to show the dominie three potential sites: around Ada, Ionia, and Saugatuck. Van Raalte agreed and accompanied Kellogg to Allegan. The judge was a "true, righteous, and intelligent person," Van Raalte told his wife, and he was grateful that he had "fallen into such good hands.... I believe the state of Michigan will be our home," he added. On Christmas Day Kellogg and Van Raalte, with an Indian guide, set out to check northern Allegan and southern Ottawa counties. And the rest is history.

On Old Years Eve the three men arrived at the Old Wing Indian mission post of Rev. George Smith, a Congregational cleric, and his associate, Isaac Fairbanks, who taught the Indians to farm. On New Year's day of 1847, the five men set off to explore the Black Lake region. For the next three weeks Van Raalte tramped through the snow over the future site of Holland, traveled to Grand Rapids to consult with Rev. Taylor, went back to Kellogg at Allegan, and then before returning to Detroit traveled to Grand Haven to review the deed records with the help of Pennoyer.

Economic advantages of Holland

What he saw around the mouth of Black Lake convinced him that this was the place for a colony, even though the area was low-lying, sandy, swampy, and dense with a primeval forest. Van Raalte even dug under the snow to check the soil quality. He was knowledgeable in agriculture, as well as medicine, law, and business. Nevertheless, he admitted, "this period of my investigation was very shocking to me in that I received an entirely new insight in many business affairs, which insight may well seem strange to our Holland people." Not the least shocking was the tremendous opportunity to buy land cheap and make money, but also the high risk of being swindled. "A stranger will not be likely to escape them if he does not have faithful and trusted advisors, Van Raalte observed."

&A number of economic factors convinced Van Raalte to chose Holland. Time and money were running out and the distances in America were much greater than any Hollander could imagine. He was ready to be persuaded that it was unnecessary to go further west. The primary consideration was that the watershed of the Black River was yet virtually unpopulated, although it lay nestled between two populated areas, Kalamazoo and Grand Haven. At the chosen site there was "space enough for settlements of thousands and thousands," Van Raalte declared. To be near Americans and yet live in a Dutch enclave was the goal. "It is of first importance to us to live together," Van Raalte declared, quoting the Dutch motto, "eendragt maakt macht" [unity is strength].

Later, when critics derided his choice of west Michigan, Van Raalte answered by explaining the rationale for the decision. "The choice of this area was not the result of deceit" by speculators, he declared. "Amid sincere wrestling before God, I was led, by reasonable reasons gathered from the geographical location, from the earlier settlements, from the advice of unselfish ministers and Christians and from farmers during my roaming of prairies and forests." He then explained what he saw as the reasonable reasons for favoring Holland.

The key was the potential for an "excellent harbor" at Black Lake, which would open Holland to the booming Chicago markets and also to New York via the Great Lakes and Erie Canal. West Michigan would soon be linked by rail to New York as well. Moreover, Holland lies between two navigable rivers, the Grand and Kalamazoo, which have steamboats. Holland "is and remains dear to me above Wisconsin, because I am here near the great inland waterway of America; transportation and shipping mean much to me." In his mind's eye, Van Raalte saw ships of 50 tons navigating the 150 foot channel to the big lake, provided "no large sandstorm blows up too much sand." With a little dredging, he predicted, Holland will have the "most beautiful and safest harbors for the large ships" on the entire west side of the state. The deep lake made a large fishing industry possible here too. Little could Van Raalte anticipate the perennial silting problems at the mouth of Black Lake that thwarted his plans for the Holland harbor for many years.

Secondly, "it would be impossible," Van Raalte noted, "to be located in the wilderness [of Wisconsin or Iowa] with such a penniless group without waterways and an abundant forest." Woodlands provided an immediate source of income. Trees are money in the bank, a gift of God waiting to be exploited. Forests can become fertile prairies after logging, but prairies cannot grow trees.

True, "forests cause problems" for farming and road building, but they enable craftsmen to earn a good income as coopers, basket weavers, tanners, carpenters, joiners, and cabinetmakers; businessmen can open steam sawmills, distilleries, and bakeries; and manufacturers can build ships, wharves, and furniture. The huge trees also provide the raw materials for roof shingles, tar, pitch, potash, tannin, maple sugar, etc., all of which were marketable in Chicago for cash. The milder climate near the lake also produced excellent fruits and cranberries. Trees furnish free firewood and building materials for houses and barns, which on the prairies had to be brought in at great cost. Pigs could root among the acorns in the woods and cattle could graze on the forest grasses, even in the winter. "One could therefore immediately start the biggest dairy," Van Raalte added, and "it would be good if the more wealthy [people] immediately buy young cattle."

Moreover, forest work required heavy manual labor, so there will always be work for newcomers "who have capable hands." Learning to use the ax and adze, however, was no mean feat for the Dutchmen who had little prior experience with forest enterprise. Many an errant blow injured feet and legs and many a tree fell in the wrong direction, until Americans nearby could instruct the Dutch in the skills of ax and saw. "We were a wretched, ignorant, small group," Van Raalte acknowledged, "but God heard our prayer and we were not destroyed."

Forest lands had other advantages as well, Van Raalte believed. The soil was guaranteed to be fertile; to prove it just look at the many huge trees. Farmers could plant Indian corn and potatoes among the stumps as soon as the trees were felled in windrows. And the forest settlers did not have to bear the great expense of a three-yoke ox team manned by three men to break the tough prairie sod, as in Iowa. The high forest lands, Van Raalte added, were also healthier and better served with water supplies than the semi-arid prairies, where the rotting of the turned-over prairie sod produced a vapor, a miasma, that causes sicknesses in the first years.

On the issues of soil quality and health, Van Raalte cannot be faulted for accepting misguided American folk wisdom that favored woodlands over prairies, but he soon learned to his chagrin that the damp forests and swamps could be very unhealthy and that the cut-over lands did not make for good farmland. Soon his people had to spread far to the north and east in search of better land to farm.

Van Raalte as land dealer

The success of the entire venture to plant a Christian colony in Michigan hinged on controlling the land in several townships. This required tremendous sums of hard cash of which the new Dutch immigrants had precious little. What I could not do if the association had $3,000, Van Raalte said in January 1847. Speculators were already buying up the strategic land at the neck of Black Lake, Van Raalte reported, but there were still thousands of acres of federal and state government lands upriver available cheap. Obtaining clear titles unencumbered with tax liens, squatters' claims, and faulty land surveys was also a challenge, especially to foreigners who did not know the intricacies of the American land system.

Van Raalte devoted most of his time and energy in the first years to buying, financing, and titling land purchases. The first major purchase is the most intriguing, since it involved investments in delinquent tax certificates made on January 26, 1847 at the time of his very first visit to the Ottawa County courthouse while he was on his initial land scouting trip. With the help of county treasurer Pennoyer, Van Raalte paid $2.15 for a tax lien on 160 acres which ripened into a deed. Over the next decade Van Raalte continued to invest at the Ottawa County tax auctions, buying several hundred tracts, many of ehich ripened into good titles warranted by the state. Buying a color of title for pennies on the dollar on lands probably owned by eastern land speculators was a rather complicated and controversial form of investment in those days.

The most important acquisition, which Van Raalte entered in April 1847 at the Ionia federal land office, was 240 acres in the south half of section 29, township 5, range 15 west. This was to be the site of Holland, which Van Raalte platted that autumn. He paid $1.25 per acre for the land, the minimum Congress price.

The next step was to gain title to all the lands surrounding Holland. In September 1847 Van Raalte bought 320 acres for $810 ($2.53 per acre) from Peter Schermerhorn of New York City, and 260 acres for $900 ($3.46 per acre) from Nathaniel Silsbee of Salem, Massachusetts. In November he purchased 3,000 acres for $7,000 ($2.21 per acre) from another New York City land investor, Courtlandt Palmer, paying $3,000 cash with a mortgage of $4,000 at 9 percent interest.

In May 1848 Van Raalte also purchased 40 acres at Old Wing Mission in Allegan County from six Ottawa Indians including Chief Peter Wakazoo. He paid the Indians $5 per acre for this improved farmland. The same month Van Raalte paid Wakazoo $26 for a house on Black Lake, known as the "church." This was just before the Indians moved north to Grand Traverse Bay. Altogether, Van Raalte's land purchases totaled about 2500 acres and were worth about $8,000 in 1850.

The range and sophistication of Van Raalte's land purchases is truly astounding. He clearly received excellent coaching and personal assistance from key government officials such as Henry Pennoyer, the county treasurer, and John Ball, the Grand Rapids land broker. From Ball, for example, Van Raalte bought Mexican War military bounty land warrants at steep discounts up to 50 percent, which land paper the federal government accepted for payment at the land office. This land paper allowed him to enter government land for $.75-1.00 per acre, whereas the Congress minimum price was $1.25.

In addition to acquiring land on his own account, Van Raalte in the first year or two also acted on behalf of the immigration association, buying lands with its accumulated funds and holding title personally and jointly with his wife, because the association was not incorporated and could not act in legal matters. This ensured that all members got clear title to the amount of land to which they were entitled at cost. Hence, the chain of title in virtually every deed in Holland City and many surrounding farms carries Van Raalte's name at or near the top.

Van Raalte sold 3-acre town lots in 1848 for $18 per lot and farmland near the city for $3.00 per acre. He pushed city lot prices up steadily to $45 in 1849, $70 in 1855, $120 in 1865, and $250 by 1873; raw farmlands nearly tripled from $3 to $8 per acre by the eve of the Civil War and surpassed $10 an acre after the war. Van Raalte's city deeds usually carried a stipulation barring the manufacture or sale of liquor on the property. Land sales provided Van Raalte's primary source of income and nicely supplemented his often meager church salary. They also were his main form of wealth, his retirement account. He told his capitalist friend Paulus Den Bleyker of Kalamazoo in 1851 that investments in Holland would bring profits of at least 10 percent.

Paying his heavy property tax bills and mortgage payments at times consumed Van Raalte, as did his many other business ventures in saw and grist mills, a tannery, an ashery, and the harbor project. Promoting economic developments in the colony was a full-time job, in addition to his regular ministerial duties and community activities. Van Raalte had his hand in everything. But by 1862 he was warn out and ready to return for good to the Netherlands. "The immersion in worldly affairs is galling to me," he wrote a friend in confidence, "and I am unable to tear myself loose from them, so that this cause alone is enough to make me leave the country." Of course, business dealings alone did not bring Holland's leading citizen to this low point, but that is another story.


The founding of Holland was as much a commercial enterprise as a religious crusade. Economic problems pushed the Dutch out of the homeland and consumed them here, but the impoverished settlers secured a foothold, thanks in large part to Dominie Van Raalte's strong leadership. Eventually they gained a degree of financial security as well that would have been unlikely, if not impossible, in the old country. God had indeed answered their prayers and now we honor them.