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The Van Echtens' expansion of local power-base took many generations

Founding of Hoogeveen-colony required fortune

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Contents of this Article

  1. Introduction
  2. Privileges gained
  3. Building churches
  4. Devastated by see-saw invasions
  5. No place in States-General
  6. Piet Hein's feat
  7. Squire Roelof
  8. Observer at Synod
  9. Drost
  10. Capital projects
  11. End of truce damaging
  12. Claiming and surrendering rights
  13. Show-down with merchants
  14. Acknowledgement from participants
  15. Tension among the participants
  16. Board of directors
  17. Interference and vandalism
  18. New participants
  19. Site of town
  20. Change of guard
  21. End of an era
  22. Politics and business

Table 1: Hoogeveens history reviewed


"There is no other family in the province of Drenthe that has contributed as much to the welfare of the province than did the Van Echtens." No, this statement was not uttered by one of Roelof van Echten's cronies, nor was it made by one of the man's early seventeenth century contemporaries, but by a twentieth century historian. However, this Roelof van Echten - the best-known member of the clan - could have used a few more encouraging words in his life time. The wealthy provincial leader first purchased a large tract of useless peat bogs, which he then took to a consortium of partners, and initially led the efforts to develop an agricultural project which turned out to be very successful in later years. Van Echten received little praise for his troubles during his lifetime. Meet the founder of the town of Hoogeveen.

Almost 400 years ago, the eastern part of what is now The Netherlands was not exactly known for rich meadows and an abundant number of dairy cows grazing on plentiful pastures. The areas between the sandy ridges were a mixture of vast peat bogs, large swamps, and morasses which cost many an unsuspecting traveler his life. The ridges were home to the villages along with some cultivated fields, with common grazing grounds and heather fields nearby.

Privileges gained

Some of these ridges were much like an oval-shaped mound, covering only a few acres, while some others looked like a ribbon winding through the sparsely populated countryside. Trails connected the elevated regions with each other during the dry seasons, leaving the isolated mounds at times (occasionally for extended periods) cut-off from civilization when it rained a lot.

The Van Echten-family lived amidst the peat bogs for generations. Related to the Lords of distant Coeverden, the Van Borculos, the family gained more and more influence as time went on and as it was increasingly bestowed with different types of medieval privileges. In the centuries and decades leading up to the 1580s, the family also acquired more and more land, which again propelled it into a more important role politically.

Building churches

While the Van Echtens improved their financial situation steadily, they nevertheless engaged in some important civic contributions such as building churches (Zuidwolde, Koekange, and the Reformed church of Hoogeveen during the first part of the seventeenth century) and donating real estate to the nearby monastery of Dikninge (De Wijk). Generous as these gestures may seem to us now, the Van Echtens also attached strings to them. In at least two cases, they negotiated the right to have a final say in the appointment of local priests, while the real estate donations were tied to requests to have masses read for deceased members of the clan.

The period before Roelof van Echten was born (he lived from 1592 to 1643), proved to be disastrous for the entire region. In 1580, governor Rennenberg of distant Groningen betrayed the cause of freedom of the Dutch Republic by crossing over to the Spanish side.

The consequences were traumatic for the entire northern and eastern regions of the country. Politically speaking, the independent-minded burghers of Groningen and Drenthe, regardless of their religion, were once again subjected to the proxy-holders of the Spanish king and his repressive policies. The threat of the Inquisition made many who adhered to the 'new religion' of Luther and Calvin retreat to Emden, a German town near the border, where they were beyond the reach of the Spanish forces.

Devastated by see-saw invasions

The folks in the isolated parts of Drenthe however, suffered far more from passing army units, who plundered where they could and often murdered those who were not able to flee quickly enough. Historians provide no specific information on the lot of places such as Echten, where the Van Echtens lived, and nearby Koekange and Zuidwolde, but do write in a general sense that the populace of Drenthe was nothing short of devastated by invading army bands (or were made to pay heavy fines for avoiding looting and destruction) during the closing decades of the sixteenth century. The extent of the general impoverishment becomes clear to through petitions to the States-General in The Hague when, decades later, Drenthe - through Van Echten as one of its two representatives - repeatedly pleads its case for a lighter tax burden specifically citing the harm caused by the effects of the earlier war years when no one could protect it.

Roelof van Echten was raised in turbulent times. The see-saw flow of the undisciplined troops through the region - they were only active during the dry season - did not even cease when Prince Maurice of Orange-Nassau and his cousin Count Louis William, the Governor of the Northern Provinces, laid siege to and conquered the last Spanish strongholds in the region. Almost overnight, the heterogeneous population of Drenthe turned Protestant en-masse when its new governor decreed that they were to adhere to 'the new religion'.

No place in States-General

While Prince Maurice's military strategies proved too much for Spain's armed forces in the area, it only ceased the threat of further see-saw invasions for the region for a short time. As noted before, the troops were very undisciplined and when they did not receive their pay they took matters in their own hands, plundering what meager belongings the impoverished common man still had left. Bands of discharged mercenaries proved to be an additional problem. Even during the 12 years truce (1609-1621), farmers near Echten sought and received protection from roving invaders by finding a safe haven at the fortified farmstead of the Van Echten-family. The 'good old days' simply did not exist at that time.

Things did not go well for Drenthe on a political level either. The province had been promised an equal place in the States-General, but the betrayal by Rennenberg interfered with the execution of the plan. After Prince Maurice conquered the Spanish strongholds, the States-General felt justified in accusing Drenthe of supporting Rennenberg's actions and used the claim as a pretext to refuse Drenthe its seat in the halls of (legislative) power. While refusing to seat Drenthe as an equal among the provinces, the States-General was less shy in its demand that the war-ravaged area pay its share to the tax coffers. In 1619, for example, the province was presented with a bill of 66,800.00 Dutch florins - an amount which it just not could pay. Drenthe's representatives (Van Echten being one of them) negotiated it down to f30,000.00.

Piet Hein's feat

By 1621, when the armed conflict resumed, the Spanish governor again demanded from his safe havens (he kept garnisons at Grol, Oldenzaal and Lingen - now part of Germany) a sum of f5,000.00 each month with the promise that, if it was paid, Drenthe would not be invaded by Spanish troops. The threat was so real that Drenthe's States (legislature) chose to meet at Groningen rather than Assen, its actual seat. Five years later, Van Echten even traveled to Roermond and Brussels to placate the Spanish authorities, who kept on demanding ransom money from Drenthe. The efforts paid few dividends. The war was exacting a heavy toll on the finances of everyone, not the least on the Spaniards who often failed to pay the mercenary troops that they had hired from many regions of Europe.

The level of insecurity the province's rulers felt about their situation is very obvious from an incident a few years later. In 1629, the States-General ordered all the provinces to celebrate the capture of a fleet of ships bearing a great quantity of silver. Dutch sea captain Piet Hein had pulled off this much celebrated feat, causing the Dutch to sing about this heroic deed even centuries later. However, the haul also severely angered the Spanish authorities. The leaders in Drenthe (among them Van Echten, of course) judged it best to withhold public demonstration of joy, lest their province (with its largely unprotected borders) be attacked and ransacked again. From its safe position in Holland (which lay behind an low-lying area which was to be flooded when invaded), the States-General showed little appreciation for the cautious approach by the rulers in Drenthe.

Squire Roelof

Even from his travels as emissionary for Drenthe's States, it becomes very obvious that squire Roelof - he was called Jonkheer Roelof by the local population - carried considerable clout with his contemporaries. The steady rise in his political fortunes further show that this influence was earned over time, although it is also fairly obvious that squire Roelof sought to increase his political stature on an on-going basis. A short review of that career may be helpful to the reader.

Roelof van Echten inherited his father's estate when the latter died in February 1607. Four years later, Roelof enrolled himself as a student in philosophy at the University of Leiden. In the archives he is identified as Rudolphus ab Echten, Drechtinus. While little is known about his studies, he probably did not pursue them to obtain a degree. We do know that three years later (1614), Roelof married Anna Bentinck, daughter of Mr. Hendrik Bentinck and his wife Alsake (nee Van Ittersum). Bentinck, a member of a prominent family in neighboring Overijssel, held the highest political office of the Salland-region.

In 1615, Roelof received his appointment to the States of Drenthe as the representative of the area's nobility. The same year he was nominated and appointed a member of the 'Etstoel,' the highest judicial body of Drenthe.

Observer at Synod

In 1616, Roelof took his seat as member of the States body of deputies which carried out the decisions of the legislative council, the States. As a deputy, he assumed co-responsibility for running the area's government.

In 1618-9, Roelof and a fellow deputy represented Drenthe at the Synod of Dordrecht as observers. They were barred from participating since Drenthe was not yet recognized as an equal among the Dutch provinces.

In 1622, Roelof and his fellow deputies received the request from Prince Maurice as Stadtholder to scrutinize the decisions of the Synod of Drenthe. According to custom, this ecclesiastical gathering was being subjected to political scrutiny. Apparently, the Stadtholder was given the right to intervene in these decisions if he thought this to be necessary.

In 1633, Van Echten received the authority to conduct minor court cases in his realm. This appointment was specifically related to his peat harvest project. From this date onwards, squire Roelof was allowed to use the title Lord.


In 1639, Roelof Van Echten received the appointment he had long lobbied for: he became the 'Drost' of his province, a position he held until his death in 1943.

Holding a political office in the seventeenth century was not an easy task. While life was not as complex as it is now, every decision had its critics, and supporters. Then, as now, politicians travelled. Roelof Van Echten was at times absent from Drenthe for months on end. We do well to remember that Roelof's tenure took place in a time of great upheaval in Europe: the Dutch were still at war with Spain, and the Thirty Years War raged in neighbouring Germany.

Capital projects

The many journeys required of him as Drenthe's most active politician exposed Roelof Van Echten to numerous well-known individuals in business (who ran the government at the same time). He rubbed shoulders with the rich merchants of the western-most province of Holland, who, having amassed wealth with foreign trade, often formed consortiums to undertake large capital projects somewhere in the Republic.

Many of these projects concerned land development: reclaiming land from inland lakes and building dikes on the tidal flats, for example, while other projects involved cleaning-out the peat bogs for fuel. Many lakes were created this way to satisfy the demand for 'turf,' a peat loaf or brick that, when sufficiently dried, would burn in Dutch fireplaces and hearths to warm the homes in the chilly sea climate.

End of truce damaging

At some point, the Dutch authorities decided that digging with the sole purpose of retrieving this peat fuel presented too much danger to the landscape. From then on, these projects had a two-fold purpose: digging for fuel and cultivating the soil beneath the layers of peat. Since some of the richest Dutch families were involved in this activity, it is safe to assume that it generated profits.

The Van Echtens had in the past undertaken a small-scale project at nearby Koekange, where a colony of 20 farms had been created. Since the vicinity around Van Echten's Manor at Echten was one huge peat bog called Echtenerveen, it is not difficult to imagine that Roelof had some concerns about who might one day initiate a project next door. As early as 1620, he laboured on plans to develop this peat bog. He lined-up investors, a group of people from Overijssel who were associated with his father-in-law. Roelof proceeded to lay the foundation for the project by procuring the necessary permits and privileges (for shipping peat bricks, for digging canals, for building a larger water lock in an adjoining water way near Zwartsluis, etc). His work seemed for naught before long, however, because associates from Overijssel withdrew from the project when the truce with Spain ended, and war resumed.

Claiming and surrendering rights

Van Echten did not give up so easily, however. He continued to plan, even negotiating for the purchase of more peat bogs. These negotiations took several years. Since the peat bogs were in common use, which meant that all the farmers with established rights (freeholders) shared in the decision making and in the proceeds from the sale, a decision was long in coming. It was almost 1626 when a contract was finally signed at Van Echten's Manor. (This ceremony now marks the official birth of Hoogeveen).

Besides the fact that so many men had to agree to sell their common ('marke') rights, the pace of society in the isolated pockets of rural Drenthe was much slower than today.

Yet, the freeholders were very much capable of driving a hard bargain with the Van Echtens. They extracted several major concessions from Roelof, positioning themselves to benefit from Van Echten's initiatives. If he was to start 'digging,' so would they, on another adjoining tract of peat bog thereby benefitting from the new infrastructure (canals and ditches needed for shipping the peat fuel, in Dutch called 'turf'). They made Van Echten surrender several key rights to the remaining common property of his 'marke,' and negotiated grazing rights on peat bogs which were not yet being harvested. Van Echten was also unable, in this particular deal, to hold onto ownership rights of the cleared land.

Once he had a deal, however, Van Echten's experience as a public official becames obvious from a number of steps he took almost immediately after the purchase was concluded. He laid the deal before Drenthe's council of Knights and Freeholders, and requested their approval. This elevated the deal to one in the public domain. Next, he requested Drenthe's States for tax considerations - in effect a tax holiday - for his upcoming project. These tax breaks were extended three times, the last one in 1726.

Show-down with merchants

Another situation proved, beyond a doubt, Van Echten's knowledge of local property rights and privileges. When in June 1630 a consortium of three Amsterdam-merchants purchased a large tract of peat bogs near Echten from the Burmania-estate, Roelof effectively stopped the deal through an astute move which activated an ancient Drenthe property right. This right gave successively preferential treatment to local property holders who were 1) family members, 2) neighbours who owned property next to the lots being sold, or 3) who owned property within the same 'marke' or municipality, with the nearest one having priority rights to intervene.

In order to strengthen his case, Van Echten moved to acquire peat bogs which lay next to the area purchased by the merchants. He then proceeded to activate his rights. On the basis of this 'landrecht,' he forced the merchants to withdraw from their deal. For 17,000 Dutch florins (guilders), Van Echten took the peat bog from the hands of these merchants. As time went on, he purchased still more peat bogs in the area.

Acknowledgement from participants

By now, Van Echten controlled a vast area of relatively useless peat bogs - useless in one sense, but also very valuable when harvested for its peat fuel. But Echtenerveen was - so it is assumed to this day - too large a project to allow the Van Echtens to go it alone. To what extent this was the case, is unknown. The Van Echten's archives are closed to researchers, so there is only circumstantial evidence to go on.

In one of the deals, for example, there is a condition that the purchaser was to pay 'the mortgage down from the proceeds of the sale,' which is the clearest evidence yet that Van Echten intended to take in shareholders or partners. These partners, however, had to acknowledge Van Echten's leadership. This condition may seem to be somewhat arrogant, but it must be remembered that Van Echten had by now invested considerable time and great sums of money in the project, and was also the person with regional political clout.

Tension among the participants

This search for partners with capital met with success in 1631, when Van Echten and the Bentincks, his in-laws, signed a contract with several rich merchants from Leiden and Amsterdam. The deal, which was concluded on March 12th at the Fort of Zwartsluis, called for the harvest of peat from about 5000 hectares, and was to be undertaken by the 'Compagnie van de 5000 Morgen,'a 'morgen' being a little larger than a hectare.

The deal stipulated that Van Echten was to take care of 1000 morgen of peat bog. He set aside another 100 morgen for the 'common good.' It is here that a church, a house for the poor and a school were to be built. The new-found partners each took blocks of land, some for 100 morgen, others for more. Still more investors were to be wooed.

On July 28, 1631, the major participants in the Company of 5000 Morgen met for an initiation meeting at the Van Echten Manor, where new signs of trouble came to the surface. The ceremony went ahead, but the gathering also decided to change some articles in the company's bylaws. Up to the date of meeting, the participants were required to see the initial phase of canal building through, after which they would be allowed to withdraw themselves from the company. For reasons unexplained, Van Echten agreed to change this rule so that unhappy investors could withdraw at any time. Were there signs of trouble already at this point? Five months later, on December 27, 1631, the Amsterdam-crowd bowed out of the deal. Another five months later, Van Echten returned their investment, although one investor from Amsterdam, a man named Cornelis Martsen, again changed his mind and rejoined the company. The investors from Overijssel and Leiden continued with the company (which ceased to exist in 1934 when directors transferred the remaining assets to the municipality of Hoogeveen).

Board of directors

By August 18, 1632, Van Echten had sold 2,700 'morgen' of peat bog. He gave 800 'morgen' to various people, presumably as realtor's commissions, and kept 1,000 for his own use. A few more blocks were sold to some relatives at a later date. By then, the work on the canals (vaarten en wijken) was underway, while a stream called 'het Oude Diepje' had been dredged and straightened to allow ships to navigate this waterway. It was not until September 12, 1632, that the major participants in the Company - the minor ones with less than 100 'morgen' did not get the right to vote on such matters - met in Leiden to elect a board of directors. Besides Van Echten, who became managing director, those elected included the Reverend Johannes Beukenberg of Zuidwolde, Jan der Meer, Cornelis Willems Dedel, both of Leiden, and Gerrit Huygens of Hoogeveen. Identified as investors were the following people: Christoffel van Nijenhove, Cornelis van Dorp, S. van Baarle, J. van der Meer, Ewoud van Schilperoort, Pieter Huygens du Bois, Hubrecht and Cornelis Willems Dedel, 'Jonkheer' Cornelis Hooftman Ridder, 'Jonkheer' Gerhard van Randenvoorde, Hendrik Bentinck, Eusebius Borch Bentinck, Bernhard Bentinck, and Hendrik Schaap. A few investors are only identified as 'brother-in-law' or 'brother' to one of the other investors, who presumably acted as trustees.

Little is known about the Company's initial years, but it is fairly certain that by 1635 the stream of migrants (peat diggers as well as tradesmen and storekeepers) to Echten's Hoogeveen had started. The first of these people settled near Van Echten's Manor, but it did not take long before huts and shacks dotted the area beside the colony's waterways. Was Van Echten's dream finally realised after 15 years of planning and false starts?

Slowly, the great peat bogs of Southern Drenthe were coming to life. The 'Echtense Wetering,' also identified as 'het Oude Diep,' had been dredged and straighened so it could accommodate traffic between the new colony and the distant town of Meppel. An entire region was losing its isolation.

Interference and vandalism

Van Echten's joy at his project's progress was soon dampened, however. Time and again, he faced the discouraging news that yet another act of vandalism had taken place. The water locks which were positioned along the canal were frequently tampered with so that the water levels would be off mark, causing problems for shipping and the drainage system. Even worse, the locks (and dams) were sometimes damaged or destroyed. When, in 1627, Van Echten's patience had worn thin with these acts of vandalism, he requested that the province's deputies issue a decree against this type of interference. There is some suggestion that opponents of Van Echten's scheme tried to interfere, with intent to derail or slow down the project. Another school of thought suggests that Van Echten may not have approached, let alone settled with, adjoining property owners who were being affected by the digging for the canal.

Where the vandals left off, weather conditions took over. The early 1630s proved to be a very dry period, with water levels so low that the peat fuel (the Dutch called it 'turf') could not be shipped out of the area. It was a twin disaster for landlord Van Echten, because the farmers who paid him rent in contra (a tenth of their harvest) reported much lower yields as well.

New participants

While these operational problems were going on, Drenthe's busiest politician also faced challenges of a structural nature. His main partners wanted out just when revenue was at its lowest level. Through the efforts of the Reverend Beukenberg (whose name is spelled in a variety of ways), Van Echten found new participants. But this was not the end of his problems; within two years the participants from Leiden wanted out of the venture as well so they could start separate companies. By mutual agreement, a division of assets took place, with the Leiden-group receiving the area which soon became known as 'het Hollandsche Veld' named after the gentry of Holland and 'de Hollandsche Compagnie.' The men agreed, however, that a common entity would be responsible for policy and public works. The 'Algemeene Compagnie' would receive its funds from the private groups of investors who operated their own companies.

Some years later, the 'Hollandsche Compagnie' was split three ways. The new structures were called Warmonts Compagnie (755 morgen), Schoonhovens Compagnie (713 morgen), and Cools Compagnie (798 morgen). Already before the Hollandsche Compagnie was set up, the Bentinck-group (the in-laws of Van Echten) had established their own company. The Bentincks in due time expanded their property holdings (from 500) to 800 morgen.

Site of town

Van Echten, for his part, dug a waterway, called the 'Eerste Wijk' and extended it eastward, where he harvested peat fuel, first on the south side and later also on the north side of this canal. Those who have first-hand knowledge of the street plan of Hoogeveen would probably know that the location of the 'Eerste Wijk' is today's 'Hoofdstraat,' the centre of town. At the junction of the 'Eerste Wijk' and the eastward extension of the canal, which over the centuries was known by different names (Pesser Opgaande, Noordse Opgaande, and Verlengde Hoogeveense Vaart), Van Echten built a mansion for the manager of his venture. The mansion's location is marked by Cafe Land (and formerly Cafe Fieten). Van Echten's first manager was a man named Carst Peters (or Pieters). He is is the common ancestor to the locally well-known family of Carsten.

According to several sources, Roelof van Echten wasted little time to get his project 'moving'. The colony attracted peat diggers from a wide area. Along with the waves of newcomers came the entrepreneurial types, who soon were competing for clientele in the colony, and the diggers down in the peat bogs, commonly called 'het veld.'

The word 'clientele' may call up images of well-to-do burghers in Van Echten's Hoogeveen. However, life in the colony was far from easy. Everything was literally carved out of the peat bogs with many diggers living (very) close to their work. A hut built up from walls of peat bricks and covered with branches from trees and sods was 'home' to most of these men and their families. Housing in the colony itself, where a thriving economy developed, slowly improved over time.

Change of guard

Hoogeveen's founder did not live to see his peat bogs developed beyond their initial stages. Roelof van Echten died in 1643. Son Johan took over where his father left off, while brother Hendrik, who served as officer with the military at distant Coevorden, also took an interest in the business and settled in the new colony.

By 1645, Roelof's children - he had three, Johan, Hendrik and Sophia - divided the estate. Johan died in 1661, and was succeeded by his son Roelof, who in some ways duplicated his grandfather's political career, rising to become 'drost' of Drenthe. When Sophia's husband 'jonker' Feijo Sickinge tot Warffumborch died in 1666, she sold her share for f32,000.00 to her brother Hendrik van Echten. The latter died in 1672, leaving his children with a heavily mortgaged estate. Worse still for this branch of the Van Echten-clan, the economy went into a tailspin when hostile forces from the German diocese of Munster invaded Drenthe (and Van Echten's Hoogeveen) and literally stripped the land bare.

End of an era

Hendrik van Echten's estate found itself between a rock and a hard place! The investment in the colony could not sustain their life style, especially not during such unstable political times, and without a firm hand in charge of the 'bank accounts'. Eventually, the children's home, the Claerenbergh Manor, changed ownership when Jan de Vriese, who had 'co-signed' loans to the deceased, after a lengthy period of negotiations took possession of the place. This action did not solve the problems for Hendrik's estate. Throughout the latter years of the seventeenth century, Van Echten's Compagnie remained a slow payer which often needed assistance from the principals of the other companies in the colony. Hendrik's estate abandoned its interest in the peat bogs in 1693 in favour of the partners in 'De Algemeene Compagnie', settling their affairs in June 1702. The settlement signaled the end of an era for Hoogeveen. By then the colony had grown substantially, and was well on its way to becoming a town of regional importance.

Politics and business

The accomplishments of Roelof van Echten are remarkable indeed. To provide a summary of these accomplishments one needs to, in effect, consider two careers: one on the political stage of the day, with some exposure to diplomacy as well, the second one in business. The first career earned him great respect from many quarters, the second one in several ways put strains on that reputation.

To be sure, Van Echten's days cannot be compared to today's situation. Roelof 'the local developer' probably envisioned a very profitable enterprise in his backyard but operated for the most part in troubled times during the closing years of his country's longest (80 years) military conflict.

Since the archives of the Van Echtens remain closed to researchers, it is uncertain to what extent Roelof van Echten worked with borrowed capital. He invested a great amount of money in the area's infrastructure before one peat brick was shipped, and when he was ready to do so, a drought prevented ships from leaving the peat bogs.

Van Echten, as a last resort, involved investors from Holland's cities. It is reasonable to assume that Van Echten would have preferred to undertake his development without them. His approach to the investors seems to suggest that he viewed them as overly profit-oriented, perhaps greedy people. Their interest in Hoogeveen, did not necessarily run parallel with the interest of Drenthe and its people. Van Echten, on the other hand, appears to have been a 'community man' who, while using his political position to further his development project, also displayed a great sense of responsibility towards his (poorer) neighbours. It is regrettable that the Van Echtens were forced to abandon their involvement in the venture as soon as they did.

His political career may have shone brightest at the time, but it is Van Echten's investment in the future of Drenthe's peat bogs that have immortalized the man's vision. But Echtenerveen was - so it is assumed to this day - too large a project to allow the Van Echtens to go it alone. To what extent this was the case, is unknown. The Van Echten's archives are closed to researchers, so there is only circumstantial evidence to go on.