How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch

Selections from the introduction:

A foreign man arrived in Hudsonville, Michigan, in 1949 and found his way to the rural home of his American cousin. He knocked on the front door, and it opened halfway as a Mrs. Plumert stuck her head out to view her afternoon visitor. When the man said that he was family from Holland and had come to say hello, the door closed a few centimeters. Mrs. Plumert had no family in Holland, Michigan, a city just a few miles away, so she took the visitor to be a liar. But the man responded hastily that he had come from “the Netherlands,” from the same place that her husband had left 23 years before, and the door opened wide. “I thought you were a vacuum cleaner-salesman!” apologized Mrs. Plumert, “One of them who travels around with their vacuums and tries by any means to come inside and give a demonstration. I didn’t believe you at first. I’m so sorry!” Having learned the visitor’s true identity, Mrs. Plumert invited him inside. That evening and the next day, the visitor and his host family regaled one another with stories about the old days in the old country.

The encounter at the doorway provides just one illustration of the distinction between the Dutch and the Dutch Americans. For many Dutch Americans like Mrs. Plumert (whose original surname was Brouwer), the city of Holland, Michigan, featured more prominently on the mental landscape than the country known as Holland, or the Netherlands. Yet, Mr. and Mrs. Plumert had not forgotten their connections to the Netherlands, even though they had developed identities that were distinct from their Dutch origins.

The history of Dutch Americans provides a prime example of how contested reinterpretations of ethnic identity enabled an ethnic group to continually re-draw its borders, build an ethnic consciousness, and develop practical identities to deal with the world it encountered. Dutch Americans left behind a detailed written record in which they discussed their struggles with self-identification. Questions and worries about identity fill their correspondence and publications. And yet, while historians from within the Dutch American communities have written volumes on this ethnic group, they focus almost entirely on cultural continuity or preservation, and not the dynamic tensions within the group. Other immigration historians are under the impression that Dutch immigrants integrated smoothly, and that their story has little to contribute to the understanding of ethnicity. For this reason, Dutch Americans have been neglected in the professional historiography.

For the purposes of this work, a Dutch American shall be considered any immigrant from the Netherlands to the United States from the mid-nineteenth century forward, or any descendent thereof, who consciously identifies with his or her Dutch background and who interacts with others who have similar interests in the history, language, or cultural heritage of the Netherlands. Dutch American identities were and are primarily a Protestant phenomenon. A core group of Dutch Americans formed a unique, conservative and Calvinist subculture that existed across communities located principally in the American Midwest. These were non-radical immigrants who almost invariably joined churches instead of trade unions. As their ethnic communities endured into the twentieth century, they saw their Dutch heritage as an essential attribute for maintaining an authentic Christian faith. They believed strongly in God’s providence and in a religious calling by which God uses His people in the world. Dutch Americans believed they were among God’s chosen people.

Dutch Americans are a distinct group, located in a particular time and place. An unfortunately large number of scholarly works, however, make the mistake of combining into a single narrative the history of the colonial Dutch in America with that of the Dutch American communities that formed in the mid-nineteenth century. I imagine critiques of this present study will request the same. But such a combined history overemphasizes cultural continuity and risks treating all Dutch in America as people of a single identity, united under a static, universal concept of “Dutchness” applied to all descendents of past inhabitants of the territory congruent with the modern-day Netherlands. The descendents of the colonial Dutch and the Dutch Americans described in this study should be considered two separate ethnic groups, with marginal correspondence in the nineteenth century and tenuous connections situated in a distant past. Historians who conflate the two groups do so at their own peril.

Dutch identities in America were able to flourish because they were rarely threatening, sometimes marketable, and generally able to adapt to calls to identify with images from the past. Americans had few clear stereotypes of the Dutch, and these were seldom limiting on the behavior or occupation of a Dutch immigrant.The formation, persistence, and development of Dutch American identities occurred through a conscious discourse about ethnicity, religion, and citizenship, in which “Dutchness” was continually reinterpreted to fulfill the need for individual and group identity. In a new interpretation, this book will reveal the dynamism of the development of ethnicity. Because the discourse on Dutch American identity was active and conscious, it was bound to evolve as a reflection of the minds of those who considered themselves a part of this ethnic subculture. Dutch immigrants and their descendents emphasized Dutch identity as a practical response, a sort of defense mechanism against exogenous threats such as secularism and war. By explaining themselves with references to two national entities, Dutch Americans formed identities with a Dutch ethnic component, an American civil conscience, and a mind towards conservative, religious orthodoxy.

During the past 160 years, Calvinist Dutch Americans have worked to maintain a sense of “Dutchness,” but no two could entirely agree upon what it means to be Dutch. Descendents of the colonial Dutch traced their identities to an ethnically mixed colony along the Hudson. But migrants from the Netherlands in the 1840s were an entirely different lot. They were pioneers of provincial origin, men and women who identified with Reformed pietism, and who sought economic gain and religious freedom through migration to the already established United States. Dutch immigrants that settled together in the nineteenth century chose to do so, but not all Protestant Dutch immigrants chose to participate in Dutch American social circles. Some mixed in American cities or settled in distant locations on the plains, forever leaving behind their former country and its people. Subsequent generations of Dutch Americans alternately distanced themselves from the old country, drew on Dutch history to promote their sense of collective worth, capitalized on Dutch themes for heritage events, and tried to reestablish cultural institutions with direct links to the Netherlands. At times, such as in historical festivals and religious gatherings, Dutch Americans have stressed their Dutch identity more than their American identity, or have claimed both national identities simultaneously. Today, Americans of Dutch descent are on the whole much less aware of their European origins than they were a few generations ago. But while Dutch identity in the American Midwest has faded, an interest in Dutch heritage and what it means to be Dutch persists among many descendents of the Dutch in America.

This present study is the first single work to cover Dutch Americans from their origins in the 1840s through to the twenty-first century. It employs theoretical works about ethnicity and identity formation and is built on an array of primary sources found both in the Netherlands and in the United States. Primary sources, which have been essential for understanding claims on identity, include correspondence stored in Holland, Michigan, at the Joint Archives of Holland, the Van Raalte Institute, and the Holland Museum Archives, and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at Calvin College’s Heritage Hall. Recently acquired materials at these archives shed new light on the Dutch Americans in the American Civil War. In addition, the papers of the American contingent of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, kept at the Dutch national archive in The Hague, provide new information about Dutch Americans from a transnational perspective. Additional provincial and municipal archives across the Netherlands and in the United States contribute significant materials. Further primary sources include articles from Dutch and Dutch American newspapers and previously published letter collections. A diverse base of secondary sources reflects and synthesizes important insights made by Dutch and American scholars independently and often without recognition outside of their respective home countries. The following chapters are thematic in nature, but are presented chronologically, both in respect to each other and in their individual contents. Each chapter illustrates a theme in the development of Dutch American identities.

Chapter one explains that religion (and not class nor race) was the central premise upon which Dutch American communities were formed. Orthodox Calvinism shaped the identities of Dutch Americans. Chapter two shows how Dutch Americans appealed to their past contributions in the United States to try to justify their place in the nation. It demonstrates that citizenship was often a practical consideration motivated by its potential advantages. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, Dutch Americans developed a patriotic language to present their ethnic group as an important contributor to the political nation. Identities were shaped by allegiance to the nation.

Chapter three presents the story of Siras Sill, an African American who fled the South after the Civil War to be raised in a Dutch American household. Siras learned the Dutch language and came to understand Dutch American culture, and yet, because of his skin color, he was restricted to an occupation as a porter. By placing Siras’ story within the developing racial views of the late nineteenth century, this chapter establishes Dutch ethnics as participants in a national discourse about racial and ethnic identity.

Chapter four is concerned with the denominational divide at the center of Dutch American identities. It is quintessentially an “insider” chapter in that it describes the nuanced divisions and struggles within the Dutch American community. Scholars of other ethnic groups may relate to the myopia of the Dutch worldview, in which the in-group ascribes to themselves an exalted status and generally neglects the views of outsiders. Dutch immigrants arriving after 1880 contributed to Dutch America new concepts of national, religious, and regional identity. The thoughts of Abraham Kuyper provided many Dutch Americans with new motivations for spreading their faith. But the struggle between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church indicated that Dutch Americans defined themselves in relation to each other as much as to the outside world.

Chapter five connects Dutch Americans to the political representation of the Netherlands in the United States, placing the two in relationship to each other in order to explain their mutual development. The Dutch consular network in the United States shaped the growth and direction of Dutch American communities and aided in the persistence of Dutch identity by connecting immigrants to each other and to the Netherlands.

Chapter six explains the influence of generational change on Dutch American identities. The first generations of Dutch Americans identified as a strongly religious group that together crossed the ocean and established its own communities. The children of Dutch immigrants struggled to conform to the religious orthodoxy of their parents and to find their place between the strict world of Dutch America and fast-paced, modernizing America. This chapter uses the life story of Arnold Mulder, an influential Dutch American novelist, to explain how later generations of Dutch in America dealt with problems of hybrid identity.

Chapter seven describes the development of the Tulip Time festival in Holland, Michigan, and the shaping of a new ethnic identity based on kitsch and commercialism. In the 1920s and 1930s, direct identification with the Netherlands began to give way to an interest in heritage. Whereas identity is an active, conscious process that affects how one behaves, heritage is a ritualistic glorification of the past. Dutch immigrants and their descendants used new images from the Netherlands to reinterpret and promote their own ethnic identity and heritage.

The eighth chapter explains the fading away of distinct Dutch American identities and culture. It questions how identity is protected and controlled at the borders of a group. While Dutch Americans of the early twentieth century identified with the Netherlands, those at mid-century showed a more ambivalent attitude about the country of their ancestors. The fading of Dutch identity indicated a transition into the American environment.

Chapter nine discusses Dutch American identities since 1980, and the revival of interest in claims on “Dutchness.” It questions the nature of Dutch American identity today and asks what are the positive and negative connotations of being Dutch in America. This chapter explores the rise of interest in Dutch ethnicity in the computer age. The Internet, it shows, has allowed curious genealogists and amateur historians more freedom in seeking their identity and in discovering their roots.


One comment

  1. doede douma · · Reply

    Its looking good Mike
    Ook nog een foto van de beide Douma mannen die uit Friesland [Lioessens]zijn vertrokken


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