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Third Dutch-American sesquicentennial remembers newly arriving emigrants who became victims of Phoenix tragedy

Two lists of names tell sad story

Tags: Immigration

This Fall, The Dutch-American communities of Holland (Michigan) and Pella (Iowa) are planning to celebrate their Sesquicentennial on a happy note, and with many activities. A highlight at the 150th anniversary is the visit by Dutch Princess Margriet, one of Queen Beatrix' younger sisters. A community across the lake from Holland has a distinctly different commemoration. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, will remember one of the Great Lakes' most tragic shipping disasters which caused the death of at least 132 Dutch immigrants. Indeed, a stark reminder that the process of emigration then was fraught with danger.  

Among the many tragedies that have ever occurred on the Great Lakes, the one involving the steam ship "Phoenix" is probably on of the darkest chapters in the history of Dutch emigration to America. To its credit, the Wisconsin city on the Michigan Lake coast, has organised a program to commemorate the 1847 fire in which hundreds of people died, many of them new arrivals from such Dutch town as Winterswijk, Varsseveld, Holten, Oosterbeek and Apeldoorn.  

Details inconclusive

If a passenger list ever existed, it also fell victim to the flames. The disaster occurred five miles out of its final destination, on an early Sunday morning, November 21, 1847. The exact number of people lost in the intense fire or drowned in the frigid water has never been established. Only those were counted who were known by a small group of survivors. Two lists of Dutch emigrant passengers were compiled after the tragedy. One, headlined 'Hollanders Lost,' identifies the 132 who died. The other one, 'Hollanders Saved,' only lists 25 names. Another 21 non-Dutch passengers also made it to the shore.

Many of the details involving the Phoenix fire are inconclusive at best. It is certain that the Phoenix, which had set out from Buffalo on November 11, encountered very tempestuous weather. During a storm on Lake Erie, the ship's first officer, Captain G.B. Sweet, by all accounts an able seaman who knew the lakes well, suffered a bad fall and injured his knee. In great pain, he was confined to his cabin. Command of the ship passed to the First Mate, Mr. H. Watts, who guided the reeling and overcrowded vessel to her first port of call, Fairport. From there the ship made its way to Cleveland and Detroit, and then headed up the St. Clair River to Lake Huron.  

Horrible trip

Lake Huron proved to be as foul as Lake Erie. "A shrieking north wind drove straight down the lake. Great mountains of grey-green water smashed the battered vessel. The Phoenix plunged and rolled," writes Sheboygan's historian Bill Wangemann in a stirring account of the ship's final days. 'Each (wave) more vicious than the last, they tried to drag her into the dark depths of the cold water....' Frightened passengers huddled in their cabins, terrified mothers tried to comfort wailing children, and everyone suffered from the nauseating smell of sea sickness. It is almost a certainty that the captain was not the only one aboard with injuries as a result of the storms.

The Phoenix was a two-year old, sturdy, well-built ship. It sustained some damage on her fateful trip. Among other things, a window in the wheelhouse cabin had been knocked out, and icy water poured in. The account mentions that some repairs were made while the ship lay sheltered for a few days once it had entered Lake Michigan. After that, the ship, still weathering the elements that beat upon her, late Saturday dropped anchors at its second last scheduled stop at Manitowoc, a village 30 miles north of Sheboygan. Because the water was still very rough, it was decided to wait till the worst was over and some of the crew received permission to go ashore but immediately to report back when the ship's whistle blew.

Early warning

By 1:00 a.m. that Sunday, the Phoenix pulled out of Manitowoc's harbour onto a calmer lake. Much of what took place the next few hours has long been a matter of debate, rumours and even bitter accusations. But it is certain that a young Irishman, who was traveling first class with his family of three, awoke at about 1:30 a.m. because of a change in sounds produced by the steam engines. A steam-engine operator by trade, the man realized that something was going very wrong. He concluded that the engines were overheating because the boilers were running dry. Alarmed at the thought that the ship might be in trouble, he went down to the engine room. The Irishman's alarm was not appreciated. When he persisted in warning the engineer of a possible boiler problem, he was assaulted and physically thrown out. The passenger went back to his family, got them dressed warmly and made them sit in a lifeboat. Not long afterwards, the Irishman's fears became reality and the alarm was sounded. Overheating engines had set fire to wooden overhead beams. Shortly after, smoke billowed from the engine room's windows. Captain Sweet, still confined to his cabin, was awakened and he directed all hoses laid to combat the fire. Passengers were ordered to form bucket brigades. While flames were spreading, the engines died and steam was pressure lost, causing the water pumps to cease function. Meanwhile, the flames arched from the sides of the ship, and shot higher and higher till the fire was like a huge torch of over 200 feet high.

Final minutes

The 350 odd passengers aboard faced awful prospects. The ship's deck was a searing inferno. The water was frigid, with no survival possible beyond a few minutes. About five miles out from the shore, no-one had any hope of reaching land on flotsam of the ship even though some tried. And the lifeboats? The ship's only two such craft were grossly inadequate to evacuate even half the passengers on the overcrowded ship. While forty people, including the Irishman's family and a unwilling captain who was forced to go along, made their way to the shore, other desperate passengers climbed the mast only to see the support rigging being devoured by flames, causing the mast to crash and throw its riders into the inferno. Those who had jumped into the water vainly tried to latch onto the lifeboats or floating debris. One man in Sheboygan awoke from the light that the fire on the lake bounced around. He sounded the alarm and woke up the crew of a steamer, moored in the harbour. Another vessel set out as well on a search and rescue mission. Both ships arrived at the scene when the fire had already burned the Phoenix down to the waterline. Everything had turned eerily quiet. Still, three people were found clinging to floating objects, one man had been holding on to the rudder of the ill-fated ship for about three hours. There was little the rescuers could do but pull bodies from the water. The Phoenix was towed in. The villagers awaited the grisly task of burying the dead, some of which washed ashore weeks later. Among the bodies that the lake returned were many, many children.  

Church bells toll

News of the tragedy spread rather slowly. It took nearly three months to reach the Netherlands. Of course, especially people in Winterswijk, Varseveld, Oosterbeek, Holten and Apeldoorn were stunned by the news. Church bells tolled for the victims, and in many places a day of mourning was declared. The news also caused great distress among people in the newly established immigrant settlements. The weekly Christian Intelligencer of what is now the Reformed Church in America, reported on the tragedy for weeks. As decades went by, many stories were published but it is striking that there is no unanimity on the number of victims. Reports go from a low of 290 to a high of 450. It is not surprising, that the tragedy remained deeply engraved in the consciousness of the Dutch, both at home and in the Dutch-American community.

The two lists and additional information:

The Dutch emigrants whose names appear on the two lists below, belonged to a lesser-known third group of settlers. In addition to those of the Reverends A.C. Van Raalte and H.P. Scholte (who were assembled from a larger number of towns in the Netherlands), a Rev. S. Bolks had made his way across the Atlantic with in tow about 150 families. According to historian Wm. O. Van Eyck, especially those of Varsseveld and Winterswijk had decided to press on to Wisconsin where others from these hometowns already settled earlier and where their arrival was expected. However, Bolks himself and his followers from Hellendoorn, Overijssel, (the largest single group from any Dutch location that pulled up stakes in the 1840s, in fact the remnant at home even sold their church building because so few remained of what had been one of the larger 1834 Secession churches) chose to remain safely in Syracuse, New York, and stay put for the fast approaching winter before joining Van Raalte the following spring.

The list of 'Hollanders Lost' reads as follows:

From Winterswijk, 55: H.J. Siebelink (Ten Broek), family** of 4; T. Koffers (Damkot), 5; D.J. Wilterdink (Verink), 5; G.J.Oonk (Hesselink), 4; J.A. Sikkink (Weenink), 7; H.W. Onnink (Meerdink), 5; G.J. Geurkink, 5; H.W. Kooyers (Wilterdink), 4; H.J. Nijweide (Voskuil), 7; J.P. Tenpas (Jan Berend Esselinkpas?); Mrs. H.J. Witterdink (Mennink); Mrs. J.W. Oonk (Damkot), 3.   From Varsseveld, 50: A. Kolenbrander (Gesink), family 8; R. Wildebeest, 3; H.J. Kotte, 4?; L. Oberink, 7; D. Gielink, 5?; D.W. Navis, 8; W. Kraajenbrink; ?. Nibbelink, 4?; J. Brusse; ?. Toebes, 4?; ?. Demkes, 5?  

From Oosterbeek, 6: H. Bruijel (Bongers), 6 (some records provide a different spelling: Burit or Buril);  

From Holten, 19: H.J. Landeweert, family 6; ?. Beumer, 5; ?. Lubbers, 4; C. Hommers, 4;

From Apeldoorn, 2: W. Geerlings and H. Geerlings.

The total number of names on the list is 132. ** In some instances the word 'family' should in fact read 'party.'

The list 'Hollanders Saved' reads as follows:

From Winterswijk, 10: H.J. Esselinkpas; B. Willink; H.J. Wilterdink; W. Ten Dolle; J.W. Oonk; J. Oonk; H. Oonk; J.H. Oonk, H.J. Reuselink; D.A. Voskuil; From Varsseveld, 1: G. Oberink; From Holten, 7: T. Schuppert (Landeweert), 3; J.B. Wissink (Landeweert), family 2; H. Landeweert; H.G. Landeweert; From Apeldoorn, 7: G. Geerlings, 7; for a total of 25 survivors.

Any one wishing to attend Sheboygan's commemoration, November 20 - 23, may do so by writing: 

Phoenix Sesquicentennial Commemoration 638 N. 4th Street, #4, De Kalb, IL 60115 phone: 815-753-0595 fax: 815-753-0925 email: or for further details.