The Michigan Dutch – a Proud and Patriotic People

Dutch Windmill

Thousands of Michiganians on the west side of the lower peninsula claim Dutch ancestry. The Greater Grand Rapids – Holland areas were a huge draw to Dutch immigrants seeking to live amongst their own kin. Initially the Dutch migrated into this area for religious reasons. A schism in the Netherlands ousted certain Reformed members who sought to remove themselves from the Fatherland.

Many followed Albertus Van Raalte who had planned to migrate into Wisconsin but was stopped in Detroit due to the winter roads being closed. While living through the winter months Van Raalte heard of a place in West Michigan that sounded most promising, visited the area once Spring arrived, and there decided it was the place to rebuild.

Growth was slow at first but as word got out about the promise of land ownership and the freedoms enjoyed by the new immigrants, many more followed.

But religion was not the only reason for Dutch migration.

DevonshireMy own Dutch immigration story goes back to 1857 the year my immigrating ancestor with his wife and unborn child came to Grand Rapids. It didn’t take him long to find work in the lumber mills along Grand River where he worked himself up to the position of foreman in the 1890s.

While Jacob Derks Kruizenga owned a home on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, not too far from the L. M. Cutcheon lumberyard where he was employed, he also owned a farm in Plainfield Township further up the Grand River. The Dutch were proud home owners: they seldom rented.

The new couple married in April of 1857 and 2 months later arrived in New York City on the 19th of June. Their unborn child was born on the 5th of November.

They sailed from London, England. Many from the poorer classes accepted an extra week of travel and the problem in communicating with English officials for lower fares than those offered direct from the Netherlands. To reach the English harbors the immigrants had to cross the English Channel to Hull. From there they would board a train for London. About 60% of all unskilled immigrants chose to sail from the English ports of London or Liverpool.

I must believe that Jacob came for not for religious reasons but rather economic. Being a poor farmhand in the Netherlands he did not own any land. It was unlikely that he would ever own land. Instead he rented from a landowner paying him dues from whatever crop was raised.

Land in the Groningen Province was scarce. The Netherlands is a small compact country. It had to be difficult to get ahead in life. And I believe this is the reason behind the Jacob Kruizenga family migration to Michigan. They married on the 18th of April and likely left for England around the 1st of June. What was the driving force behind their immigration? Like many Dutch migrants I believe it was the chance for a better life, for greater prosperity for themselves and their children.

Being first generation Dutch Jacob and family chose to settle amongst people from his own province. This was a comfort zone for new immigrants who preferred to live where people spoke a familiar regional dialect with which they were accustomed. In fact, the first generation Dutch didn’t think of themselves as “Dutch” but rather as “Groningers” or “Zeelanders” or from whatever Dutch province they immigrated from.

There were at least 10 distinct Dutch neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. David Vander Stel in his dissertation on Grand Rapids Dutch counts 12. Groningers chose to settle in the South Division-Lafayette district, the Wealthy-Logan district or Oakdale Park. Many Groningers coming to America lived in the Muskegon-Grand Haven area (predominantly Groninger) or stopped in Northern Kalamazoo along the road to Grand Rapids.

Beside the large Groninger presence in West Michigan there was also many “Zeelanders” from the Zeeland Province. Zeelanders settled in the Grandville Avenue area of Grand Rapids, within the West Fulton and Straight street district, the West Leonard-Alpine district, and along Canal-Bridge streets and Plainfield Avenue. Zeelanders also lived in the “Brickyard area” of East Fulton-Lake streets. Outside Grand Rapids, Zeelanders settled in the southern half of Kalamazoo – a city divided between its Groninger (north side) and Zeelander (south side) presence.

Overijssellers lived within the West Fulton and Straight street district alongside Zeelanders. And Frisians lived alongside Zeelanders as well in the West Leonard -Alpine district. The City of Holland and the surrounding area was largely Overijssel due to the Rev. Van Raalte.

It wasn’t until the 2nd generation that the distinctive provinces began to meld into one. This new generation began to see itself as “Dutch” with the exception of the Frisians (Frisian Province) rather than separate provincial people. There was a schism in the Reformed Church over the issue of whether the Dutch as a people should remain a separate people or become assimilated into the large American culture – which would ultimately mean the loss of the Dutch tongue being spoken. This schism resulted in the birth of the Christian Reformed Church.

The Rev. J. W. Beardsley spoke before the Michigan Classis of the American Reformed Church in Grand Rapids in 1883 on the subject of a Complete American Citizenship. He said:

“The effort of many to remain Hollanders simply in the midst of American influences has hindered the advance of our church perhaps more than all other influences combined. I would not disparage the love of father land or father tongue. But in the intensely practical questions of life we must not let such sentiments interfere with duties thrust upon us. And I conceive that one of the first duties resting upon the Hollanders who have made their homes here in America is:

– to become thoroughly identified with American ideas,

– to adopt the English language and…

– to conform as nearly as possible to American habits and customs.

It is impossible to preserve a foreign element in its purity under such circumstances. Hollanders cannot make a little Holland here in America. They must become Americanized. They may retard the process of transformation, but they cannot prevent it, and retarding it can do not good.

In this church we find a body of Americanized Hollanders, the equals in every worthy quality of the best native born citizens, yet as loyal to their Dutch traditions as though they spoke the Dutch language only and still wore the wooden shoes of their ancestors. You are practically solving the question which has so vexed us.

You have done in a generation what in other sections has required a century. If we could have such a church planted in the center of every Holland settlement all over this country I should feel that the great work of transforming, which must be done, was in a way to a most satisfactory solution.

It will be an auspicious day for the Hollanders in America and for our church, to which they and we are so attached, when the experiment which you have tried and found to work so well shall be repeated all along the line of New York to Dakota.”

Today there exists a RC (Reformed Churches of America) church nearby every CRC (Christian Reformed) church – sometimes being direct across the street from one another. The Dutch Reformed presence can still be felt but has become lax in this modern age. No longer are their Sunday laws in Michigan: beer can be purchased and you won’t be frowned upon for cutting your grass on Sunday.

The Dutch still have a heavy influence in Western Michigan but not as much as it had in the past. Even the City of Holland has mandated new signs to replace the time-weathered old signs that welcomed visitors in the Dutch tongue because the council believes the Dutch are of a lesser influence being replaced with large groves of Hispanic-Americans and other non-Dutch peoples.

Holland Councilman Quincey Byrd, an African-American, says “I welcome Dutch Heritage”. He recognizes that the city had its foundings on Dutch heritage… it is the flower capital of the United States – and with that comes the Dutch. Therefore it is impossible to simply whitewash the Dutch history of the city because it has evolved into something more.

After the 2nd World War there was a heavy wave of Dutch immigrants settling in Michigan. These “new” Dutch have retained their language but I fear will not pass it on to succeeding generations. The Dutch tongue is seldom spoken here and those of Dutch ancestry are not scrambling to learn the Dutch tongue as they would Spanish.

The two main Reformed bodies struggled with this immersion into American culture at the turn of the 20th century. As an example the 2nd Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven began switching to English language services in 1907. The children of the 1st Dutch generation were wanting services in English: they had a different mindset than their fathers and wished to assimilate into the larger American culture and speaking English over Dutch was an essential part of this transformation.

The 2nd CRC Grand Haven slowly transitioned into English first by making evening services in English, morning in Dutch. But by 1910 all services were in English. This didn’t sit right with many of the old-timers who insisted services be in Dutch. They either left that particular congregation seeking instead another that held on to the Dutch tongue or stopped attending in protest.

The final Reformed Church body stopped holding Dutch services in the 1990s. There just wasn’t a demand for them.

I see this in my own genealogy. My ancestor (first generation) attended a Dutch speaking church in the heart of Grand Rapids. His children wanted services in English. The church did transition to English and many left the fold but my ancestor remained which speaks loudly on his own thoughts about assimilation. It is certain that he had friends that were not Dutch and he wanted his family to be a part of the larger American culture while simultaneously retaining their Dutch heritage.

In closing, the Dutch will forever be a historical if not influential part of West Michigan society. They are a resilient hardy bunch that has Republican leanings, believes in the power of entrepreneurship, are lovers of liberty, devoters to principle, and a people that can stand proud of their roots. The Grand Rapids Herald of September 1, 1908 had this to say about the people it refers to as “Hollanders”:

“There are many Hollanders in Michigan. For loyalty to the American flag, for devotion to American institutions and for genuine patriotism, none are entitled to higher rank…”

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