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Dutch settlement in America, which began in the 1840’s, was extensive in Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and New Jersey. The reasons for the settlement of Dutch peoples in America are many, but the “Great Migration” or the “Great Trek” movement of the late 1840’s arose from either economic hardship or religious dissent in the Netherlands. Bad harvests and economic plight signaled divine disfavor in the minds of the dissenters; likewise government hostility toward religious secessionists solidified their resolve to abandon Europe.

For example, ministers such as the Reverend Albertus C. Van Raalte, who seceded from the Dutch National Church, led Hollanders to Western Michigan, while the Passaic Valley of New Jersey beckoned the immigrants for several reasons other than religious justifications.

In 1865, Jeene Westerhof ‘s (1795-1884) son Albertus Westerhof (1822-1909) brought his family from the Netherlands to Western Michigan and settled in the city of Grand Haven. Jeen’s oldest son Jacob Westerhof (1816-1895) led his family to the Passaic Valley in 1871 and found a new life in New Jersey.

Based on publications written by Robert P. Swierenga titled “The Western Michigan Dutch” and “There Was Work In The Valley” by Robert Schoone-Jongen, I have summarized below reasons why the Dutch found America so appealing.


The early Dutch immigrants to the Passaic Valley were influenced by the presence of the descendents of the Dutch colonists who came to the Hudson Valley of New York in the seventeenth century. In New Jersey, just before the Passaic River takes a turn to the sea, the river cascades 23 meters over the Great Falls, a natural wonder that drew thousands of visitors in the eighteenth century. Financial genius Alexander Hamilton convinced a group of investors that the falls would be an ideal source of power for cotton mills, and in 1793, a local manufacturing society received a charter from the state to harness the river and build a manufacturing town on the site – the birth of what would become the city of Paterson, New Jersey. This city was like a great magnet that drew thousands of Dutch immigrants to the Passaic Valley, beginning with the “Great Migration” from the Netherlands in 1847.

In a span of 60 years, Dutch Americans would serve in Congress, officiate within several municipal governments, and become industrial leaders, especially in the silk and construction trades.

These early Hollanders of New Jersey retained a reputation as clannish and self-righteous folk, living as they did in their tightly knit neighborhoods with their own churches and schools. They became a visible presence in the community and a potent social force in the Valley. Most Dutch immigrants that arrived expected to see familiar faces and hear familiar accents. Although the majority of the Dutch worked in the textile mills and locomotive shops of the Valley, and increasingly the building trades, their roots reached back to their villages and rural homes in the Netherlands. Their social norms, marriage patterns, clan structures, and village loyalties often survived the voyage across the Atlantic. Even their gardens and houses in New Jersey often resembled the gardens and houses they had known in their Dutch villages. Their churches often served as the first institutions the newcomers could actually control on their own terms. The Dutch immigrants that did not have strong religious ties when they arrived in the Valley were forced to make a choice upon their arrival – go it alone in the broader community, or at least outwardly conform to the social standards they found among the Dutch already in place and gain the support needed in times of hardships. But it is important to note that those immigrants who strayed the farthest from their roots tended to prosper in the new environment more readily than those who remained connected to their old ways.

When the first newcomers arrived from the Netherlands, they took up residence in close proximity to members of the older families and worked for them as farm laborers. Of course, industrial development created unsanitary living conditions. Squalid wooden frame houses grew up around the red brick factories that lined the riverbanks. The mountains to the west were lost in the haze of smoke generated by the steam engines that provided power for the mills. The water that drove the mills and provided the liquid for the dyes, entered the area in pristine condition, but exited in a variety of colors, smells, and wastes. As the industries continued to grow into the late 1800’s, as the population rose, conflicts erupted, pitting the mill owners against the workers – one set of immigrants against another.

Regarding religion, the old families tended to be theologically orthodox and culturally traditional, demonstrated by their affiliation with the True Dutch Reformed Protestant Church. By 1866, there were two rival congregations – one affiliated with the Reformed Church of America, the other with the schismatic group formed in Michigan (see Michigan Immigration below) that eventually called itself the Christian Reformed Church. The Dutch speaking churches proliferated over a large area during the next sixty years.

The Dutch presence in the Passaic Valley grew almost exclusively via direct immigration from the Netherlands. Very rarely did Hollanders from other parts of the country relocate to the Paterson area. Not only were the New Jersey immigrants physically separated, and socially aloof from their close neighbors, these immigrants remained unusually isolated from the rest of the Dutch communities scattered throughout the United States.

Many of the Dutch took advantage of the agricultural opportunities in the Valley. The vast majority came from rural reaches of the Netherlands and knew how to care for animals and to raise crops. They gained their first foothold in the region as farm laborers, while many others opted for work in the factories and mills. The industrial complexes along the riverbanks drew nourishment from the fertile farmland that stretched westward toward the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as well as north and eastward into Bergen County. The Dutch dairy farmers operated farms that produced the milk and cheese the local cities required. To the east of the river, other Dutch farmers raised the produce that found its way into the markets of the Valley. At the lower reaches of the Valley still other Dutch farmers used their flower growing skills to decorate the tables of nearby New York City.

In summation, the first Dutch immigrants left a lasting imprint on the New Jersey landscape. Politically conservative and socially aloof, they were skilled artisans, farmers, and mill workers who found a home in America.


Michigan has always attracted more Dutch than any other state. By the year 1900, Michigan accounted for one-third of the Dutch-born in America. Most Dutch lived in five Michigan counties – Allegan, Kent, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Ottawa. Southwestern Michigan, centered in Grand Rapids, was truly the center of Dutch population.

In 1847 the Reverend Albertus C. Van Raalte chose Ottowa County for his colony of religious dissenters of the Dutch National Church. Some of these immigrants chose to follow the Reverend Henry P. Scholte to Pella, the Iowa colony, but the Reverend Raalte proved the better promoter. It was by accident that Southwestern Michigan was chosen as the site for his followers – initially bound for Wisconsin, the rivers iced over and the shipping season had ended; therefore, it was suggested to head southwest instead of north, which resulted in his colony in Ottowa County.

The first generation of Dutch immigrants spoke in regional dialects and preferred to live with their family and friends. They thought of themselves as Zeelanders or Frisians rather than Dutch. The city of Grand Rapids from 1850-1900 boasted 12 distinct Dutch neighborhoods.

When the provincial distinctions eventually 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. It became easy for the Dutch to move within the Western Michigan region following job opportunities or family members.

Given the Dutch prominence in Western Michigan, it is no wonder that they had a great impact on the region. Sunday was set aside for worship, but from Monday thru 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 still dot the countryside today.

The Hollanders are celebrated for their industry, frugality, and hospitality. Many public buildings in downtown Grand Rapids bear the names of Dutch benefactors. On the farm and the factory floor, the strong work ethic among the Dutch is legendary.

The Dutch Reformed spurned labor unions. When strikes occurred, as in the 1911 furniture strike in Grand Rapids, the Dutch were among the strikebreakers. More than 7,000 furniture workers were Dutch Calvinists, almost none unionized. Also, the Dutch in Western Michigan were politically conservative and remained allied with the Republican Party.

In summation, like New Jersey, the Dutch immigrants have had a lasting affect on Western Michigan, politically and socially, to this day.