HOLLANDERS OF IOWA
JACOB VAN DER ZEE
Submitted by Gayle Harper
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THE ARRIVAL OF THE HOLLANDERS IN IOWA
ON JULY 4, 1846, an Iowa author of note gave expression to the following thought: "Here we behold the emigrant crossing the majestic river with the bible, the axe, and the plough - emblems of peace, prosperity and power. You may point me to Caesar, to the armies of Alexander and Napoleon, triumphant with the laurels of victory; yet history never presented a spectacle half so sublime as the long train of moving emigrants, going forth to consecrate the pathless prairie to freedom and a lofty civilization." (62) The man who penned these words was thinking only of the trains of covered wagons which bore emigrants from Ohio, Indiana, and the States farther east. He made no reference to the fact that at that very time Europeans were crossing the ocean to try their fortunes in the western country.
No sooner had the five committeemen reported their work to the expectant Hollanders at St. Louis than amid general rejoicing they prepared to journey northward. All were eager to reach the end of their tedious travels - all were ready to establish permanent homes upon American soil in a neighborhood which they could henceforth call their own. But impatience did not overwhelm their discretion. Inasmuch as nearly nine hundred persons would find it very difficult to subsist in an almost wholly unpeopled country and since very many of them were engaged in profitable labor at St. Louis, it was deemed most advisable that only the larger part of the emigrant band should go ahead and prepare for the coming of those who were left behind.
Some five or six hundred of the entire body of Hollanders, therefore, bade good-bye to their countrymen and to the Americans who had helped them during their enforced sojourn in St. Louis. They took passage on a Mississippi River steamboat and within two days reached Keokuk, the "Gate City of Iowa ". Here they were met by a large concourse of curious persons - some attracted by the rumor of the coming of so many foreigners and others actuated by a keen desire to supply possible needs at extortionate prices. Here also the Hollanders performed the sad duty of burying the bodies of three of their number who had died since leaving St. Louis.
Shortly after their arrival at Keokuk the immigrants were greeted with a deluge of rain which very perceptibly dampened their ardor and delayed their preparations; but after a number of the party had purchased horses and wagons and other things necessary for the journey, bag and baggage were loaded upon the great rumbling wagons of that pioneer day, and then commenced the final lap of a long and wearisome journey half-way across the continent. Some of the little army of invasion rode, while others were obliged to be content with walking.(63)
As they journeyed from the highly romantic position of Keokuk at the foot of the rapids of the Mississippi River up one of the richest valleys of the West and along the ridge road on the divide between two heavily timbered rivers, the Hollanders beheld a beautiful stretch of green country, the haunt of Indians but fifteen years before and a part of which had been occupied by settlers for only three or four years.
As these emigrants from Holland traversed Mahaska County just before reaching the site of their future colony, they were observed with interest by a pioneer woman who has preserved the following picture of them:
At last they halted upon the site selected by the committee, being followed a little later by the wagon train of baggage. This was late in the month of August, 1847. Great must have been their disappointment to find that only a pile of boards and two poor log-houses marked the spot where they were now to settle. The contract which Scholte had previously made with certain Americans for the construction of fifty log cabins and for the delivery of a certain amount of lumber before the association arrived from St. Louis had not been carried out at all.
To a people fresh from the older civilization of Europe, the entire absence of satisfactory accommodations and conveniences must have been especially disheartening. To be sure many of them had been accustomed to rural life in Holland, but that life represented a continuity of development since the early years of the Christian era. They had left a soil which had, been subjected to cultivation for nearly two thousand years, and they had lived in houses which though small were at least comfortable. Now they were to learn what it was to grow up with a new country - what it meant to conquer a wilderness.
"Imagine a number of bakers, tailors and shoemakers, painters, office-clerks, business managers and such like, who had all their lives been used to the city life of Europe - some of whom hardly knew what a cow or pig looked like, nor had the slightest knowledge of farm implements; who had left neat and comfortable homes and had never known or seen others - imagine such people suddenly transplanted to an open prairie, with here and there some timber, seeing nothing but grass, trees and sky, and finding no protection against the elements!" And the Dutch historian added: "It takes but a few lines to tell it, but to live it is something wholly different."
It was indeed a unique experience for these Hollanders to come from a foreign land, where they had spent their lives closely confined in cities and towns and on small well-kept farms, to the solitude and isolation of life upon the American frontier. They had now arrived upon the boundless expanse of the prairies of Iowa to partake of all the hardships incident to the struggle with a new and strange environment.
But if in that summer of 1847 the Hollanders indulged in no spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm, it was because they could not realize the tremendous latent possibilities of a region which was destined to be transformed into one of the garden spots of Iowa. If the face of nature, as they saw it then, presented none of the features characteristic of their transatlantic fatherland's peasant and urban life, it did not lack the qualities necessary to provide ambitious Europeans with all the material advantages of life. Among the Hollanders who were now to begin years of struggle in Iowa were people "who had the habits and preferences of a well-ordered life in cities of habitation, where the current of existence was tranquil and regular except when disturbed by the storms of war or religious persecution", while others "were for the most part peaceable farmers, whose ideal of earthly felicity was the well-filled barn and the comfortable fire-side." (65)
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(62) Newhall's A Glimpse of Iowa in 1846, p. V.
(63) Scholte's Eene Stem Uit Pella, pp. 27, 28; Nollen's De Afscheiding, p. 51; and van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part IT, p. 1.7.
(64) Phillips' Mahaska County, p. 239.
(65) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, pp. 18, 19; and for the main facts of this chapter see Scholte's Eene Stem Uit Pella, pp. 27, 28.
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