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Robert P. Swierenga, "The Western Michigan Dutch"

Paper presented to the Holland Genealogical Society, Holland, Dec. 11, 2004

Dutch in Michigan

     Michigan has always attracted more Dutch than any other state. Most Dutch immigrants in the 19th century headed for Michigan. By 1900 Michigan counted one-third of the Dutch-born in the USA. Most Dutch lived in five counties—Allegan, Kent, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Ottawa. Southwestern Michigan was truly the Dutch center, centered in Grand Rapids. One-third of the Dutch in Michigan in 1900 lived in that city, where they totaled 40 percent of the population.[1]

In 1990, nearly 300,000 residents of Dutch ancestry lived in the five-county region, making it the largest Dutch settlement area in the United States. The breakdown was 35 percent in Ottawa County, 22 percent in Allegan County, 19 percent in Kent County, 12 percent in Kalamazoo County, and 10 percent in Muskegon County.[2] In brief, the Dutch like West Michigan.

The Dutchness of Michigan raises a number of questions. First, why was West Michigan the favored Dutch destination for more than one hundred years? Second, what accounts for the Dutch clustering in this region? And third, what are the implications of this "Dutchness" for the region?

Van Raalte chooses Southwest Michigan

     We have the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte to thank for Michigan's Dutch character. He chose Ottawa County in 1847 for his colony of religious Seceders from the Dutch national church, and like a piped piper, he lured many to follow him. The immigrants had other choices after mid-1848, especially the Pella (Iowa) colony of his erstwhile associate, the Reverend Henry P. Scholte. But Van Raalte proved to be a better promoter. Holland quickly outgrew Pella. By 1930 Pella totaled only 8,300 residents of Dutch ancestry, compared to 17,000 in Holland and 30,000 in Grand Rapids.[3]

     That Van Raalte chose to locate his colony in Southwest Michigan was strictly a fluke. This leader of the vanguard of thousands of Hollanders, all fleeing religious persecution and economic distress, was bound for Fond du Lac, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Winnebago. But in early December of 1846, when Van Raalte's party reached Detroit on the lake steamer Great Western from Buffalo, bound for Milwaukee over the Straits of Mackinac, the word came that the Straits had iced over and the shipping season was closed for the year. The only alternative was to continue by rail. But the railroad at this time only ran as far west as Kalamazoo, and Van Raalte's party could not afford the tickets in any case. So they had to winter unexpectedly in Detroit, then the state capitol.[4]

     The "icy hand of winter" stopped the Dutch cold in Detroit, and the delay gave Michigan boosters and promoters in the capitol city time to persuade Van Raalte that the Wolverine State was far preferable to the Badger State. Prominent Detroit attorney Theodore Romeyn (of Dutch ancestry) introduced Van Raalte to his pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Duffield, and to officials in Governor Epaphroditus Ransom's office.

     Romeyn and Duffield put Van Raalte in contact with Rev. Ova Hoyt of Kalamazoo's First Presbyterian Church, who in turn introduced him to Allegan Judge John Kellogg. Kellogg personally took Van Raalte to Allegan and showed him the lands around the mouth of Black Lake in Ottawa County used by a small band of Ottawas at the Old Wing Mission. Van Raalte was impressed and declared, "This is the place."

This was quite a turnabout for Van Raalte; he had previously confessed to harboring "many a bias against Michigan." "I would have chosen another place to live," he wrote his brother-in-law and associate in the Netherlands. His new friends had convinced him otherwise. Van Raalte confided to his wife that he trusted the "God-fearing, upright gentlemen" he had met in Michigan.[5]

     The most convincing arguments of the Michigan boosters were religious and economic. Lower Michigan was peopled by English and Scottish Calvinists who were theological cousins of the Dutch Reformed; southern Wisconsin was full of German Catholics. And there was no love lost between Calvinists and Catholics in the Netherlands since the Wars of Religion against Spain. Second, the boosters explained that Michigan was more economically advanced and already linked by rail to New York City, whereas Wisconsin residents had to rely on the Great Lakes and shipping stopped every winter. So Michigan beat out Wisconsin for the primary Dutch colony in North America.

Dutch ethnic clustering

     The first generation of Dutch immigrants spoke in regional dialects and preferred to live among family and friends. They thought of themselves as Zeelanders, Groningers, Frisians, etc., and not as Dutch. Witness the villages in the Holland Colony: Borculo, Collendoorn, Harlem, Harderwyk, New Groningen, Nijkerk (Niekerk), Noordeloos, Hellendoorn (Overisel), Staphorst, and Zutphen. It was the second generation that first thought of themselves as a single ethnic group (except for the Frisians).

     Even in the cities, the Dutch settled in neighborhoods with kith and kin. David Vander Stel, in his (1983) dissertation on the Dutch in Grand Rapids from 1850 to 1900, identified twelve distinct neighborhoods. "Even though each neighborhood could easily be characterized as a 'little Holland,' said Vander Stel, "it would be more accurate to identify each residential cluster as a 'little Zeeland,' 'little Groningen,' and 'little Friesland,' thereby affirming the provinciality of the particular settlements."[6]

     On the southwest side, Zeelanders were clustered in the Grandville Avenue area, Overijssellers (mainly from the famous village of Staphorst) and more Zeelanders lived along West Fulton and Straight streets. In the West Leonard-Alpine Avenue district on the northwest side, Zeelanders and later Frisians were concentrated.  On the northeast side, along Canal and Bridge streets, and further west at Plainfield Avenue, were other pockets of Zeelanders, as well as groups of Zuid Hollanders and Frisians.

     On the southeast side, the Dutch made up more than one-third of the total populace. Zeelanders were again dominant in the South Division-Lafayette district, with Groningers a growing presence. In the Wealthy-Logan district further east, 70 percent were Dutch in 1880, and of these 85 percent hailed from Groningen. This area was known in Dutch circles as the "Groninger buurt" [neighborhood]. Oakdale Park was another Groninger area.

Finally, the "Brickyard area" of East Fulton-Lake streets had the highest concentration of Dutch in Grand Rapids in 1880 at 75 percent. In this real "Dutchtown," nearly two-thirds were Zeelanders.

This brief overview shows that Dutch in Grand Rapids mainly came from the provinces of Zeeland and Groningen, with lesser numbers from Overijssel, Zuid Holland, Friesland, and Drenthe. Very few came from Noord Holland and the Catholic province of Noord Brabant, and none came from the Catholic province of Limburg.[7]

Dutch Catholics in Grand Rapids are easily overlooked, because they did not cluster. In 1887 Father Henry Frencken organized St. Joseph the Worker Parish on Ramsey Street (on the southwest side). Under his nineteen-year tenure (1887-1906), the church gathered in 120 Dutch families in the Furniture City, all from the province of Noord Brabant. Although the parish church was the focal point, the members were spread across the city and did not form distinct Dutch enclaves, like the Reformed Dutch. This meant that members were drawn into non-Dutch parishes in their neighborhoods. Significant, too, is that instruction in the parish school was in English, not Dutch, and the Mass was celebrated in Latin. So the children did not learn Dutch. By contrast, in the Reformed churches, worship services and catechism instruction continued in Dutch until the First World War.

When Father Franken returned to the Netherlands in 1906, the bishop assigned as his successor a priest who could not speak Dutch. So Franken's departure meant the end of the Dutch era at St. Joseph Parish, and the congregation quickly lost its ethnic uniqueness. Over time, the Dutch Catholics in the city were absorbed into other parishes and quickly became Americanized. Thus, the Dutch parish did not flourish beyond the first generation.[8]

     Kalamazoo, which the Dutch muck farmers transformed into the celery capital of America, also had its unique neighborhoods. Groningers lived on the north side and Zeelanders on the south side. These were the two dominant provincial groups in the city and they lived and worshipped very much apart. The late history professor, John Izenbaard of Western Michigan University, enjoyed telling me the story of growing up Zeeland neighborhood on the south side but marrying a north side Groninger. In 1853 one-eighth of Kalamazoo's population was Dutch.[9]

     In the village of Holland, immigrants from the Province of Overijssel predominated at first, because Van Raalte had itinerated throughout that province planting Seceder churches in the decade before he immigrated. For this he earned the title "Apostle of Overijssel." Later other provinces were represented as well. South of Holland stood the villages of Graafschap and Bentheim, founded by fellow German Reformed immigrants from County Bentheim. These Germans were as tight religiously and culturally as the Dutch.

     In Muskegon and environs the Dutch were virtually all Groningers. The same is true of the Grand Haven-Spring Lake area. The men found work felling trees and turning the wood into lumber in the sawmills.

     As the provincial distinctions broke down, the Hollanders began to intermingle, largely within their churches. Reformed and Christian Reformed congregations dotted every neighborhood and village, usually facing one another across the street. Since the churches were the focal point of each community, and worship services were uniform throughout, it was easy for the Dutch to move within the West Michigan region following job opportunities or family members. Indeed, it was at church that news was spread about job possibilities elsewhere.

     Church membership records show a great degree of circulation between Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and points in-between. Chicago was not too far either, and many families moved between the Windy City and West Michigan.

Kalamazoo versus Holland

     In the early years, there was considerable rivalry between the Holland Settlement and Kalamazoo in recruiting fresh immigrants. This was because a main travel route from New York to the Settlement passed through Kalamazoo, where the local Dutch tried to persuade the newcomers to remain. Andries Steketee of Zeeland claimed in a letter to prospective immigrants in the Netherlands not to listen when the Dutch in Kalamazoo "slandered" the Settlement by stressing its hardships and poverty, compared to the high wages and settled life in the city. "Don't let yourselves be led," Steketee warned, "to become hewers of wood and drawers of water in Kalamazoo." Travel to Holland by water directly from Chicago, Steketee urged, and avoid Kalamazoo altogether. The implication of Steketee's warning was that Americans would take advantage of the Dutch "greenies."

     Van Raalte himself sang that tune. In trying to recruit Paulus Den Bleyker of Kalamazoo, the first Dutch capitalist in West Michigan, to bring his talents and capital to Holland, Van Raalte in 1851 wrote a frank letter, marked “confidential.” In it he warned Den Bleyker that it was "strictly unsafe, even dangerous, for you to intermingle with Kalamazoo people. My reasons are these: Americans usually do not possess openheartedness and mutual understanding of each other, which the Dutch possess. An impossible chasm of language, character, and custom separates you from the Americans. Among them you will be helpless as a child in its mother's arms. They will carry you wherever they choose, and you will not even understand the reason why."[10]

     "Above all," Van Raalte continued in this most revealing missive, "Americans are disposed to despise Hollanders, and we Hollanders naturally become embittered against them because of their cold selfishness. They may approach us with bold flatteries, but in reality they are after our money and influence. Yes, they actually despise us. They take us for a dull, slow, uncultured people, and boldly boast of their own superior intelligence. Much of this I have learned either by close personal experience, or by profiting from the experience of others.... I thank God that I may dwell in the midst of my own people.... You should also think about the kind of situation your wife and family would face if you should die....

     After this emotional and overwrought appeal, Van Raalte came to the bottom line. Den Bleyker, "Do your business among our own people in a community which is developing internally and contains very few Americans.... You will become a member of the Dutch circle and enjoy the privileges amid God's congregation."

     Although Den Bleyker was a fellow Seceder like Van Raalte and just as pious, he spurned the offer, although he did come to visit the Colony and invest in a flourmill. But he sold it two years later at a loss of $4,200 and that was the end of his dealings in Holland. Den Bleyker, like many Hollanders in Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Grand Rapids, enjoyed the economic advantages of the city. They liked living among Americans and not under the scrutiny of the "pope and his cardinals," meaning Van Raalte and his ministerial associates in Classis Holland. With the immigrant mentality that Van Raalte expressed, one can little wonder that many Dutch preferred to live among themselves in homogeneous colonies.

     Over time, however, Dutch farmers and their sons had to spread outside the Holland Settlement in search of farmland. Some moved south of Overisel toward Hamilton and east to Forest Grove. Others went north of Zeeland into Beaverdam, Blendon, Rusk, Olive, Allendale, Polkton, Eastmanville, and Coopersville. Yet others went east of Zeeland to Hudsonville and Jenison. In large stretches of this region, especially in the townships of Laketown, Fillmore, Olive, Blendon, Jamestown, and Georgetown, the Dutch drained the swamps and farmed the rich bottomlands. Draining wetlands was a unique Dutch skill and they thrived in the muck soils.

Dutch impact on society

     Given the Dutch prominence in West Michigan, it is no wonder that they had a great impact. Sunday was set aside for worship, but from Monday to Saturday the Dutch left their mark on the land. The truck farms testify to the Dutch skill in reclaiming wetlands and supplying vegetables for urban tables. The distinctive Dutch farmhouses with their red and buff-colored brick from the kilns of Veneklasen Brick Company in Zeeland, still dot the countryside. The architectural features are reminiscent of Dutch folk art. Fewer than one hundred of these historic homes remain today.

     In no endeavor have the Dutch had a greater part than in their Christian schools and colleges. And the disproportionate number of teachers and professionals among them is legendary. The Holland Christian School system is larger than half the public schools systems in Ottawa County.

     "The Hollanders are celebrated for their industry, frugality, and hospitality," declared a Grand Rapids newspaper in 1876. In 1966 Z.Z. Lydens, the Grand Rapids journalist and historian, observed that "success in business and accumulation of wealth were never an offense to Calvinism." No wonder that West Michigan has a rich history of entrepreneurship and family-owned businesses. "Giving back to the community" was part of the Dutch Reformed social ethic. Thus, many public buildings in downtown Grand Rapids bear the names of Dutch benefactors, Jay Van Andel and Richard De Vos.

     On the farm and the factory floor, the strong work ethic among Dutch employees in Southwest Michigan is legendary. The obverse is that the Dutch Reformed spurned labor unions. And when strikes occurred, like the 1911 furniture strike in Grand Rapids, the Dutch were found among the strikebreakers. Union leaders miscalculated in that one. More than half the 7,000 furniture workers were Dutch Calvinists, almost none unionized. The union members were the Polish Catholics, but they only made up one-quarter of the workforce. Catholic priests endorsed the union cause, while Reformed clerics condemned it. Joining a secular union was to "be unequally yoked" with a brotherhood of unbelievers. 

If Southwest Michigan was tough for big labor, it has been equally difficult for Democrats. The Dutch and their Yankee allies have kept West Michigan in the Republican column since the 1860s. Even Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did not change the long-term alignment. In the 2004 presidential election, Ottawa voted for George W. Bush by 71.5%, and Ottawa was the most Republican county in the state.

     Another example of the Dutch impact is the prominence of Christian social service agencies like Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital, Bethany Christian Services, the Holland Homes, and the Holland Deacons Conference, all of which spring from the Dutch Reformed diaconal tradition.

The Dutch are no longer the largest element of the population in West Michigan. Yet, the cultural norms, the social ambience, the work ethic, and the attitudes of the movers and shakers are still largely shaped by the Reformed vision of "a city on a hill," a place where faith plays an integral part in all of life. Van Raalte could never have imagined in his wildest dreams how his decision to locate his colony in Holland could have had such a long-term impact on West Michigan.


[1]. Twelfth Census of the United States: 1900, Population, Vol. 1 (Washington 1901), Table 34.

[2]. Robert P. Swierenga, "The Dutch in West Michigan: The Impact of a Contractual Community," Grand River Valley History 18 (2001): 18-19.

[3]. Fifteenth Census: 1930, Population, Vol. 1 (Washington, 1931), Tables 18, 19.

[4]. Robert P. Swierenga, "Decisions, Decisions: Turning Points in the Founding of Holland," Michigan Historical Review, 24 (Spring 1998): 48-72.

[5]. Swierenga, "Decisions, Decisions," 61, 63; Albert Hyma, Albertus C. Van Raalte and His Settlements in the United States (Grand Rapids, 1947), 75.

[6]. David Vander Stel, "The Dutch of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1848-1900: Immigrant Neighborhood and Community Development in a Nineteenth-Century City" (PhD. Dissertation, Kent State University, 1983); Robert P. Swierenga, Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820-1920 (New York, 2000), 80-82.

[7]. Vander Stel, "Dutch of Grand Rapids," 161-246.

[8]. Cornelius Van Nuis, "Father Frencken's St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Grand Rapids, Michigan," in Richard D. Harms, ed., The Dutch Adapting in North America (Calvin College: Grand Rapids 2001), 68-71, Jacob Van Hinte, Netherlanders in America (2 vols., Assen, 1928; English one-volume edition, Grand Rapids, 1985, edited by Robert P. Swierenga and translated by Adriaan de Wit), 856-57; Swierenga, Faith and Family, 160-61.

[9]. This estimate is by Jacob Quintus, editor of the Sheboygan Nieuwsbode, who visited Kalamazoo in 1853. Cited in Henry S. Lucas, Netherlanders in America (Ann Arbor, 1955, Grand Rapids, 1989), 279.

[10]. Letter of A.C. Van Raalte to Paulus Den Bleyker, Jan. 9, 1851, in Herbert Brinks, "Dutch in America, Speaking from Letters," Chap. 2, in Robert P. Swierenga, ed., For Food and Faith: Dutch Immigration to Western Michigan, 1846-1960 (Holland: Holland Museum, 2000), 43-49.