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Struggle for Dutch language influenced by armed conflicts

Returning soldiers push Americanization of Dutch community

Tags: Dutch Exploration

The history of the Dutch language and press - books and newspapers - in North America rarely merits more than a short chapter in a scholarly book or is at most a sidebar in a lengthy article on Dutch language and culture. This is truly amazing, considering the fact that 377 years ago explorer Henry Hudson, although himself an Englishman, laid claim to the New World on behalf of his employers in the Netherlands. When the Dutch colonized New Netherland, now known as the Hudson Valley and Long Island in the State of New York, they naturally introduced their language. While there is no broad-based body of knowledge about the Dutch colonial period - it lasted for less than fifty years - the New Netherland Project headed by Charles Gehring has been busy transcribing otherwise inaccessible (written in old Dutch) seventeenth-century civic records. The Project literally unwraps early American history which was not recorded in what is now the majority's language. The Dutch colonial settlers followed their own language, customs and religion, and were numerically strong enough to influence those around them. These contributions notwithstanding, the Dutch language and with it the press went into a slow decline.

The subject of Dutch language and press in North America has not attracted any researchers. Even those who wrote on Dutch American history tend to treat the subject as something of a passing phenomenon, to be summarized in a few paragraphs. Perhaps the reason for this fact is simply linguistic: many researchers who did not master the Dutch language and did not think the subject warranted their efforts.

How long can an immigrant community sustain a vibrant minority press and language? Over the years, the question often has been asked. It may make interesting reading to speculate about this topic but one also could turn to Dutch-American immigrant history books for clues. Dutch geologist Jacob van Hinte who traveled Dutch-American communities during the 1920s and historian Henry Lucas twenty-five years later, surveyed the nineteenth-century Dutch press in their books 'Netherlanders in America.' Historian Hendrik Edelman, even compiled a 2-volume bibliography of Dutch literature published in colonial and independent America (up to the 1940s) while Gerald De Jong, covers the subject as it relates to issues debated in the Reformed Church in America (RCA), North America's oldest continuing protestant denomination and one that stubbornly clung to the Dutch language for a very long time.

Colonial New Netherland

In another 23 years, it will be 400 years ago that explorer Henry Hudson, on behalf of Dutch merchant interests, reached an area now known as New York State. Widely known is Peter Minuit's Manhattan deal with local Indians. By 1625, Dutch traders had built forts along the Hudson River and colonists arrived soon after. By 1664, there were some 10,000 souls in the New Netherland colony. A society, modeled after the one at home in the Lowlands, was established, including congregations of what was then called the Gereformeerde Kerk (all part of Classis Amsterdam). When the Dutch West Indies Company traded New Netherland for Surinam, the English conquerors granted the Dutch settlers freedom of religion and language as well as some autonomy in civic and community affairs.

It was not until 1685 that a printing press made its way to New York. It failed to prompt the start of a newspaper, and only a number (of almanacs and) religious books - both Reformed and Lutheran - were published, many of them the result of sharp polemics between members of the cloth. Over the following 90 years, less than 70 still-known books were published. From 1777 through 1794, only eight titles were added of which five dealt with politics and government. By the 19th century, the use of Dutch in the book publishing industry in North America had come to a halt. No Dutch newspapers had been started up till then.

The Amsterdam connection

Admittedly, education in these frontier communities was rather elementary and the illiteracy significant. The lack of commercial success for printing Dutch books was also due to the community's reliance on supply from Amsterdam, a commercial printing centre for all of Europe. Similarly, anyone pursuing theological studies for ministry in the Reformed Church headed for Dutch universities with Classis Amsterdam still exercising supervision over American congregations when the American colonies already had shaken off English colonial rule. City dwellers of Dutch origin had become more proficient in English than Dutch, although church services as a rule were conducted in Dutch until the mid 1700s. If the language was a problem to descendants of Dutch colonists, they would attend services at Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist or Episcopalian churches and eventually become a member there. In the rural and more isolated Hudson Valley, a colonial, archaic Dutch dialect was used well into the 1800s, and experienced only a very gradual decline. The Dutch language first was pushed from its place in society, then from church and at last from the home.

The number of Dutch books published during and after the American revolution decreased and then stopped entirely. This process was inevitable and hastened by patriotic fervour among Dutch colonial factions. Many Dutch-speaking loyalists who supported the British crown, escaped during the independence conflict to Canada where they resettled in New Brunswick, and in Quebec and Ontario along the great lakes. In the early 1800s, Reformed mission posts in Canada, serving loyalist refugees, merged with Scottish Presbyterians to institute the Presbyterian Church in Canada. However, most Dutch-descended people supported American independence.

Nineteenth-century influx

In Europe, the post-Napoleonic period was like a political and economic hang-over to many countries. The situation in the Netherlands was not a happy one either. On the one hand, King William I was very innovative, and devoted much energy to improve his country's economic situation by building a much needed infrastructure. On the other hand, the king was a benevolent despot who had difficulty dealing with dissenters be they individuals, such as statesman Gijsbert Karel Van Hogendorp, groups such as the 1840s Seceders from the state church or the Southern Dutch from the area which is now known as Belgium and who gained independence in 1830. The economic situation in Germany was worse. By the late 1820s, the trickle of German emigrants passing through the Netherlands on the way to Rotterdam and the new world had become a steady stream. A number of people from the Dutch border region in the Achterhoek joined them. They were later instrumental in acting as scouts to the groups that left in the 1840s. While Dutch immigration by 1839 only had added 2,500 newcomers to the USA, a rather insignificant number, the American Tract Society still published a series of eight booklets in the Dutch language. Even its annual report of 1839 was published in Dutch. Twelve years later, when nearly another 10,000 Dutchmen had made America their new home, the Tract Society expanded its series with a ninth issue. The following years more tracts were published but after 1855 the society's efforts to publish in the Dutch language ceased.

Political alignment

The 1840s upsurge in Dutch emigration prompted the emergence of a vibrant Dutch press, both in newspaper and book publishing. Although historian Swieringa's immigrant lists identify the new wave of emigrants as a diverse group, one would not likely draw that conclusion from Edelman's bibliography since most titles deal with orthodox, Reformed subject matter or were written from that perspective. The (general) newspaper industry experienced a very slow start in America. The first newspaper, published in New England, appeared in 1638. However, with the influx of newcomers ethnic newspapers were not far behind. The first German paper was published in 1728. (By 1873, the U.S. was home to 530 German papers, some of them dailies.) The first - short-lived - Dutch publication was started in New York, in 1849, but later located to Wisconsin where its efforts were more successful. While dozens of Dutch papers came and went, the great majority of them were published by Protestants, and those who openly supported a political party. Initially, almost all of the papers were following the Democratic party line as did the Reverends A.C. Van Raalte and H.P. Scholte, the Secession leaders who led groups of Reformed immigrants to the U.S. Roman Catholic papers appeared in Wisconsin where Father Van den Broek settled with a group of Brabanders. Initially, the paper's political alignment was an important factor in their staying power. A business core had yet to develop, and money was scarce in the Dutch settlements, making political party support instrumental in the newspaper publishing business. In contrast, a Dutch publication which followed the Whig party line - known for its anti-immigration policy - had great difficulty attracting subscribers. Papers which followed the Democratic party line had a decided advantage over their independent competitors. The Democratic Party was popular with Dutch immigrants.

A political switch

All political parties spent money on ethnic communities and their newspapers. Reverend Scholte, who in the Netherlands had borne the brunt of religious intolerance, was very pleased with the reception of his group by American officials. Within a few years of his arrival, Scholte involved himself in the political affairs of his new state - Iowa was founded the year of his arrival - and attended party meetings and conventions. This was duly noted by the state's governor who was equally impressed with this Dutch-American leader. It is not surprising therefore, that Iowa's governor had his 1856 annual message also published in Dutch. The following year, Michigan's governor joined this trend. Wisconsin, the third state with a substantial (North Brabant) Dutch presence, also once published a governor's message in Dutch. After 1871 none of the states published annual messages, or state Board of Immigration reports, etc. in the Dutch language. Of the social issues, the abolition-debate had a great impact on the Dutch community and their press. At issue was the question whether new states should permit slavery in their jurisdictions. The Democrats wanted tacit approval, with the Republicans demanding outright rejection of the idea. What was the position of the Dutch press in this matter? Both Scholte and Van Raalte opposed slavery and turned away from the Democratic Party. Scholte whose leadership had become an issue in his own community of Pella, now worked hard for the Republican side but was unable to sway his compatriots to follow suit. They continued to vote Democrat, although this not necessarily meant they supported slavery. In contrast, Pella's daughter colony Orange City in Sioux County turned solidly Republican as did the Michigan and Wisconsin colonies. Only one paper in Michigan, De Hollander, remained Democrat to 1894 when the paper folded.

Campaign to help Boers

By the 1890s, another emotional, political issue arose when England tried to annex the South-African Boer Republics, Orange Free State and Transvaal. Of the subsequent war of 1899-1901, Lucas in his book wrote that; 'no foreign event so stirred the Hollanders in America.' Dutch community leaders organized mass meetings in a number of places with the idea to force the USA - and Republican president McKinley - to abandon their neutral stance. The Dutch received plenty of help from German, Polish and Irish groups but the campaign failed to force the McKinley administration to change its course even though public opinion was on the Boer side. Campaigners had to console themselves with the idea that their fundraising at least had helped the Boer cause in moral and humanitarian ways. Several Dutch-American volunteers enlisted in the Boer army and the press played a vital role in the Support the Boers-campaign. Book publishers later did well with titles by Dutch author Pennings who gave vivid battle field descriptions, casting Boer generals and volunteers in heroic roles. Interestingly, Dutch electoral districts continued to vote solidly Republican, even if they were not in agreement with their president on the Boer-issue. The advent of the First World War created a totally different set of circumstances for the Dutch in America. The American administration again tried to stay neutral but had several diplomatic clashes with the Germans over the safety of American shipping lanes to Europe. Several attacks on American ships caused public opinion to turn against Germany. By April 1917, President Wilson declared war on Germany and, by doing so chose sides with the English. How did the Dutch community react to this new situation? Almost all available sources fail to deal with this subject in a satisfactory way. Was the anti-English sentiment of the Boer-era still a factor? Were the Dutch caught in a political dilemma due to divided loyalties: still loathing the English for the injustice meted out to the Boers but also wishing to support their country against an obvious aggressor? And played the neutral stance of the Netherlands a role as well in the ambivalent attitude of the North American Dutch? Similarly, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church - the church had been instituted in 1857 when Dutch immigrants split away again from the RCA - earlier had declined a proposal to make a statement on the War and declared it an international political conflict which fell outside its jurisdiction to comment on. However, Synod 1918 agreed to send a letter of cautious support to the American president. Meanwhile hundreds of Dutch-American conscripts were sent oversees.

Sentiments against the Dutch language

Meanwhile, in the USA patriotic feelings had turned against Germany well before the declaration of war. These were sentiments against anything foreign, specifically against that which in the public's mind was or could be associated with Germany and Germans in the USA. Iowa's governor, for example, warned ethnic groups he could not offer them protection if they did not follow 'American ways.' The use of the German language was discouraged, German language courses were dropped from curricula and ethnic groups - including the Dutch - were told that if they used a foreign language in public gatherings, they would be required to have an English translation on hand. Thus ministers were expected to make sermons in both Dutch and English. Iowa RCA and CRC congregations especially were vulnerable since East-Frisian, German-speaking members (and congregations) were closely aligned with them. This situation confused the public's perception. In one location, anti-German feelings ran so high that mobs attacked a local Christian school, supported by Dutch immigrants and their descendants. There were other acts of vandalism and violence as well but the threat of escalation weighed heavily on the Dutch community. Little is known of how the Dutch community publicly responded to put their anxious neighbours at peace. In the community itself the transition process suddenly accelerated with, for example, the number of English worship services increasing at the expense of those in the Dutch language. As a result, the period of 1916-8 marked a turning point away from a vibrant Dutch-language subculture to one of accommodation to mainline American culture. The number of Dutch newspapers declined and their circulation figures eroded. The Dutch book publishing business declined more slowly. By 1924, book publisher Eerdmans-Sevensma Co. - reported a switch in demand.

Before the First World War 80% of the company's titles were in Dutch, afterwards it tilted to 80% in English (the company survived the transition and continues to serve the large American evangelical Christian market). Even increased Dutch emigration in the 1920s did not alter this process. By the 1940s, the chapter on Dutch-American book publishing was coming to an end. The final push in Dutch-language publications was again war-related; this time to promote the Allied position among Dutch groups everywhere, including merchant-marine personnel and possibly for droppings over Nazi-occupied the Netherlands. The title of Edelman's final bibliographical entry appropriately was called 'Schetsen uit mijn leven' even though it had nothing to do with the Dutch press in the U.S.


As had happened before the American Revolution, the decline of the Dutch language in America in the first decades of the 1900s had started well before being interfered with by American patriotism. In the eighteenth century, the language already had become archaic due to its isolation from the country of origin. In the period leading up to the First World War the archaism was a similar, albeit less drastic fact. Light-hearted, humorous books in Yankee Dutch illustrate that development well and still are a source of amusement to emigrants. Unlike in the seventeenth century when immigration was insignificant and isolation far greater, the language decline during the latter part of the nineteenth century was not as severe since immigration continued to give fresh impulses up to the outbreak of World War I, strengthening the community.

In both periods, military conflicts helped erode the use of Dutch, and extensively influenced the output of the printing press. Many WWI soldiers were third or fourth generation Dutch-Americans and had gone into the army speaking (some) Dutch. They returned after an emersion into the English language and American ways. By then, they were often estranged from their cultural roots. Returning soldiers often chose to settle in towns instead of rural communities where Dutch influence often was stronger. Most already likely had, in addition to the language aspect, a weak appreciation for their Dutch identity, and in fact had become American. The Second War repeated the process and contributed to the disappearance of the last surviving Dutch newspaper in 1951, closing another chapter on Dutch in America.

Could the Dutch American press have kept its vibrant community role by switching to the English language? The question unfortunately never will be answered.