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New biography about Holland's founder

Dutch Emigrants Built 'City' in Dense Michigan Forest

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One hundred and fifty years ago, Dutch emigrants without any experience descended on Michigan's frontiers and literally carved a living out of its dense forests. Among the logs and huge tree trunks they planted the roots of what was to become a city. The initial party of a few hundred people which set to clear Holland's town site, hardly knew how to swing an axe, fall a tree or clear land. Neither could they build basic log cabins fast enough to accommodate themselves or the stream of new arrivals. Life in the 'kolonie' Holland was extremely hard, while food, medicine and money was very scarce and disease at times rampant in the isolated community near Black Lake, just off the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

The vanguard of Holland's population wanted to leave the Netherlands which in their view had become intolerant and overdue for God's wrath and judgment. Europe just had gone through bad times with Napoleon and the subsequent poor economic situation still lingered in the Lowlands. Any positive economic initiatives had been eroded again through ill-advised policy decisions by Dutch King William I who tangled with rebels in the south of his realm. Within two decades, King William lost his newly-gained southern provinces to a new political entity, Belgium. Shortly after this debacle, he also tried to suppress by using police and army the growing opposition to his meddling in church affairs and failed there too. Dissatisfaction with liberalism had grown over the years and King William's ideas of a state church made matters worse. His successor William II eased the government's rigid control in ecclesiastical affairs but when the potato blight created havoc, poverty and famine in the mid 1840s, emigration - the Irish and the Germans were already leaving in droves - became more than an option, especially in the circles of the followers of the Secession of 1834.


'Dominie' A.C. Van Raalte saw emigration as a good choice for the impoverished among the Secession's followers. He then became instrumental in establishing an immigration society to assist those in need. Initially, the society sought guarantees for freedom of religion from the Dutch government if the society chose to establish settlements in the Dutch East Indies. It was only after the government refused such guarantees, that the Seceders turned their attention to the United States. Van Raalte, who in Arnhem tutored students for the ministry and was recovering from a serious illness, became convinced of his task to lead his people abroad. His decision not only gave focus to the society's efforts, it also caused many others to join their planned exodus, and still many more people were to follow as soon as they were able to leave. During the first decades, Van Raalte served as a magnet, with people even stating they were going 'to Van Raalte' when announcing they were emigrating to Holland, Michigan. The settlers soon numbered into the thousands, and satellite villages sprung up all around Holland. For a century, new Dutch emigrants kept arriving at Holland. Today, Western Michigan is noted for a heavy concentration of Dutch-Americans.

While money was scarce in Holland, it did not diminish Van Raalte's optimism for the 'kolonie.' One of the first log buildings to go up served as a church. The make-shift structure was soon replaced by church building. Very early in Holland's existence education became one of Van Raalte's concerns. Unlike in the Netherlands, the 'kolonie' had no troublesome authorities or government regulations interfering with the immigrant's insistence that education cannot be 'neutral'. The Seceders wanted Christian education and dit not stop with an elementary school. Already by April 1848, Classis Holland - several villages had their own congregation - saw the need for an academy to prepare young men to enter seminary or university. However, the newly formed school district - with Van Raalte as inspector - hardly could afford a teacher. Funds for this and other causes had to be raised elsewhere, notably among members of the well-established New York State Reformed Churches. The academy eventually became a reality. Holland went on to be the home of Hope College and the Western Theological Seminary. Other Dutch emigrant communities founded colleges as well, both in the U.S. and later in Canada.

Help The 'kolonie' indeed received help from various sources. Van Raalte was not shy to seek help as his fundraising efforts for various purposes indicate. Neighbouring Americans also assisted, sometimes without being asked. The 'kolonie' also greatly benefited as well from families sending young people to Grand Rapids. Their home-sent wages in turn stimulated Holland's fragile economy. Non-Dutch neighbours petitioned Michigan's legislature to allot money for a road to Holland so it would be accessible for travelers and supplies. However, a repeated request to Congress for funds to dig a channel to Holland's harbour, was postponed numerous times. The country itself then was involved in a civil war and had different financial priorities. A hand-dug channel by Holland's men silted within a few years. The request for funds was eventually granted.

A regional newspaper, the Grand River Eagle regularly reported and commented on the developments in Holland. The paper was one of the settlement's staunchest boosters. Holland was also a rewarding editorial subject; a topic bound to spark interest among its readers. The Eagle welcomed Dutch emigrants with praise. The poem Lines on the Holland Colony is but one example, and condemned the Netherlands for its intolerance of the Seceders. In the Netherlands, several leaders, including Van Raalte, had served time in prison for holding 'unauthorized' church services (in homes, barns and open air) which often were broken up by force.


Van Raalte's dreams for Holland eventually paid off, which even a disastrous fire, that wiped out much of the 'kolonie' in 1871, could not prevent. Holland became a local centre for Dutch-Americans, with its institutions: the college, the seminary, and the press. At one time three Dutch newspapers were published there in addition to many Dutch-language books. The community also contributed to the welfare of Dutch enclaves throughout the U.S., and continues to do so. Although the forests in the area have long since disappeared, Holland's economy is still tied to wood products: furniture manufacture. Several of the nation's largest furniture makers are located in Holland which has one of the highest employment rates in the country.

Much of Holland's history is intricately tied to that of the Van Raalte family. It is very appropriate that in this Sesquicentennial year, its founding leader receives renewed attention even though every angle about Van Raalte already had been examined before (always without the benefit of the now-researched collections of letters held in various depositories). Authors Jeanne M. Jacobson, Elton J. Bruins and Larry J. Wagenaar have placed Albertus C. Van Raalte, Dutch Leader And American Patriot (also the book's title) in a broadest possible context. In their approach, many sources are quoted, notably diaries of Van Raalte's contemporaries, correspondence and public sources such as newspapers. 

Individual family members, who also left their mark locally, receive generous space, including sons Ben and Dirk who along with others from Holland fought on the Union side in the American civil war. Additionally, others in the Van Raalte family, especially Mrs. C. De Moen Van Raalte are now receiving the recognition to which they should be entitled.

Bibligraphy (click on book to see more details) A. C. Van Raalte, Dutch Leader And American Patriot, by Jeanne M. Jacobson, Elton J. Bruins and Larry J. Wagenaar, hardcover, coffee table book format, illustrated, bibliography, notes, index, 250 pages, US$29.95/Can$39.95.
To specifically explore - in greater detail - Van Raalte's and the Secession's historical background, another book may be informative: Sources of Secession by G.J. Ten Zythoff, pb, bibliography, notes, index, 211 pages, US$12.95/Can$16.95.
Anyone looking for more on the impact of the Secession and the climax to unite with another group of former members of the Netherlands Reformed Church, should read: Secession, Doleantie and Union by H. Bouma, 299 pages, US$11.95/Can$15.95.